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A commitment to trust: consultant recounts a storied history of the evolution of workplace trust research.

Not long ago, a colleague sent me a two-sentence e-mail with this quote--"'Organizational trust is important because it is linked to the level of employee performance'--Gilbert & Tang, 1998; Heffes, 1999"--and a note saying, "Dick, they are on to you ... "

The message brought to mind a moment 25 years ago, in March 1982, when my boss, a General Motors vice president, finally gave me the go-ahead to begin employee trust research. By then, I already had been at GM for 26 years as an HR director in three 3,500-employee plants. I had served as a corporate public relations staff regional manager in New York and Ohio. In Chevrolet's 100,000-employee division, I had been director of employee relations and internal communication. Then, in 1982, I was appointed general director of external and employee communication for a different 100,000-employee division, with plants in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. All those years, and through all of those varied responsibilities, I never abandoned my belief in the value of trust at work.

In 1980, I experienced two confidence-building interventions. The first involved renowned social scientist Rensis Likert, Ph.D. Ten years earlier, he had completed a consulting engagement with two GM assembly plants in a large U.S. metropolitan area. He found that one plant manager had developed positive relationships with his workforce, including the union leadership. Likert arranged to have him moved across town to manage the sister plant where employees openly said that they had "no use for GM management." Based on my passion for workplace trust, GM sent me to meet Likert. He encouraged my trust research, but warned me that GM executives would never be receptive to having their employees taken off the job to define it.

A second fortunate event occurred while I was still at Chevrolet headquarters. William Ouchi, Ph.D., co-chair of the management program at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been engaged by our chief manufacturing executive to consult with the executive and his 20 plant managers. Ouchi's book Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge (Addison-Wesley, 1981) begins, "The secret to successful manufacturing is trust." His consultant role was to convince the chief and all of his executives that employee trust had real bottom-line value.

Plant managers who had permitted me and my colleague Peg Holmes, ABC, to interview several of their employees in 1978 decided to share that employee data with the group at Chevrolet. Ouchi was sufficiently impressed to request that I be invited to attend all the remaining sessions, much to the chagrin of the chief. In side conversations with Ouchi, he asked me why I was not using more Chevrolet plants as research laboratories. On learning that my boss was opposed to it, he advised me to transfer elsewhere in GM to do much-needed trust research. So I decided to move on.

In 1982, I finally found a boss who would let me ask some actual trust experts--the thousands of salaried and hourly-wage employees who made up our headquarters group--how they felt about it. My vice president reasoned that my experience was extremely unusual: I'd already done substantial employee interviewing in Chevrolet plants and negotiated with unions while in HR. He decided that I would be the GM pioneer in this research, along with my HR colleague of 20 years.

My colleague was Howard C. Carlson, Ph.D., arguably the best U.S. organizational development executive and consultant, whose career internal clients were the very top executives of GM. He provided credence and helpers. Some of his GM cohorts volunteered to assist with the factor analysis on their own time. But there was nothing in that analysis about trust at work. I wanted specific, personal definitions from employees. He recommended adding critical incidents. Because of the complete support of our vice president, the one-hour sessions were offered to all headquarters volunteers. Earlier, I arranged for staffers to ask 200 salaried and hourly-rate building employees, "How much more open and honest would you be if there was absolutely no way for your responses to be identified?" Because 87 percent said they would be twice as open, my decision was predictable: zero demographics. The factor analysis group initially presented 100 potential key factors that influenced trust. Carlson sent them back to the group to combine elements and come up with five key trust factors. I realized then that any ensuing efforts of mine to develop a meaningful workplace trust process would be based on the largest amount of significant employee data.

What have we learned about the most important trust-at-work factors from initial GM, and later client employee, research efforts?

According to those participants in 1982, and nearly 31,000 respondents thereafter, by far the most important trust factor for employees is openness. Their consensus definition continues to be, "In my place of work, it is acceptable for me to question, suggest or even complain sometimes with no fear of retribution."

