The Importance of Trust – A Generational Issue?

March 19th, 2012

Trust in Senior Managers is Low

A number of studies suggest that the level of employee trust in senior management remains worrying low and is getting worse. An Institute of Leadership and Management survey showed that trust in the chief executive had plummeted to 51 on a scale of one to 100, comparing with an average score of 63.

Some commentators suggest that this is linked to the current economic climate. My own view is that this is all  too easy an excuse; however difficult the circumstances trust can be maintained if employers and managers work hard enough. If achieved it makes delivering hard or difficult news easier on both parties. As the saying goes “trust is hard-won and easily lost”.

This loss of trust is likely to have a significant impact on engagement and employment relations; therefore impacting on business performance. Post recession it is also likely to lead to a loss of talent.

A disgruntled employee can also do a lot of damage to a company’s reputation. Greg Smith’s very public resignation would have got attention in any event but social media enables statements of discontent to go global at high-speed. Whether  Greg Smith had  been passed over for promotion or not or whether his resignation is an accurate exposition of the culture endemic within Goldman Sachs,  this can hardly have been good for business.

But what do employees really expect from employers and does this vary from generation to generation?

Generational Differences?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that workers expectations are changing and that employers need to institute new talent management approaches that reflect the reality of today’s employment relationships.

Gone are the days of  employees working hard and demonstrating loyalty to their employer and then being rewarded with a job for life, steady career or a comfortable retirement. This began to be eroded in the 1970’s and has  continued with lay-offs, redundancies, reduced benefits and loss of pension benefits.

Despite this many talent management or performance management practices are still based on tying in employees to long-term service benefits, training for younger employees and promotions linked to service. Also, well-intentioned managers often feel compelled to try to convince employees that jobs are safe when this is clearly not the case.  How often have you seen angry union bosses wringing their hands and bemoaning that they were the last to know that the company was in real difficultly and that closure or job cuts were on the agenda.

Even worse while companies can no longer promise long-term protection and care, they still expect unwavering loyalty and commitment. The practice of immediately dismissing an employee who dares to accept a new job  or even think about it (one recent example where an employee put a cv on LinkedIn) is still very common in many sectors. Employers will of course argue that confidential information needs to be protected in such situations but I think that this  is often overstated and displays an unwarranted lack of trust in individuals.

The mismatch between the reality of life as we now know it and management practices and leadership communication create distrust. Trust is destroyed when something is promised which is not or can not be delivered.

A number of other studies suggest that this erosion of trust is highest among the younger generations. One study undertaken among 1,002 office workers aged 16 to 24 found that just under one in three did not trust either ‘most’ or any’ of the information their employer gave them about business performance, which suggests that Generation Y is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the workplace.

What can employers do to restore trust?

  • The key is to establish a new, more honest and realistic relationship where employers “tell it how it is”.
  • Senior managers should increase their visibility and communicate effectively and consistently with staff. Also communicate in ways and using medium that make sense to Gen X and Y employees rather than stick with more traditional mechanisms; these employees will want a voice and will want to contribute to the debate.
  • Set clear measures of success and results required but leave the choice of when and how to work to the individuals.  Too often employees are pushed into delivering in the traditional ways of working which do not suit their personalities or make best use of their creativity.  For Gen X or Y employees this is particularly inappropriate and does not fit with their expectations. Gen X and Y do not pretend to be loyal and do not expect or even want long-term employment, what they want is something that gets them engaged and excited; loyalty for them is temporary.
  • Link rewards to the individual rather than to length of service. It is suggested that  Gen X and Y  have an aggressive attitude to performance issues and are less tolerant than other generations in this respect.
  • Accept that the dividing line between work and home life are becoming increasingly blurred for those generations that are constantly connected.

It is worrying that the levels of trust between employer and employees seem to be continuing to decline. What is very clear is that employers have got a lot to do to restore trust with employees and that they have an even harder mountain to climb with Gen X and Y employees. Those that do make the effort will reap the benefits.

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2 Responses

  1. Helen Richards says:

    Excellent blog Alison! Communication is so vital! Transparency and open communication are so important for staff to feel valued as part of an organisation.
    Companies need to realise that you if establish a culture of genuine, regular positive communication to staff, if and when, more difficult messages need to be communicated, you will have the systems/ mechanisms and structures to deliver those messages with efficiency and trust.

    • Hi Helen, thanks for your comment. I agree that trust is important in all sorts of contexts and that it underpins an effective employer and employee relationship with all that that brings with it. Unfortunately, it seems that many employers and managers fail to see the value of investing the time and effort to develop and maintain trust.

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The report was very professional, it dealt with all the issues raised and was particularly thorough. It clearly took the time to fully understand all of the issues and background. It was complex but the report really helped to break it down and I’m hoping we can progress in a positive manner following the recommendations.

Group HR Manager, Energy Sector |

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