Rampant Lack of Trust Drives Employee Defections

Recession has little to do with employee dissatisfaction, says Nick Holley, who was voted the 12th most influential thinker in HR by Human Resources Magazine. He places current concerns about a presumed broad scale employee turnover in a recovery in a larger historical context – and asserts that the problem runs deeper than many realize.

I was lucky to catch Nick Holley between engagements in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.  The Gulf States and the Kingdom are hot to develop greater professionalism in their nationals, and experts like Nick are in high demand.  In surveying him for my current blog series on "The Recovering Leader" (exploring how corporate leaders might retain their valuable workers when economic recovery creates greater free agency), I suggested that he talk about his experiences in that region.

Instead, he preferred to discuss something else: the larger picture around how trust has eroded in the workplace and the world, a profound decline which he believes is the crux of the matter.  If the issue of trust is addressed naively, leaders might launch the very defections that they fear most.

Nick made three crisp points: 1) the recession is not the same for everyone; 2) the recession is the tip of the trust iceberg; and 3) regaining trust can only take place in one-on-one relationship, not in programmatic efforts.

Point 1: The recession is not a monolith.  "This recession is not the same experience for everybody," says Nick."In some organizations, one division suffers and another expands.  Impacts vary across geographies.  Saudi Arabia has no recession; Qatar has no recession. Dubai has a recession of a sort but the people feeling it the most are the overseas investors because it hit property the hardest.  It is dangerous to talk about ‘the recession’ as one thing because it clouds the issue." In other words, trust suffers today in even places that are economically fine.

Point 2: This recession is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  "Loss of trust has been underway for 20 years," Nick stresses.  "Not just in business, but in many parts of society.  Divorce rates are very high, at least in the UK and US. Consumers kick the tires of whatever they buy – why believe the advertising claims? In the UK, fewer and fewer voters trust that their opinion matters, so more and more have stopped voting. They don’t trust the political system – nor, of course, the politicians who are the visible face of the system.  Few sensible people trust the media anymore.  And rank and file employees don’t trust the employers who subjected them to downsizing and cutbacks while the gap between executive pay and their own has widened so dramatically.  The recession has driven the tip of the iceberg further above the surface, but the larger body of the iceberg has been there and growing for years." 

How does this play out in terms of what employees will choose to do?  His research reveals two distinct groups representing two fundamental reactions.  "The first group consists of people who believe large organizations to be fundamentally dysfunctional and who have opted out – nothing to do with the recession.  These are the people off starting their own businesses – or off simply having a better time than you or me.  The second group is composed of those who are still trying to make organizations work.  They are the ones doing all the slashing. Many of them are effectively as trapped in those organizations as anyone else, and may well be looking for a way out."

Point 3: Organizations don’t build trust, individuals do.  "You can’t hide behind an employee opinion survey if you are going to solve this problem," Nick said strongly.  "Typically, the wrong questions are being asked, and the categories are too broad and impersonal.  Each line manager has to understand the individuals that he or she is dealing with, and build trust one person, one conversation, at a time.  There is no other way."

Where are the bright spots?  What organizations have managed to garner the trust and commitment that so eludes the rest?  Nick was unhesitating in his response: "NGOs and the charity sector."  Because they are better run? Not necessarily, maybe not even likely. The reason: "People in those organizations experience a much stronger sense of purpose and belonging. The key for them is the mission."

Mission. Purpose. Trust. Fairness. Belonging. True voice.  Personal relationship.   Hard to argue these.

Please leave comments below — we are eager to have a conversation on this important topic. If you prefer to e-mail, please go to my website (now in version 2.0) and click on the Contact Us tab.



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  • Alan Ibbotson

    Great blog Kate, thanks for starting this timely and important discussion.
    One point I would like to add is that - precisely because of the lack of trust, organisations struggling with talent retention or morale/engagement issues would still do well to survey their employees as a first step. This allows for free expression that might be otherwise hard to solicit and an analysis of the causes of the problems, as opposed to just trying to fix the symptoms. The red flag here is that there are a lot of very well intentioned, otherwise bright and talented leaders who think their responsibility is to respond to every line item on a survey with an answer that will appease employees, when in fact what most employees really want is the absolute, unfettered, transparent truth - even if that's bad news. Why? I think because that gives them control over what to do next.Granted, it may mean that they choose to leave, But for the vast majority, it will actually unleash their creativity and problem solving skills. It will bring them together with a common purpose, giving them exactly what they're looking for - a mission, a purpose, autonomy, the freedom to be creative and collaborative in the pursuit of solutions and a better place to work. My advice to leadership when faced with all of this is not to Nanny your employees - level with them, ask them for help, engage them in the solutions on an individual rather than solely programmatic level (and I do believe there is room for both - why not have employees come up with programmatic solutions too?!). Target your best talent and give them an opportunity to show what they're made of, but give everyone the opportunity to be involved. Let the next generation of leaders emerge from the crisis - isn't the job of leadership to create other leaders?

    Alan Ibbotson
    UKNY Consulting

  • Dan Rockwell


    Thanks for your post.

    I think the challenge is maintaining agility during tough times along with stability which enhances trust. The recession requires agility and agility means change and change is destabilizing.

    How can a business maintain both? Is it agility in business practices and stability in relationships? Is it agility in business practices and stability in mission? Probably both.


    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    Recent Blog: 2.5 minutes that changed my day

  • Christine Maingard

    Excellent blog Kate. Trust in the organisation and its leadership is critical for employee satisfaction and productivity. Trust is absolutely vital if an organisation is to be seen as looking after its employees. In my opinion trust in the organisation erodes when there is not enough transparency, lack of communication and also when employees experience too much constant change and are unable to make sense of it all. In challenging economic times trust may be one of the first casualties. There might be downsizing and change and the remaining employees end up with low morale and a lack of trust.
    A manager/leader can build trust through being authentic, finding an authentic connection to the work they are doing and through building authentic links with others. Unfortunately, all-too-often leaders 'act' in ways they think their position demands and as a consequence come across as not to be trusted. On the other hand, it may also be that a direct manager is viewed as a trusted person but an organisation is not. This of course can be the real dilemma. As long as organisations don't view themselves as a human community, the issue of trust will remain short-changed.

    Dr Christine Maingard
    Author of "Think Less, Be More"