Trust can be a company’s greatest asset and can help build employee motivation, morale, and loyalty. Trust also decreases stress, a huge benefit during these challenging times. Quite simply, trust makes for a better workplace.
But, at the moment, people are understandably worried about losing their livelihoods and may be hyperfocused on decoding every company message and decision. Our recent survey of 1,000 U.S. full-time employees found a majority don’t currently trust their employers:
- 63% believe their employers are using the COVID-19 pandemic and economic uncertainty as an excuse to trim down their organizations
- 61% believe their employers are using workplace downsizing during the pandemic to transition to a more automated workforce
- 52% believe their employers are leaning toward relocating their employees and organizations because of COVID-19
Many companies have given employees good reason to be wary. We’ve heard stories of abruptly scheduled Zoom calls resulting in layoffs or furloughs.
Although those stories grab headlines, I believe most companies want employees to feel respected and protected. What’s more, most leaders understand the benefits of preserving a positive company culture that remains long after the pandemic and economic turmoil are behind us.
These are my recommendations to maintain and rebuild lost trust during these troubling times.
Be transparent (as much as you can be)
As a business leader, the best way to combat the tremendous uncertainty people are currently facing is by being as open as possible. Otherwise, employees will fill in the blanks based on what they suspect, instead of what they know.
I love this advice from Udemy instructor and longtime leadership coach Lawrence Miller: “Share the data and explain in frank and honest terms what the data indicates.” Miller stresses that when companies trust their employees with information about how the organization is dealing with the current economic upheaval, workers are more understanding, even if the outcome is sobering. “Particularly in this time of crisis, every employee understands that their company is being impacted in one way or another.”
During difficult times like these, a true leader shows their vulnerability, rather than retreating into silence and inaccessibility. I have seen outstanding examples of openness from leaders, sharing their thinking and their emotions, and even their sadness, when making critical decisions.
Don’t be afraid to ask your team, from managers on down, how you can do better. Be willing to communicate when you need to make improvements. If you feel you’ve made the wrong decision, communicate your feelings openly. What’s exciting about business is that we are all changing and learning every day. Showing your staff that you are also learning and growing is leading by example.
Keeping open lines of communication within an organization is key to maintaining trust. If you eventually need to make dramatic structural changes, no one will be blindsided.
Anyone who has worked in HR knows that surprises are the enemy of good employee relationships. When a business struggles, you may need to take steps that will impact employees’ lives. Be disciplined and thoughtful by sharing that information as soon as you can so that your employees aren’t the last to know about your company’s challenges. A surprise layoff or massive business shift can leave remaining employees feeling understandably distrustful, believing they may also lose their jobs without warning.
Be a good teacher
I don’t think that this gets talked about enough, but as a leader, you also have to be a good teacher. It’s vital your employees understand how your business works. When you share the ins and outs of your revenue and expenses in an effective way, you create a common language for talking about the business. It’s much easier to bring employees along on your journey when a huge shift like COVID happens if they have this foundational information.
If you weren’t teaching others within your company before, this is the time to start. Surround yourself with individuals with strong communication skills and make sure the key drivers of your business are easily understood by all.
Don’t go it alone
Leaders in this new remote-first environment are missing the opportunity to build trust in ways they might have in the past. Pre-COVID, our own CEO Gregg Coccari would spend at least half an hour every morning walking around the office, chatting with employees, and making a lot of informal but important connections.
Obviously, this is not something Gregg can do in the current environment. So now he’s finding new ways to engage, like virtual lunches with employees across the globe and learning to rely more on his leaders who can help fill in the gaps. This is a good time for leaders to be open to feedback from those around them. Take that feedback and do an inventory of your strengths, and think about how to prop up your weaknesses.
Don’t lose faith
Even when morale and trust waver or you stumble, keep the faith. There’s always an opportunity for change. After almost 25 years in HR, I believe more than ever that trust, once lost, can be regained. There is a lot of forgiveness within organizations when leaders admit shortcomings, address employee concerns, and are open and honest.
Finally, while this may feel counterintuitive, a good leader leads first with humility, especially at times like these. As leadership coach Lawrence Miller counsels, don’t be afraid to admit to mistakes and then do better next time. “You will gain respect for engaging in self-reflection,” says Miller. “Arrogance is the enemy of learning and destroys trust. Humility is an attitude of learning that gains trust.”
Cara Brennan Allamano is the senior vice president of People, Places, and Learning at Udemy.