If you want people to distrust you…
Let’s use the principle of inversion for a moment – suppose you want to lose trust and build distrust, how do you do it? Well, for a start you can behave without sincerity, manipulate people or fob them off with glib, dismissive comments. Tell people one thing, then do another – be inconsistent and unreliable.. Be selfish, ungrateful, self-centred and negative. Act without integrity. Make it obvious you have little time for them, break any rapport, lie both to them and about them. Be secretive never transparent in your dealings with people at all levels. Play the power trip. Hide behind your official status or your desk and be unapproachable. Be uncooperative, never admit errors or take responsibility, break commitments and promises. Be passive-aggressive. Play games, and have hidden agendas you spring on people. Miscommunicate things that matter to people. Over-promise an under-deliver. Cause problems for people, instead of being helpful. Betray confidences, offend people, then gossip behind peoples’ backs. Speak without reflecting, say things that even you don’t believe, and do it with a straight face. When asked a question, have gaps in your speech (“erm…eh”) so you sound incongruent, and always dodge the question, never giving a straight answer. (It all sounds like some politicians I can think of – probably why most people seem to despise them). If this is you, why on Earth are you working in HR or Reward?
So, I’m saying, basically…don’t do those things, go and do the opposite. Show you can be trusted. Trust is built, it’s earned over time. Recognise that so much comes down to the quality of your interactions and language, as well as the nonverbals, the “music and dance” of your communications. Be consistent in your dealings, speak with some care and skill, act with empathy. Listen to people like a person – to understand and connect. Be genuinely helpful, and when there are problems or mistakes, be honest and upfront. Be a decent, honest and congruent guy – say what you mean and mean what you say. If you treat others with consideration and respect, if you’re open, transparent and friendly, and if you reflect often on the dynamics of trust, chances are you will want to behave in a trustworthy way in any case, and you probably won’t go far wrong.
Are there any individuals or organisations left that we can trust?
Our minds are populated by the people and characters of our daily lives, and those we hear about – players in the inner theatre of our minds. We make judgements, sometimes snap judgements, about these individuals and groups, and importantly whether or not we trust them. Do you trust your co-workers, manager, neighbours, relatives, friends, government, or Big Tech companies? Do you trust scientists, estate agents, policemen, or our armed forces? Do you trust employers, HR people or Executives? And do you trust that you’ll be paid commensurate with the value that you give your company?
If you answered Yes to any or all of these, the follow-up questions are “how far do you trust them?” and “in which contexts do you trust them?” But if you answered No to more than a few of these, don’t get paranoid – many people seem to think likewise. Trust is much more complex than most of us seem to think. If you answered No to a lot of these, the zeitgeist says you’re far from being alone in your views. There’s a sense in which we have come to distrust all of our institutions, and in which leadership in all spheres has lost its way, with organisations valuing image over substance – even now, well into the pandemic, at a time when you might have thought a rethink on how we function as a society might be required. The result is that we live in a society where trust is hard earned.
These days, trust seems to be something organisations and leaders struggle with. It’s hard to think of an industry, sector, institution or national government that is not distrusted by a significant proportion of the society. Consider companies like Enron, various banking scandals, public enquiries that are transparently whitewashed, and the many murders by police forces and armies around the world. Think for a moment of tax-dodging billionaires, corruption in government, Britain’s current “chumocracy”, the Panama Papers scandal, or the reports of abuse in the Catholic Church. It seems that every individual or organisation, especially leaders, are under ever greater scrutiny – and too often shown up as morally inadequate to their office. Meantime, conspiracy theories abound, clandestine societies are suspected, and we have a landscape where distrust is becoming usual, even normalised. Who or what can you safely trust? Of the many groups that make up society, based on age, race, ethnicity, nationality, settled status, financial standing, sexuality, religion, social class, profession, employment status, marital status, and so on – there is usually some group or another suspected and distrusted in the society. Whether you belong to the Establishment or are homeless, whether you are wealthy or poor, a citizen or a migrant, an executive or a Trade Unionist, there will be people who either trust or mistrust you and your collective group. Don’t expect to be loved by everyone. Listen here to Simon Sinek on trust and leadership –
OK, time to get “back in my lane” and talk HR and Reward. Human Resources teams are often distrusted by the workforce, Trade Unions suspect management’s motives, middle managers mistrust executives. Reward teams are responsible for pay and grading, both highly contentious issues that can give rise to questions of trust and distrust. Can you trust HR people not to gossip about employees? What are these Reward guys doing? Are they trying to short-change us? Are our jobs safe? Are the leadership considering downsizing plans? Can we trust these people? Without steps to build confidence and trust at the levels – team, function, business unit and organisation wide – it’s all too easy for unhelpful rumours and employee relations issues to surface, causing wider management problems.
