Building trust between employers and employees has always been essential to maintaining a supportive and healthy work environment. But with the onset of COVID-19, which has accelerated the era of working from home, managers and employees have missed some of the regular social interactions. Zoom hasn’t quite been able to replace the old-fashioned face-to-face exchanges.
Darryl Stickel, author of “Building Trust: Exceptional Leadership in an Uncertain World,” a practical manual for employers wishing to improve relationships with their employees, has devoted his career to how trust is built. His company, Trust Unlimited, helps clients in all industries, from financial services to telecommunications to technology.
TechRepublic spoke to Stickel about what he sees as missteps made by managers in the age of remote work and how employers can build trust with employees.
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TechRepublic interviews trust expert Darryl Stickel
You wrote that confidence is at rock bottom. How did it happen?
I believe trust is a combination of uncertainty and vulnerability. And we’ve seen deep spikes of uncertainty everywhere. Part of it is technological progress, but more so it is changes in cultural norms and values. We are seeing changes in the way we work, partly due to the pandemic. But even before that, we were seeing an increase in the number of virtual teams. And if we think of trust as a combination of uncertainty and vulnerability, leaders tend to be very vulnerable – because the older we get, the less direct control we have over outcomes, the more dependent we are on the people we lead. to achieve things. So when you combine that with a massive spike in uncertainty, it creates deep discomfort for leaders.
How has that changed since COVID-19 ushered in the era of remote work? Has it exacerbated trust issues?
Well, part of the challenge is that many of our leadership models are very old, outdated, and rely on some sort of command and control approach, which just isn’t very functional. And in an environment where change happens quickly, they were forced to go to a place where some of them were still trying to engage in command and control approaches.
With the pace of change, by the time I issued an order, it’s outdated. So what I really need is to have other people who can make decisions. And I have to take a different kind of leadership approach where I empower those I lead, where I create an environment where they feel empowered to make decisions, and where technology actually augments that rather than being used to monitor .
Employers have used a range of strategies with remote employees – from total flexibility to considering their entire schedule. How do these different approaches affect trust at work?
I can tell you that the fastest way to get someone to distrust you is to indicate in some way that you don’t trust them. Monitoring them is, again, the answer to increased uncertainty for leaders who used to be able to walk around to see people working – now they are terrified. You know, what, if these people don’t work? What is my role, really, if I’m not, you know, checking everyone’s work?
We see leaders really trying to figure out where they sit or if they change. There is great work being done on situational leadership that suggests that for some employees we need more guidance for coaching. For others, we just have to let them give them what they need and let them run with it.
But I think in general we should try to find ways to think of people as having production goals rather than timelines. So rather than watching people to make sure they’re sitting at their keyboards, we should say what is a reasonable amount of productivity? And then let yourself figure out how to bridge the gap between where you are and where you need to be.
So are you saying that part of it comes down to individual personalities and preferences? Should employers keep them in mind?
Absolutely. Some of us need more structure and prefer to have a more hands-on approach. Part of the problem here is that we often don’t include others in defining what excellence looks like. And so we make assumptions about what good leadership looks like, when in reality it may be different for different people.
I’m talking about pulling different levers to build trust. And in almost all cases, the first step is to include the other person in the conversation. I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings and there’s this belief that there’s a magic bullet. There simply isn’t.
How can leaders earn the trust of employees?
I’m talking about trying to bridge the gap between how confident we should be and who we really are. And we do this through better self-awareness, more transparency, and better communication with others. And as we become more aware of trust, we can actually become more trustworthy.
When I work with leaders, I ask them, you know, who do you trust? And I get that kind of close personal relationship. So, best friends, spouse, brother, sister, parents, that sort of thing. And the reality is that we trust people all the time. It is the social lubricant that allows society to function. When I turn the question around and say, Who trusts you? I get these long pauses, and then people say, “How would they know?” For me, it comes down to the definition. So I believe trust is the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable or we don’t fully know what the other party is going to do. And so there are elements of uncertainty and vulnerability in there.
How do you know if your employees trust you?
If they give me clear and honest feedback. Are they taking risks? Are they, you know, we’re talking technology — are they ready to make mistakes and fail? Because that’s what it takes to innovate. Do they tell me what their true development means or what challenges? Or are they really giving me bad news or am I the last to know?
If your employees push themselves to the limit of their abilities, they should make mistakes. If they’re playing it safe, if they’re extremely cautious, that means trust levels are low.
In what concrete ways can managers or leaders model vulnerability?
They can be open and honest with their subordinates about what success looks like to them, what is at stake for them, what their goals and objectives are. Acknowledge that they have made mistakes and give examples of them.
If we’re talking about a virtual team, a leader being able to say to his subordinates, “Listen, this is how I’m evaluated, so I need to know what’s going on for you. I must also be able to intervene, in a timely manner, if things are not going well. I know people are less likely to seek help in virtual environments than in co-located physical environments, so let’s talk about how you can let me know when you need help in a timely manner.
The pandemic has revealed a mental health crisis and many employees are struggling at work. How can employers build trust so employees can share what’s really going on?
When leaders think about trusting their subordinates, the variables that concern them the most are their capacity for competence. But when subordinates think about trusting a leaf, or the thing that carries the most weight, they ask: does my boss have my best interest at heart? Do they have my back? And that seems to be the piece we’ve lost the most.
I wonder how it works with freelancers – so many companies now hire contractors. Is it even more difficult in these cases?
I’ve worked with a few tech companies. Often, they hire extremely tech-savvy people, and the overlap isn’t always deep between those skills and interpersonal skills. So I find environments like the one you describe incredibly difficult, because the context is set for you to be treated like a mercenary. Where people aren’t engaged with you or disregard your needs or feelings because they see you as replaceable. They haven’t invested in the relationship the same way you have.
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Part of the challenge is to show kindness as this will trigger a reciprocal response.
What can managers say to strengthen relationships with all types of employees?
The fastest way to build trust is to show yourself a little vulnerability and be kind.
Often, this benevolence can take the form of a conversation. We give scripts to people. So you and I talk, and I say, “You know, I try to be more intentional in the relationships that I build, and I’ve been told that kindness is really important for that.” But building stronger relationships means I have someone else’s interests at heart, which makes sense to me, but sometimes I feel like I’m not landing. Have you ever experienced this?
And so now I’m engaging you in this conversation, and you’re starting to think about it. And then I say, “Well, what would that look like? You know, have you ever had someone really outside your back? And what did they do and how does it feel? Now I have a clearer picture of the roadmap of what kindness looks like to you and what you’ve experienced.
Then I can narrow the funnel even further and say “What does success look like to you and how can I help you?” And now we’ve actually created a concrete set of possible actions that we can take where I can demonstrate that people.
So many leaders simply think that if they make a mistake, they’re lost. They have to micromanage your bullshit, and they’re paranoid. They don’t create an environment where they can say, “You know what? I want to support your growth and development. It means you’re going to make mistakes or I’m going to help you push the limits of your abilities and grow and develop as a writer, as a person. This means that I will put you in situations where you may not be comfortable and where things can go wrong, and you will be fine.