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Lessons Learned

How To Build Employee Trust In An Age Of Short Job Tenures

Trust takes time—often longer than employees tend to stay at their companies.

[Photo: Flickr user Christian Bourdeau]

Right now, the battle for talent is heating up in Silicon Valley as Tesla and Apple take turns poaching each other’s leaders. But it isn't just at the top. With unemployment rates dropping to pre-recession levels and millennials now job-hopping every three years on average, businesses everywhere are finding their employees staying put for shorter periods before moving to greener pastures. No matter how many free doughnuts and flex days companies offer, that wanderlust won’t be tamed.

Great people come and great people go: It’s a reality my company has had to adapt to and embrace as we've grown from a few dozen employees to a few hundred in the past decade. The key has been finding ways to build relationships of lasting value in ever shorter amounts of time, by learning to trust each other more deeply, sooner.

Unsurprisingly, studies show teams that share a high level of trust perform better and are more productive. Trust makes growing companies more nimble; they’re able to act faster with fewer formal rules and bureaucracies, and less time is wasted micromanaging. But with workers changing jobs more rapidly than ever, there's less time to build those bonds. Here’s how we’ve adapted.

Be Vulnerable First

In my experience, showing vulnerability is the first step in accelerating what I think of as the "trust curve." There’s actually neuroscience behind this: When you open up to people, researchers have found, they behave more dependably and put more faith in you in return; trust someone, and they'll give you more reasons why you should. But somebody has to be the first to be vulnerable, or else those relationships have nowhere to begin.

When Starbucks founder Howard Schultz returned from an eight-year hiatus to revive his struggling company in 2008, he knew he needed the trust of his employees before the painful move of slashing 12,000 jobs. He stood in front of an all-company meeting and confessed—Starbucks leadership had failed its employees and their families—then listened as people lined up at an open mic to assail him. But this moment of vulnerability was a turning point: Quarterly profits soared from $108 million to $575 million today.

I'm careful never to be shy about the struggles we’ve faced and missteps I’ve made at my own company. At one point in the early days, I had to mortgage my home just to keep the lights on. As an online provider of home improvement products, we were affected by the housing crunch and recession of the last decade. And I’m frank now about how my own ego and reluctance to delegate held us back at key moments.

But I've found that showing that vulnerability, far from undermining trust and authority, has helped me build stronger relationships, faster.

Trust First, Ask Questions Later

Trust is usually seen as something earned, often slowly: We measure each interaction with someone until we feel they’re worthy of our trust. But in my business and personal life, I’ve always taken a different approach. I trust almost everybody until it’s been proven I shouldn’t. This approach may seem counterintuitive, risky, and even naive, but it actually leads to many more deep relationships—valuable connections that may never have happened if I hadn’t trusted first.

At my company, we try to show our team members we trust them from the day they step through the door. One example is the unlimited paid vacation policy. We’re confident our people are dedicated to our shared performance goals, and we give them latitude to get the time off they need. (In fact, we’ve got such committed talent working for us, we have to stipulate a minimum amount of vacation days to take.)

In the end, this philosophy of trusting people from the get-go is an enormous time saver. The good relationships begin faster because you aren't building walls that have to be climbed first. Yes, there are inevitably people who will disappoint you. But the irony is that trusting everyone first actually lets you discover those people more quickly.

The Risks And Benefits Of Trusting Teams

Trust between a company's leadership and its teams is critical. But trust between team members is just as important. To really accelerate the trust curve at work, it’s critical to find ways for individual employees to learn to rely on one another.

No, I’m not talking about trust falls. And I realize that to some people, a trust-building exercise may as well be an eye-rolling exercise. But creating trust doesn’t have to be a game. For example, we’ve asked our team members to share their bucket lists so we can help each other cross a few items off. It’s a simple idea, but by sharing personal aspirations—from motorcycling through Africa to writing a cookbook—and inviting others to help, we’re putting faith in each other’s hands.

This isn't to say these approaches are without risks. I’ve been burned once or twice by people whom I shared too much with and trusted prematurely. I once put stock in a board member who, in the midst of a grueling company crisis, decided to hold a surprise no-confidence vote to unseat me. But the benefits of extending and accelerating trust far outweigh these occasional risks. In fact, in that instance, moments after that individual sat down, another board member proposed a motion to oust him, which passed unanimously.

I say that not to be boastful or vengeful. My point is that trust breaks down barriers to communication and offers a powerful window into all aspects of the business. In an age when job-hopping and entrepreneurial hustle are par for the course, great employees don’t stick around forever. But by finding ways to speed up the trust curve, I do think it’s possible to build real relationships and achieve great things in a condensed timeframe. You quickly learn whom you can count on most—and you do it before they're out the door, or it's too late.

Jeff Booth is cofounder and CEO of BuildDirect. Follow him at @JeffBooth.

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