Rebuilding Trust In Your Organization

Can management rebuild trust in an organization when it has been lost?

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

January 12, 2015

5 Min Read
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Late last year, Harvard Business Review published an article by David DeSteno about how an employee can rebuild trust. I thought it would be interesting to turn that around and see if it applies to how organizations regain trust (and therefore engagement) from employees. There are plenty of reasons  senior management or a company could lose the faith and trust of its employees -- layoffs, poor performance, poor treatment, or even just a few poorly placed, bad managers.

It stands to reason that employees that trust the company and senior management they work for are far more likely to be engaged, and the value of an engaged workforce is well-known. Even if you don't like to admit it, the confidence and trust of your workforce is going to wane from time to time. What can a CIO or other senior leader do about it?

DeSteno says that there are two factors for employees to be trusted -- your integrity and your competence. In his article, he says that getting trust back in your integrity is easy, but regaining trust in your competence is harder. The reason is that people have chances every day to demonstrate their integrity in small ways. Passing up chances for short-term gain will eventually pile up. The problem is that when your bosses think you aren't competent, they pass you up for the kinds of tasks they feel they can't trust you with, so you never get a chance to get back in their graces.

[Rethinking your new hire? See 10 Signs You've Hired The Wrong Person.]

Interestingly, I feel like the opposite is true with companies. It is much harder for companies to regain the sense that they have integrity than to show they are competent.

The biggest reason is that the integrity of a company is collective. The CEO might have all the integrity in the world, but if the management team doesn't, it will show. If the manager you directly report to is a creep, it will reflect on the whole company, so the collective integrity is difficult to pin down. What is a company to do?

Obviously, if the CEO is aware of the problem, he or she can fire managers who show a lack of integrity as proof that that problem is taken seriously. But it is usually not so cut and dried.

Sometimes a manager perceives that the company has an integrity problem, but higher-ups don't see it. The only thing you can probably do in that case is rally the troops and point out that, even if the CEO is a sniveling weasel, you're not. And everyone is in it together.

Another thing you can do is direct a solution to the specific problem. A round of layoffs is going to have everyone feeling like the trust that the company was safe and secure has been violated. You can't hire all those people back, but you can explain why those layoffs don't mean more are coming (unless you know there are). You can at least point out that from your end the choices you made were terrible to make.

But really, there's little you can do, because sadly, the integrity problem for a company probably comes from reality. If your CEO is a weasel or if there were layoffs, the only way you can fix that problem is with a new CEO or a couple of years of growth. Interestingly, when it comes to competence, the fix might be as simple as winning one in a row. The great thing about a company is that within it there are thousands of wins and losses every day. The perception that the company doesn't know what it's doing is probably coming from a string of visible losses -- maybe a bad quarter or two, maybe some layoffs, or a bad product launch. The great thing is that if the company isn't really going down the tubes, the gains probably don't need to equal the losses to restore faith. They just need to be more visible.

If you're the CIO and morale is down over a bad product launch, point out to your department every small victory. Celebrate an on-time app launch or a smooth update cycle. Don't insult anyone's intelligence. But everyone likes to know they're doing a good job, and nobody hears it enough. Turn small but real wins into reasons to celebrate, but don't hide from the losses. You'll eventually rebuild the feeling that you are capable of winning.

It is interesting that the ease at which trust can be rebuilt is reversed when it comes to individual workers versus management. And it is likely counterintuitive. I think that's one of the reasons management is so bad at doing it: It often takes a change in management to restore faith in a company going the wrong way. Perhaps, with a little more attention to the differences, management can restore faith in itself before it is too late.

What do you think? Can management turn things around? Do you agree that integrity is harder to rebuild in companies than people? Has your faith ever been restored in a company you worked for? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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