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Why trust breaks down and how to rebuild it

There’s been a lot written lately about a trendy brewing company and the way it has treated its employees, about its culture and leadership style. It’s depressing to read and damaging to their past and current employees. The brand is left looking hollow and it’s leaders cynical – organisational values and leadership style horribly misaligned.

In the past, without social media, these issues would have been unlikely to make the news. If the brewers now want to rebuild the relationship with their employees, they will need to rebuild trust.

How and why does trust break down in organisations?

I have worked with organisations where trust has broken down gradually, leaving a culture of apathy and disengagement. Employees have raised issues but they were ignored and left unresolved. Some employees become resigned to this situation and productivity, collaboration, creativity and innovation plummet. Other employees leave. It becomes harder to attract new employees. The brand gets trashed on social media.

Trust can break down on a grander scale and manifest itself as a strike or a dispute. On the face of it, the dispute may have a clear trigger but when you start talking to employees, union representatives and managers, the trigger was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, “the occasion and not the cause” and the problems lie a lot deeper. It’s about leadership style, a lack of real engagement and a feeling that decisions are made without listening to employees.

Sometimes trust breaks down due to individual managers who mishandle situations between their team members, failing to observe team morale, behaviour or body language, leaving issues to fester and grow. Its not uncommon for an issue between two individuals to become formal grievances, then collective grievances and counter grievances and before you know it, relationships across entire teams have broken down.

In unionised environments, managers and union representatives may find it difficult to trust each other due to events of the past, where one party was left with egg on their face as an agreement failed to materialise or words didn’t follow through into actions. These incidents can remain in the collective memory for decades, especially in organisations with long serving employees. The desire to win, especially if one party perceives they “lost” last time around, leads to competition, blame and mistrust. You have very little hope of making agreements in this type of culture.

There are some practical steps that organisations can undertake to build and rebuild trust.

· There will be a phase of lots of listening to employees through surveys, interviews and focus groups, but leaders need to also look at themselves and ask whether the organisational values and leadership style are truly aligned.

· Evaluate your leadership skills and ensure leaders are visible, curious, collaborative, who genuinely listen to and act upon employee views.

· Support and coach managers to lead based on trust not micro-management or enforcement. Ask yourselves what traits and behaviours will develop a culture of trust and have a plan to develop these in your managers, including skills in conflict resolution.

· Consider different ways of enabling employees to regularly express their views – this may be through a formal structure or it may be more ad hoc through working groups, project teams or team meetings. Ensure the line manager is at the heart of this approach.

· Trust your employees to contribute ideas, be innovative and to solve problems. I don’t mean through “suggestion schemes” but giving employees a say in how they actually do their jobs. Again, ensure the line manager plays a central role.

· If you have a consultative forum, train your managers and representatives well. Managers need to share information, some of which is sensitive and they need to trust reps to keep it confidential. Managers need to listen to representatives’ views and explain their decisions. Expect both parties to display appropriate meeting behaviours and treat each other with respect.

· Use joint problem-solving groups of employees, union representatives and managers to resolve ongoing or pressing issues, which will increase cooperation and trust.

· Review your employee forums regularly to ensure they are achieving their objectives, address the right issues and that they are a trusted mechanism for employee voice.

Sometimes, it can take many years to regain trust. Once you’ve put the work in, keep working at it and don’t blow it again as next time it will take even longer.



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