What is trust?
What’s at the heart of business? Some say money. Others say value is at the heart of business – and money is the means of exchanging value. Your value as an employee, consultant, or entrepreneur exists in what you can do to solve real problems for your clients. Experience seems to show that nobody is interested in what you can do, only in what you can do for them. There are those that claim they can do a certain thing, and there are those that actually can. If you can do it, you get trust, credibility, rewards. Can you help them solve their problems here and now? If you’re not convinced that this is how people judge, have a read of this brutally honest and direct article. But whether we’re talking about money or value, business also boils down to relationships, and at the heart of relationships, at the core of it all – is trust. And at the core of trust is integrity.
To get our bearings, I’ll ask you to reflect on what trust means to you. Think of one person you trust and one you don’t – what differences do you notice? The chances are that you and I start from a different set of presuppositions. If we are to trust each other, we might start by agreeing what our shared measures of trust are. We want to know that what is presented to us in daily life is “genuine” and “sincere”. It’s a feeling of certainty we get from our experience of a person. Well-worn phrases like “our word is our bond” highlight for us that trust is intensely relational. For any one of us, there is no “measure of trust” that exists in all situations and at all times. We navigate using a bank of experiences, intuitions, values and beliefs about ourselves and others built up over a lifetime. We use that in deciding whether and how to trust another person, group, report or organisation in the here and now. There are several dimensions to it – it’s a psychological, social, societal, relational and often political phenomenon. Skill in building trust is critical if you work in management or leadership – but it’s more than skill. It involves consistency, honest dealings and reliability. No bullshit or lies, no hidden agendas and no games – as a bare minimum. Gaining trust is critical if you must influence people as part of your work – in any area and at any level. To do that you need rapport with people that inevitably have different beliefs and world-views from your own.
Trust is complex, multi-dimensional, nuanced, context-dependent
I say all this because we need ways of understanding trust, and of how we build trust – understandings that go beyond the superficial. I’ve met some cynical people over the years. And I’ve met some naive people. Sometimes they’ve asked or been presented with the question “Do you believe people are to be mostly trusted or mistrusted?” Most people answer with something like this – “Well, I give people the benefit of the doubt until they do something to make me distrust them” Perhaps more managerial is “Take no-one’s word for it. Trust but verify”. Some say “No, you’re best not to trust anyone in this life” or “No, you need to be very careful of people”. Others offer the credulous-sounding “Of course I trust people. I’ve never had any reason not to”. But it’s really quite a clumsy question, and these responses show that our usual ways of thinking about trust are impoverished, and based on limited assumptions. It would be truer to say that there are many layers of trust – we trust some people deeply and implicitly, and others we distrust quite vehemently. And there are many shades in between those extremes – clearly trust has many social and psychological intricacies. We use various intuitions in deciding who to trust. There are many textures to trust. In a complex society like ours, trust is contextualised, being relative to whom you trust, in which situations, in which exchanges, and in which aspects of those exchanges.
Trust, and who we regard as “trustworthy” can also differ a great deal across different geographies, countries, cultures and social structures, and organisational contexts. What made us trust someone had we lived in another historic era. or say 10 or 20 years ago, or within a particular group or subculture might not have the same effect today, or with another group. It’s very context-specific, and it’s a dynamic, changing phenomenon with many dimensions.
Let’s also consider the internal dimension. Our interactions are embedded within Self-Other interactions, both in interpersonal dialogues, but also internally, as we converse with ourselves, perhaps reflecting on the day’s events, or in assessing the right time to speak on an issue. Can we always trust ourselves to say and do the right thing? It depends n when and with whom. Conversations with managers, dialogues between Employee Relations and Trade Unions might happen episodically. Sometimes project teams must be formed rapidly, and need to be able to count on each other. This might differ from those forms of trust-building which are built over the longer term – across a career lifetime, across relationships that are many decades long, or across a company’s long history for service quality and product excellence.
From Latin, the term “Confidence” means “With Faith” – when we trust another, we have faith and confidence in them. There are several commonly used metaphors for trust – “broken trust”, “trust is a decision”, and “trust is a performance”. We often hear “trust your gut” and that “trust is earned from respect”. I once overheard an astute observer saying that a relationship without trust is like having a phone with no service, that there’s no real and honest communication, and where you just end up in a pretence, playing games. There’s no real relational connection in such relationships. Going through the motions. Many of our daily interactions – especially in corporate workplaces – are guarded, circumspect, with a perfunctory veneer of civility. We do right to proceed carefully when we choose to whom or what we give our trust.
If you’re interested in the theme of Trust, and like articles from academia and mainstream, here are a few of the many – one from Forbes listing some requirements of trust and one from Harvard Business Review about Uber.