Next in importance to those 1982 employees, and to the majority of my clients since then, is consistency, at 91 percent. There continue to be dual meanings for consistency: "Doing as you say, or explaining the changed circumstances," and "Treating all employees as equally as possible."

From the outset, I was able to obtain and work with employee mind-set data of high quality and great value about trust at work. It was essential for me to have it in hand (a) to present to busy, skeptical senior executives, and (b) to bolster my from-scratch, now-validated trust-building process. My survey participant populations always included employees paid an hourly rate, both union and nonunion; nonsupervisory employees; supervisors; general supervisors; and directors. Normally, in much larger client companies, the senior leadership also includes vice presidents and higher-level executives--my intended "users" of their employee data.

Adding new trust factors

In the first few years after my retirement from GM, it was just as frustrating as my career experiences had been to try to find a CEO in any size client organization who was likely to permit my in-house trust investigation. By 2001, I found that the younger ones were still very skeptical, but running out of excuses to avoid considering their own employee trust feedback (own is a key word).

My experience in working with these trust research outcomes for 25 years enabled me to answer my own key question: "So what?" One response involved my generating a process to address employee trust needs. It had to make CEOs understand my one-on-one personal training for them. They had to be pinned down by the ire of their own people. Most stalled at the minimum level of participation, asking for an executive report sort of model.

I selected a hierarchical triangle similar to the one developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, Ph.D., to describe the relationship of human psychological and physiological needs. I asked a friend who had penned the forward to Maslow's final book to approve substitution of my word choices into his model. With that approval, I completed the design of my Workplace Trust Model. It takes away executive crutches like "I don't know exactly what to work on" and identifies clearly which of the researched key factors must be in place before employees will trust management. That is an exceptional attention-getter.

By 1987, the knowledge accumulated from my trust factors experience and process design experiments had created proven, respected value for what I champion: my Personal Communication Plans process. Only after CEOs accepted their own employee trust research realities would they book time with me for development of such a plan. That training helped them realize that their employees' personal work commitment levels could be increased by positive changes in their own behavior.

Any CEO who controls his or her schedule can book a day for development of a personal plan. Such a plan had to include:

* Gloves-off introspection about the quality of existing connections with employees.

* New knowledge of Workplace Trust and several other models.

* Self-constructed commitments to build relationships and trust.

* Agreement to measure results of what we together concluded must be actionable.

* Full utilization of "owned" trust research realities.

When the CEO's direct reports get involved, as well, measurement of their plans must be combined with accountability based on a demonstrated degree of success in implementing their commitments. Senior executive trust-building plans without agreed metrics are not realistic.

When I was still working in HR, it became clear to me that culture change has to start at the top of organizations. That also is true when using employee trust research to teach leaders. My professional niche involves executives at an organization's apex, the authors of norms and values. I made an exception one time for a corporate chairman and began training with his middle managers. After the first day, I was asked, "Have the big guys done this already?" When training is so important for managers but not the senior leadership, more than frustration can follow. Recall that consistency--one of the key trust factors--demands that you do as you say.

If a CEO and his or her direct reports downplay the links between employee trust and employee commitment, it is even harder for them to confront the reality that trust research sets up expectations for adjustments in management behavior. When senior leaders simply hand off trust development to middle managers, it comes across as "just another program," and everyone knows it. Many more CEOs today recognize that they must lead the way in taking on the employee trust issue. Many still blow off potential help with "If my employees did not trust me, I would know." Workplace trust denial by those geniuses pushed me through workplace reality hoops at times. But, remembering Ouchi's counsel, I just moved on.

I believe that he, Likert and my 1982 vice president would be pleased with my progress in the last quarter century, understanding and developing a validated trust-building process. The underlying value for me is that all of it is based on what trust at work means to the real experts--employees.

fostering trust

In "The Communication of Trust," which appears in The IABC Handbook of Organizational Communication (Gillis, 2006), Pamela Shockley-Zalabak and Kathleen Ellis outline tasks for organizational leaders and communication professionals to help build organizational trust.

The role of leadership is to:

* Monitor trust levels.

* Develop an understanding of trust in particular contexts.

