In high school, I had hair. I did, honest. It was very dark, thick and had a certain Italian swagger to it. There were times it was long enough on top to pull down over one eye (OK, I didn't wear it like this, I just could pull it down over one eye, geez). When I would do that in the middle of Biology class, my friends would tell me how much I looked like Prince. Now, mind you, I have no musical ability (although I do love me some Karaoke), so it was just the appearance that won them over to the Prince comparison. I had never thought about any similarity between me and Prince before this. My friends were serious about it. I believed them because they were my friends.
I trusted them. The deposits they had made in my life had shown me when I could believe them and when they were just joking. Those relationships are great. The differences in trust and relationship in the workplace vary significantly as compared to high school. I think many experts would speak to avoidance of becoming great friends with co-workers as there are too many work-related factors which could stretch and break those relationships. If that occurs, then future work situations would be difficult and awkward. I understand this. An appropriate set of boundaries allows for right communication and expectation for the relationship. When a boss and a subordinate worker become great friends, there is the potential for relational strain, when the boss has to correct or reprimand the employee, or for managerial stagnation, when due to the relationship the boss refrains from engaging with instruction, correction or reprimand, often leading to frustration on the part of the boss.
And yet, the past five years have seen a variety of books, studies and articles concerning trust in the workplace. These writers and researchers talk about the positive effect of trust and its influence on the productivity of employees. Again, the research is valid and is worth looking at. There is a correlation between trust and success. Where I think the issue lies is in the composition of what trust is.
As managers and supervisors may attest, very little development is done in regards to relationship building and integration in the workplace. We tend to revert back to what it meant for us to build relationships in high school. We converse with relaxed language, we "hang out" with these employees after work, we grab drinks, have a barbecue, play pranks on other employees, etc...We act like we did when we were in high school. Too harsh? Maybe, but time and again, I know I hear about the loose boundaries between senior leadership and employees in the small to medium-sized business sector. Think about how much is spent on sexual harassment, retaliation and hostile work environment cases - some of these cases read like 10th grade drama.
So what tools will help to guide the correct approach to trust? A few to consider:
- Choose a few to trust
- Provide for open communication to establish the relationship
- Find one peer to be accountable to
- Bridge actions and words so that consistency in relationship happens
The thoughts here are about thinking wisely. It may be easy to start talking to someone to get to know them, but it's quite a different approach to do that while maintaining an approach with boundaries. Some articles talk about open communication in terms of management explaining every situation to employees so that they feel involved. Well, guess what? Sometimes that is a terrible idea. That doesn't mean that you don't trust those employees if you don't tell them everything; it means that there is an appropriate level of communication and should only be shared with the necessary personnel. I understand that some of those articles mean well, but we should not think that our businesses need to be open books. It's inappropriate and it's a different issue than trust; it's wisdom.
Accountability is another overused term. "Let's make companies accountable" was a phrase often heard after the banking crisis of a few years ago. What does that mean? Is accountability telling everyone everything? No. It is finding one or two that you can brainstorm with, share difficulties, express concern over your skill set, ask for advice; it's not something to be done with everyone. Some of the best leaders of some of the most successful companies had people in their trust circles like this. They could tell them how badly they had screwed up and then be willing to report back to this person how they've made changes or corrections. Accountability folks are in your corner, but they also will not just let you be wrong and get away with it. They hold you to a high standard and want to see you succeed.
Consistency is a beautiful thing. Employees will enjoy consistency in word and deed, to the point of deep trust and loyalty. They will appreciate knowing where the "true north" is by watching the deeds and listening to the message of a consistent leadership. There is an air of integrity connected to this message and employees appreciate it.
Many of these points are not what typically describe high school relationships. We were inconsistent gossipers with only our own self-interests to preserve. And when we did want to go deep, we were too deep. We would tell friends we'd die for them, when we knew we never would, or we'd tell people we'd never tell their secret, when we knew full well that we couldn't wait for next period to tell a few. Very self-serving.
Our corporate leadership ought not to engage in the same manner. A company needs to have employees who can trust in their leadership, their company. It is a big responsibility, but it's one that can be managed well and appropriately. When companies do act in a manner that is self-serving to the leadership or to a few, it's divisive and leads to poor productivity and higher turnover - signs that trust is out of kilter in the organization.
So let's leave our high school relationship building behind, along with leggings, over-sized shirts that say, "Relax," polo shirts with the collars up (although, I still love this) and our raspberry berets. Gotta love Prince.