Last year when we (Legitimate Leadership) called several of our clients to ask whether they would be willing to participate in an investigation we were planning, we didn’t know what to expect. The point of the investigation would be to review the effect of the global pandemic crisis on trust in management. The organisation referenced in this vignette operates in the travel industry – one of the hardest-hit by the crisis. Would they be willing to talk to us about how local lockdowns, bans on international travel and devastating drops in revenues had affected staff morale and manager-employee relations? I wasn’t sure.
As it turns out, they participated willingly in our interviews – and our conversations left me personally optimistic. It wasn’t that the organisation had managed to entirely avoid cost-cutting and reduced working hours. They had done both of these things. At the same time their people had borne increased workloads and had to deal with increasingly emotional, anxious and rude clients – and, of course, had faced unprecedented levels of personal uncertainty and income insecurity.
Yet, despite all these potentially damaging impacts, according to those interviewed, trust within the organisation had actually improved over the four months since the start of the crisis.
Below is not a comprehensive to-do list for management teams wanting to build trust. These are simply some of the highlights in an organisation that got it right in a time of crisis. For many managers the current crisis presents a convenient excuse to put these things off for another day when we have more certainty, more resources, and most critically, more time to spend doing the things that we know will build trust with our people.
The problem is that trust doesn’t stand still. If it isn’t improving little by little, then it’s likely deteriorating little by little. Every day, until it’s too late. So, when is the right time to start building trust with your team? Answer: Right now.
For me, this remains an inspiring case – and potentially helpful to others interested in building trust even as economic challenges endure and externally things continue to get worse before they get better.
So, how did they do it?
Well, while we can’t claim to have covered every possible factor, our investigation did reveal that management was doing four things particularly well:
1. Demonstrating a genuine concern for people’s welfare
People weren’t necessarily protected from drops in income or increases in workload, but managers ensured they were accessible and supportive, and they reached out to make sure people and their families were okay. Managers also realized that this was not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Employees were all battling with different challenges so they decided to have one-on-ones with every employee to find out what challenges each was facing. Different themes became evident – for instance, isolation, lack of a proper work space, finance, mental anxiety, lack of work, too much work, lack of child care. These were then addressed one by one.
2. Communicating honestly
Communication was frequent, regular and consultative. People felt trusted with information. That said, it was easier to “play open cards” when “decisions are made with empathy and fairness”.
3. Ensuring that people knew what is expected of them
Communication regarding expectations was deliberate and clear. What stood out for a number of those interviewed were the frequent opportunities that were created for people to both clarify expectations and provide feedback.
4. Pulling together as a management team
Managers “don’t always see eye-to-eye but … they work together” and “are really leaning on one another”. Group decisions were supported, and the management team was “seen to be on the same page”.