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The Subtle Ways Companies Inadvertently Undermine Their Employees' Trust

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

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.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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  • [continued] you rightly point out that one negative effect is that on collaboration and therefore on innovation.

    Another negative effect of a lower level of trusting is that people become less bonded and committed to each other, thus lowering a sense of teamwork and engagement.

    And, lowered levels of trusting lead to suspicion and pessimism about the future.

    Finally, a lowered level of risk leads to less interaction and commitment between people, which in turn leads to a lowered level of ethics. Ethically-challenged environments arise when people' s relationships are instrumental and transactional, rather than other-focused and long-term.

    More needs to be said in business about this aspect of trust; thanks for highlighting it.

  • Apologies for coming late to your article, Art, but I wanted to underscore your basic thesis.

    Most writing about trust is about trustworthiness, a character of the trustee. Less is written about the one doing the trusting, the trustor. And that is what you are addressing here.

    Furthermore, most that's written about the trustor, and the risks they take, is written from the solo point of view; this has been influenced by the fact that psychologists have taken the lead in trust research, and not surprisingly have identified "trust" as mainly a verb, and mainly a function of the volition of an individual.

    But – as you point out quite rightly – the decision to trust, and the propensity to make oneself vulnerable by trusting, are each quite heavily influenced by the environment. That most particularly includes one's peers, and in the case of work, the various rules, written and unwritten, that make up an organization and its culture

    You rightly point out [oops out of space]

  • If you have to have the physical security, perhaps due to working with valuable assets, or confidential information, or dangerous materials, perhaps the virtual world offers the means by which staff can more readily engage across those physical imposed boundaries. Of course, in the virtual world, a company or university could create an environment in which staff could meet irrespective of geography or function. Think how that might facilitate communication, creativity becoming innovation, trust and respect across the board because we recognise what you bring in of yourselves and we don't want necessary physical barriers to staunch the flow of ideas or our ability to serve our customers. Trust is not in itself substantive so let's use the insubstantiveness of virtual reality to demonstrate trust can pass through all material boundaries.

  • Company leaders have a rare chance (each time they move) to carefully think through the impact of their design decisions on the performance environment in their company. My work focuses on midsized firms, and too often the CEO or owner makes decision based on their preferences, and even that's done last minute and amidst chaos. That's usually a mistake. I wonder if there is a concise primer that outlines the key considerations to make (even beyond those cited in this excellent article) that can guide a careful and well informed decision making process. Thanks Art, for writing this.

  • Trent Flood

    Art - As someone who works every day with companies to better engage employees, your points are well taken. However, as you highlighted in your first sentence, there is a fine line to walk here. Almost every major cyber breach starts with an employee or contractor taking a wrong action (opening a link or file, browsing to a questionable site, using easy to crack passwords, etc.). This is also true of the physical work space. I'm sure many of these employers feel compelled to implement these security measures simply to remind employees of the importance of protecting information. The key is to strike the right balance and make sure you have transparently communicated the reasoning behind these security decisions. Thanks for opening-up this discussion!

    Trent Flood, APR - Vice President, Employee Engagement; Edelman-DC

  • Absolutely, Trent. There are several goals that companies have to deal with. I am not arguing that there shouldn't be significant security measures, particularly in companies for which any kind of breach could be catastrophic. But, if you are going to have those security measures, then it is important to recognize that employees (who deal with them on a daily basis) will react to those measures differently than they may have been intended. That means that companies have to engage in other practices to really try to counteract any negative influences that the security measures have had.

    As you say, it is an important discussion to begin.

  • Art- Thanks for the focus on building trust! Your suggestions are so obvious and make perfect sense.

    I recently wrote a blog post about employees needing to obtain "approval" before being able to say or do something. Imagine the trust that would be built if that "approval" were not necessary.

    Barbara Kimmel, Executive Director, Trust Across America-Trust Around the World