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The Future of Work

The Subtle Ways Companies Inadvertently Undermine Their Employees' Trust

Are little elements in your workplace making employees feel like they can't be trusted?

[Image via Shutterstock]

Every organization has to walk a fine line between trusting its employees and running the risk of a security breach. This point was driven home to me after a couple of recent visits to companies to give talks.

Last month, a friend invited me to give a talk at his organization. It was not surprising that I had to sign in at the front desk and get a visitor’s pass. My host then had to swipe an ID card at five different doors to get from the front desk to the room where the talk was being held. At each door, there was a line of employees waiting to pass through the doors.

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum is the university where I work. During normal business hours, every building is open to the public, and there is little supervision of who wanders around the halls.

At the most restrictive organization, I am sure that the managers and security personnel were concerned primarily for the safety of the building. They did not want intruders in the buildings, and they did not want sensitive information to fall in the hands of people who were not authorized to access it.

But, while I was visiting, several people joked about the need to swipe through every door. It was clear that there was tension surrounding the security procedures.

I met many of the high-level executives in this organization, and they are warm, open people who want to create a collaborative work environment. But, the building itself is undermining that message.

Most of the time, we underestimate the influence that the environment has on our behavior. The daily routines of our lives are driven by the way our world is structured. We eat the food that is in our refrigerator. We walk on the paved paths. We check our email, because the program is up on our computer. And, we do all of that without thinking.

Why The Little Things Matter

The environment also shapes our moods and attitudes. There is a tendency for people to be in a better mood on sunny days than on cloudy days. Open office environments with lots of cubicles create anxiety, because people have difficulty shutting out the conversations going on around them, and they fend off a number of interruptions during the day.

The environment also influences trust. Think about the many minor inconveniences that an organization can place on employees. Doors that need security access. Copy paper that must be signed out from a locked cabinet. Office supplies that are given out only by request.

Why does this matter?

The flow of information in an organization is critical for its success. There are two types of information that need to flow freely, and both can be inhibited by an environment that signals mistrust.

First, innovative ideas often happen when people bring knowledge from one area of their expertise to bear on a problem that seems different on the surface. In companies, this can also happen when people across silos talk to each other and discover that there is an interesting connection between their projects. Consequently, an environment of mistrust can stifle innovation.

Second, it is often the case that potential problems are more evident to low-level employees before upper-level management becomes aware of them. For example, there might be trouble with a factory procedure, difficulties with a product on the sales floor, or user interface problems with a program or website. In an environment with low trust, these issues are less likely to be brought to the attention of supervisors and managers. As a result, small problems can become big ones.

Ultimately, it is worth taking a fresh look at your work environment. Are there elements of the daily procedures that everyone goes through that send a different message about trust than what the organization promotes overtly?

If so, why are those procedures in place? Can they be modified? If not, then find ways to reward open communication in a public way to help people recognize that trust and the flow of information is truly valued throughout the organization.

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