* Examine organizational decisions and practices using the trust model.

* Structure the organization for trust building.

The role of communication professionals is to:

* Monitor trust.

* Review policies and practices.

* Develop training and awareness.

* Plan organizational communication.

More information on organizational trust and The IABC Handbook of Organizational Communication is available at

the value of trust: recent studies

Effective employee communication can spell the difference between retaining employees and losing them, according to a new joint study by Insidedge, an employee communications consultancy, and PR agency GolinHarris.

The survey of nearly 2,300 white- and blue-collar workers in the U.S. and the U.K. found that between 75 percent and 80 percent said the way their employers communicate with them influences their desire to stay put or look for a job elsewhere. More than 30 percent said communication is a "big influence" on their decision to stay or go. An overwhelming majority of both U.S. (89 percent) and U.K. (91 percent) employees said that their employers' communication with them is key to earning their trust.

The 2005 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found that trust has important bottom-line consequences. In most markets, more than 80 percent of respondents to the Edelman survey said they would refuse to buy goods or services from a company they did not trust, and more than 70 percent will "criticize them to people they know," with one-third sharing their opinions and experiences of a distrusted company on the Web.--R.E.W.

Rebuilding organizational trust

Broken trust can be controlled, tamed and banished. How it's done ultimately depends on the circumstances in which the trust was lost, but in most cases the principles of the REPAIR model apply....

Recognize the intensity of the loss of trust: its depth, its breadth. What devastates one department may not show up on the radar screen of another....

Examine where the breach occurred, and where the damage was done. Did it damage personal trust (credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-interest); and did it affect organizational trust (aspirations, abilities, actions, articulation, alignment and resistance)? ...

Place it out there--fast! Ignoring it or pretending it's no big deal will not make it go away. Don't worry about presenting an action plan yet; that comes later. Just acknowledge the loss and your awareness of it so people know it's on your radar screen.

Acknowledge its impact on the individual, the group and/or the organization at large. In addition to mentioning the problem in meaningful conversations, you can allow employees to vent in town meetings, schedule one-on-ones and, if you're part of a large company, monitor external company message boards on sites such as Yahoo! and Keep an open mind and stifle any temptation to defend yourself, as it may backfire....

Identify as precisely as possible what you'll be doing in an attempt to rebuild trust. Now you're ready to develop a plan....

Raise the bar of performance: Over-deliver on your attempt to rebuild. People in situations of mistrust can be jaded or suspicious that what you're doing is not enough. Do more, longer to break down the animosity or disappointment that has accumulated....

Reflect carefully on whether progress is being made, and what else needs to be done. Rarely does everything go perfectly on the road to rebuilding trust. What you learn from this experience will help you when it happens again, which, inevitably, it will.

Repeat the process for a good long time. Keep at it, even if it feels as though it's been going on for too long. Your ongoing commitment to resolving the situation will clearly demonstrate that you are a trusted leader....

the organizational trust equation


Aspirations: Identify what keeps people working and focus your organization's aspirations by looking up and out at the same time that you're meeting Monday-morning demands.

Abilities: Make sure your organization has the resources to execute its stated aspirations, and that your company is empowering employees to put life into their vision.

Actions: Don't let distractions, crises or crusades slow down your organization's productive momentum.

Alignment: Be consistent in your aspirations, and consistent between your aspirations and your abilities, your aspirations and your actions, your abilities and your actions.

Articulation: Communicate with your peers, your reports, your company at large, as if you have an orchestra and you can use every instrument in turn, or in groups, or en masse, whatever your choice.


Resistance: Identify in your company and overcome the four sources of resistance: fear, skepticism, frustration and embedded we/they mind-sets.

Reprinted with permission from The Trusted Leader by Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau (The Free Press, 2002).

about the author

Richard E. Wilmot, APR, is a Fellow of both IABC and PRSA. He is a pioneer in workplace trust counseling and president of People Strategies, a consulting firm based in Westlake, Ohio.
COPYRIGHT 2007 International Association of Business Communicators
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Author:Wilmot, Richard E.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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