Building a High-Trust Work Environment

Building trusting relationships is one of the most important elements of being an effective leader. The good news is that turning around a low-trust environment isn’t rocket science. It starts with performance evaluation. If you are evaluating your people’s performance with a judgmental mindset, I guarantee you are eroding trust.

But if you partner with your people to set clear goals, and then provide day-to-day coaching to help them reach those goals, you’ll build high levels of trust—and that leads to higher morale, increased productivity, and improved engagement. And, as a leader, the constant communication you have with team members makes the performance evaluation part of your role much easier.

Remember, placing an emphasis on judging performance instead of coaching performance will create a low-trust environment. Setting clear goals and working side by side with your people to help them do their best will not only build trust and create effective teams, but also form the kind of working environment where people flourish.

Do Your People Trust You?

Trust has taken a hit lately in all facets of our lives, but especially in organizations. A dwindling level of trust between workers and leaders is one of the unfortunate consequences of financial mismanagement and economic meltdown within the working sector.

So, how can you tell whether or not your people trust you? Watch what they focus on. Do they pay more attention to their work—or to you? If they seem to be focusing more on what you are doing than on their own tasks, chances are they don’t entirely trust that you are there to help them succeed.

Make it clear to your staff that you are there to help and encourage them, not to judge them or nitpick their efforts. When you help people understand that as their leader, you work for them and will do whatever it takes to support and encourage them, they will be more empowered, innovative, and productive. And that’s a win-win for everyone!

Walk Your Talk

A few weeks ago, my blog focused on leading by values and the importance of communicating your organizational values clearly and constantly. Another critical element for leaders to practice is what I call walking your talk. Leaders must make every effort to become living symbols of their organization’s value system. Walking your talk means that your company values act as a set of guidelines for decision making, problem solving, and general day-to-day business operations.

For this process to work, you need a method of identifying gaps between values and behaviors. One way is to describe what the current situation is and what you want the desired situation to be, and to document action steps for making the change. Let me share an example from our own company.

We used to have a conflict at the end of each month among our sales, accounting, and shipping departments. One day, we brought representatives from each department together to discuss the issue in a fact-finding meeting. What we learned was very interesting.

The cause of the problem was a compensation policy stating that a sale couldn’t be credited to a sales person’s goal until the product had been shipped and billed. Since every sales person received bonuses based on monthly performance, they wanted every order fulfilled by the last day of the month—even the last-minute orders. This put extreme pressure on the shipping and accounting departments. In fact, in some cases people in those departments were working twelve-hour days at month end.

When everybody put the issues and their personal perspectives on the table and began to work on solutions, it actually became quite easy to eliminate the pressure caused by this policy. The group worked together to develop a new solution for dealing with the end-of-the-month workload crunch. And our corporate values provided the framework for the team to work together when solving the issue.

It would have been easy to continue to recognize the revenue at the expense of the people. However, Relationships was a corporate value—and making some people work twelve-hour days wasn’t honoring that value. Our leaders and teams walked their talk and restructured the process to honor both regular working hours and sales goals. The solution recognized the importance of both people and results.

Ignoring this issue would have put corporate values at risk—but using the values to solve the problem fortified their importance.

Think about situations that need to be improved in your organization. Then use your values to drive conversations and do the right thing. Leading by values is a continuous journey—and it is never too late to start walking your talk.

Don’t Just Sit There, Say Something!

Managers typically react to the performance of their direct reports with one of three responses: positive, negative, or no response at all. It isn’t hard to guess which one works best for increasing good performance—the positive response.

A person who does something correctly and receives a positive response will most likely continue to perform using that desired behavior in the future. By the same token, a person who receives a negative response for doing something wrong will most likely not repeat the behavior. So, in effect, even performance that gets a negative response can improve if the manager coaches the person and encourages them to improve.

The most dangerous response a leader can offer is no response at all. Think about it. If someone performs tasks and completes projects correctly and receives no response from their manager, how do you think they will perform in the future? The good performance might continue for awhile, but eventually it will decline. Why? Because no one seems to care.

What about the person who makes mistakes but is never corrected? It seems logical that if a person is left to fail again and again with no support or direction, their performance will get even worse. It is the leader’s responsibility to help everyone succeed. Ignoring bad behavior hurts not only the individual, but also their manager and the organization as a whole. It’s just bad business.

Even though leaders are busier than ever these days, most still notice when their people are doing great or when they need coaching. The big mistake happens when the manager doesn’t say it out loud. I often say “Good thoughts in your head, not delivered, mean squat!”

If you want your people to achieve and maintain high performance, let them know that you notice and care about the things they do right—and that you want to help them when they are off track. Share your thoughts. No one can read your mind.

Be consistent with your communication and you will build a consistently high performing team.

Leadership is a Partnership

Leadership is not something you do to people. It’s something you do with people. I have believed this statement my entire career—and it might be even more important now than it was 35 years ago. Workforces are more diverse, workplaces are less centralized, and technology continues to revolutionize how business is conducted and how people communicate. The most successful leaders are the ones who partner with their staff.

Partnership starts with clear and frequent communication. Leaders must establish a rhythm or consistent schedule of discussions with team members. I suggest that leaders meet at least once a week, for 30 minutes with each direct report. That might sound like a lot of extra work, but I guarantee if you spend this time you’ll create trusting relationships with your team that will improve morale and productivity in your department.

Use these meetings to work with your team member to set clear goals, to praise progress on tasks, to redirect efforts if necessary, and to celebrate the completion of each project. It is critical that the leader and team member participate equally in these meetings, speak their truths, and listen with the intent of learning something—not judging.

Some of you reading this might be saying, “This isn’t new information.” You’re right it isn’t—but it is such a simple truth of leadership that I want to remind people again and again. You’ve probably heard me say that the information I provide for leaders is just common sense. But I also say that my philosophy isn’t always commonly practiced.

My goal is to have every leader start having these important conversations with their teams. I urge you to partner with each team member to help them be successful. So, I provide this reminder for you to be a leader that makes this common sense, common practice. You’ll soon realize how a small investment of time spent partnering with your people will build a stronger, more self-reliant team.