Guest AuthorMahalingam

Rebuilding trust, alignment in today’s workplace

Source | C. Mahalingam

The reasons for the trust deficit in organisations and how leaders can get employees to realign themselves with the company’s vision and values.

The NASSCOM HR Summit-2011 this week will touch upon a number of themes of interest to HR professionals. Key among them will be employee trust and alignment in the workplace. Corporate scandals and leadership failures have eroded trust in organisations globally. It is not surprising to come across cynical remarks such as: ‘Nothing in this company will be believed until it is officially denied by the management!’ Well, that is what employees seem to experience. Not surprisingly, engaging people becomes a huge challenge.

Trust in Workplace

Trust in the workplace has been a subject of research for long now. It is cited as an important cultural attribute of long-standing organisations. DDI International, in its monograph on trust, says: “The psychological contract of trust has been decimated by greed, short-term focus, global competition, and the unethical behaviour of leaders.” Economic upheavals and downsizing practices have done little help the situation. Trust in the workplace has, thus, become a hot topic at conferences and seminars.

There are many tell-tale signs of the deteriorating state of trust in organisations. They include a lack of initiative at all levels, turf wars, high turnover, deep-rooted bureaucracy and an active grapevine. Dr Warren Bennis cites trust as the emotional glue that binds followers and leaders. Authors William and Kathleen Lundin discuss a formula for calculating trust in their book The Healing Manager. They say when a leader gives one ounce of trust to his or her people, he or she will receive one pound in return. If that is so, why do leaders do things that break trust? There are, of course, various theories to explain this.

Trust at a simple level translates into managers saying and doing the same thing. They keep commitments and expect the same of the people they manage.

Walking the Talk

One of the common complaints employees have is that managers frequently fall short in adhering to the organisation’s values. People evaluate their leaders on the walk-the-talk yardstick. The 360-degree feedback process was instituted to capture the behaviour of leaders against the professed values.

While this has helped leaders across the world to correct their behaviour, in many organisations, it has become an organisational routine without any significant follow-through!

A Watson Wyatt survey of 13,000 employees reveals that just 39 per cent trusted their managers. In a survey by Towers Perrin, communication about the business by the leaders is viewed as credible by less than half of the employees and as dishonest by 25 per cent of them.

Seven Habits gStephen-Coveyuru, Stephen Covey has this interesting observation: “You can’t talk yourself out of situations you have behaved yourself into.” In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey compares investing in trust to depositing in emotional bank accounts and withdrawals to acts that betray trust.


Behaviours that promote Trust

Stephen M. R. Covey advocates 13 behaviours as constituting the ingredients of trusted relationship. These are:

Straight talking: Many managers keep their employees guessing. It is their way of keeping control! Talking straight is honesty in action. It involves two things, namely, to tell the truth and to leave the right impression. In many cases, managers may not indulge in flat-out lying. Instead, they may engage in counterfeit behaviours such as withholding information, double-talk and spinning communication to manipulate the actions of others.

Demonstrate respect: This has two important dimensions. The first, involves behaving in ways that show fundamental respect for people and, the second, involves behaving in ways that show caring and concern. Managers who demonstrate lack of respect do so since they suffer from issues of integrity, intent or capabilities.

Create transparency: It is about telling the truth in ways our people can verify. Dr Warren Bennis co-authored a book titled, Transparency – how leaders create a culture of candor, in which he makes a strong case for creating transparent organisations.

Right the wrongs: It is about apologising and making restitution as soon as managers recognise they have blundered. It takes extraordinary courage to apologise!

Show loyalty: Leaders establish trust by giving credit where it belongs. Another key sign of loyalty is how we speak about others when they are not around!

Deliver results: Leadership is a performing art! Leaders must deliver since doing so builds instant trust with people inside and customers outside.

Get better: Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Leaders engender trust when they demonstrate continuous learning and self-improvement.

Confront reality: This involves taking tough issues head-on. Leaders, who do so, name the elephants in the room, address the holy cows and discuss the undiscussables.

Clarify expectations: This calls for creating a shared vision and reaching agreement. The opposite of this is to give lip service to clarifying expectations.

Practice accountability: In the 2002 Golin/Harris poll, assuming personal accountability was ranked as the second-highest factor in building trust.

Listen first: Many of us assume frequently that we listen a lot. My professor of management taught us a powerful distinction that is still green in my mind. He said, ‘waiting to talk is not listening’ and that is what most of us do! Listening also includes listening to our inner voice.

Keep commitments: This is perhaps the “big kahuna” of all behaviours that promote trust. When we make commitments as leaders, we build hope and when we keep them, we build trust.

Extend trust: This involves recognising that trust is a verb and not just a noun. Doing so creates reciprocity. Being trustworthy precedes being trusted.

Alignment at Work

Empowering people for excellence rests on the tripod of trust, alignment and competence. If any of the pillars is missing, organisations do not succeed in creating empowerment. Trust is a key pillar, but making sure trust leads to alignment of people with organisational goals is very important. In the absence of alignment, trust will generate less than optimum results.

Alignment results when leaders communicate vision and the roadmap to realise the vision. Leaders need to invest energy in obtaining buy-in for their goals. In aligned organisations, every employee is comfortable with the company’s vision, values and goals.

Bells, Book & Candle of Management

Leaders will do well to remember the principle of Bells, Book and Candle in management. Bells represent a personal warning system that guides like a north star. Book deals with following the rules in letter and spirit. Finally, Candle is about leaders reflecting on how their decisions will look in the light! If leaders get this right, they could create lasting organisations built on trust .


MaliC. Mahalingam is a leading HR Thought Leader in India. He was Executive Vice-President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation and served in organisations like IBM, HP, Phillips, Scandent Technologies etc. He is now a Leadership Coach, HR Strategic Consultant and visiting faculty at some of IIM’s.



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