Trust in Teams is a phrase we hear and read so often. Trust is rightly recognised as a key underpinning factor in great leadership, employee engagement, performance management and productivity.
On 11th August 2019, I was interested to see a column by Luke Johnson in the Sunday Times about the need to keep trust alive in businesses. I always enjoy his columns. In this one, he wrote that ‘business is impossible without trust’. He also asserts that businesses simply cannot function if a legal contract is needed to underpin every transaction.
Mr Johnson suggests that legal contracts are sought when there is a ‘suspicion of intent’. That is, at least one of the parties involved in the business transaction is unsure of the intentions of one or more of the other parties.
This ‘suspicion of intent’ is also prevalent in the workplace between the organisation and its employees and between managers and team members.
Trust in Teams: application to the workplace
Luke Johnson, as a business columnist, is obviously focussed on looking at trust from a corporate perspective. He is interested in the external stakeholders for a business and is right on the money when he speaks of the need for a ’presumption of trust’ among management and staff of a business towards external stakeholders, including customers.
Where does this trust start, though?
My interest is in the presumption of trust between the organisation, its managers and employees and in the impact trust at this level has on the business’ ability to create a presumption of trust towards external stakeholders. That is, trust in teams.
If employees don’t trust management and managers don’t trust employees, how does a business build a relationship with customers, investors and other external stakeholders? Surely, if trust in teams is weak it will permeate all aspects of the company through customer interactions, productivity, achievement of objectives, attrition and a range of other measures.
So, it is clear that trust building at every level in a business is important.
Suspicion of Intent
Intention is still the key element at any level. Just as Luke Johnson referred to the ‘suspicion of intent’ between parties in business dealings leading to participating parties seeking legal contracts, interactions in the workplace are similarly impacted.
Trust within an organisation or team is heavily influenced by our perceptions of intention. Every action by a line manager or a leader, is interpreted through this lens of perceived intention. In these instances, our perception is informed by prior history. This mainly considers similar situations or interactions with the same people.
For example, when interacting with their line manager, employees will ask themselves ‘how did the line manager behave in similar prior situations?’; ‘How did previous experiences like this one eventually turn out?’; ‘Did I feel rewarded or reprimanded?’; ‘Was the line manager true to his/her word?’; ‘Did they share the information and provide the resources necessary to do the task?’
There is nothing stopping managers and leaders asking themselves these questions about their typical interactions with their team members.
The answers to these questions will quickly indicate whether a presumption of trust between the team member and manager is likely. For example, if a line manager has a history of saying one thing to team members but doing something quite different, then trust is negatively affected. It is unlikely that a presumption of trust will happen in these circumstances.
Presumption of Mistrust in a Team: the problem
Where there is a presumption of mistrust in a team, then there is a major problem. When trust has broken down between a team member and his/her manager, how can you expect this person to build a presumption of trust with customers?
The lack of trust will show in how the employee behaves and responds to the customer. The employee will be unsure how to respond to any request beyond the basic customer transactions. S/he will not be able to serve the customer fully and openly because they will be unsure whether it is a ‘safe’ thing to do. Where a presumption of mistrust exists, the employee will usually stick to what s/he knows will not get them into trouble.
Previous experience will have taught him/her this lesson and this is how s/he will interpret future situations. The suspicion of intent has reared its head and the employee will be questioning the intended consequences
As a result, each time an employee doesn’t feel that it is safe to go the extra mile for a customer, an opportunity is lost to create a presumption of trust with an potential recurring customer. Just think for a moment, where do each of us spend our money? Do we go to the places where we can get the cheapest product? No, most of us do not make purchases like this.
We usually choose to spend our money where we have developed a presumption of trust based on the employees’ ability and willingness to meet our requirements. We observe and experience how we are dealt with, how our questions and additional requests are answered, and how the employees seem in control of serving us. We will return to this supplier even though cheaper options exist. We will drive further to make this purchase and will spend more when doing so, all based on the presumption of trust.
Manager-Employee Presumption of Trust: Vital to Customer Trust
Trust starts at the very foundations of an organisation. Managers, supervisors and leaders must learn to start every relationship with trust automatically in place. They must start off on the right footing. Trust in teams must be their intention. Employees will respond to a clear display of trust in their ability to do their job. They will enjoy the feeling of being trusted. When it is a sincere attempt to build trust, the suspicion of intent will be positive. Trust is a wonderful thing, once experienced you don’t want to lose it.
When employees experience the feeling of being trusted, they will work to keep it. They will also ‘pay it forward’ building trusting relationships with customers.
It must start with managers, though. Trust must be given to employees from the start, who can work to keep it or lose it. It must never be set as a ‘prize’ to be won.