“Earn trust, earn trust, earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest”
– Seth Godin
Trust in HR and Reward
But what of the HR and Reward professions? Experience shows that employee groups and the workforce often mistrust management’s intentions and motivations. In HR and Reward, it’s your job to put across leadership’s agenda in ways that land well. Depending on your organisation, HR professionals are often mistrusted, and actually hated by the workforce. This should be no surprise though. I’ve met several senior HR people who were criticised as “politicians” by close colleagues and across the company, being privately despised for it. It always baffled me that people who had reached the heights of their career path could be so unaware of their impact on others. Add to that the fact that HR are paid to act in the employer’s interests more than the employees’, which means they’re aligned with the interests of “the bosses and capital”. We often think of the best HR people are smooth, polished, polite, urbane, emollient, though I’ve known others that were abrasive and forthright, and who earned greater trust and respect for that. An overly polished individual can come off as slimy and untrustworthy to some, or maybe as someone insincere with a hidden agenda. The thing that good HR people have in common is that they make people feel safe. They are trusted – maybe not always liked or admired, but credible and trusted.
Reward teams and Trust
Reward professionals are focused on how employees are compensated through base pay, bonuses and commissions, sales incentives, employee benefits and recognition. They are often involved with restructures and reorganisations, pay and grading, pensions, workforce analytics and other critical employment matters. They may also work with Trade Unions, and play a key part in pay negotiations. As such, they play a key role in shaping decisions that have a significant impact on the working lives of employees. In large organisations, this impact can be across thousands, or tens of thousands of people. It’s plain that transparent policies and procedures, and good communication on Reward issues go a long way to bridging any “trust gap” that may exist.
There’s no getting away from the political dimensions of professional Reward practice. There’s no getting away from the Employee Relations aspects of Reward. Reward deals with contentious issues, perhaps the most contentious of all being pay. Pay management is rich with challenges, and to be an effective practitioner clearly means having realistic political savvy to navigate the internal politics of the role effectively.
Great, but how do Reward people build trust?
The link between Trust and Transparency has long been observed. Many of our UK organisations express a high level of discomfort with the notion of transparency, especially over pay. But clearly there are things Reward professionals can do in their communications with managers, Trade Unions, employees, executives and others that can build or destroy trust. There are many books, videos and resources available on the subject, but I’ve selected one to amplify the point. This short 5 minute talk from Ben Hempstead is simple and straightforward, explaining how they built transparency and trust in his engineering organisation. His approach to trust-building worked for them – I like his delivery; low key but high impact.
Trust is something you don’t get automatically – you build it, you earn it. Who but a fool gives their trust immediately or unconditionally? Building Reward processes and policies that are clearly understood, simple, and which provide a clear line of sight between Performance and Reward will help to build trust and a positive Employee Relations climate. Companies send powerful messages by who they hire, who they promote, who they dismiss, and who they retain. It’s important to have procedures that are fair and above board, to avoid unhelpful rumours of unfairness, favouritism or cronyism.
The challenges of keeping trust and building on it don’t go away. You might spend a lot of money and time on a new Reward initiative, only to find that you run into hurdles. The hurdles might be from managers, from executives, from employees or from Trade Unions. They might even come from HR and the Reward team itself if the initiative under question is not workable. Getting your Communications Team to support with company wide communications is critical in ensuring that your message lands the right way. It’s worth investing the time to do a dry run on any presentations or written materials e.g. manager guidance notes, performance management forms, meetings with Trade Unions, and other stakeholders. You can always iterate and make things simpler and clearer. It’s crucial to avoid any causes of confusion by having a clear message.
Some employee groups might be unconvinced, wary or mistrustful, and you may even anticipate this. In such cases, take extra care with how you frame the message, and anticipate questions or challenges people might come back with. It often happens that a switched-on management builds effective, positive relationships with Trade Union reps and Full Time Officers of the Union. Trust, it’s sometimes said, is like charity – it begins at home. If you operate from a clear, honest frame in your conversations or dialogues with people – regardless of the level, position or context – you stand an excellent chance of gaining their trust. People like people that are like them, and if they like each other, they have more chance of trusting each other. Trust implies some vulnerability – you choose to trust a person. It involves risk.
If you are working in HR and Reward, you need to influence people. And to do that, you have to listen well, understand people, work to gain their trust and confidence. You are dealing with pay management issues, job evaluation, salary benchmarking, salary review, sales commission, bonus plans and incentives, as well as benefits and recognition issues. These are critical matters for employees, managers and executives. Effective Reward people take a solid approach to all of these areas, and want to deliver them well. It should be second nature to act in ways that place trust building the centre of all of these processes
If you have a Reward initiative, and are unsure how to put it across to employee groups or the whole workforce, and would value a sounding board, get in touch via the Contact Page.