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.

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