Does it matter whether we trust our managers?

Trust and other words

“Too many people,” says Ann Francke, Chief Executive of the CMI, “don’t trust managers.”1 As the CMI’s own paper2 demonstrated in 2013, 80% of employees don’t think their manager sets a good example. But aside from lowering their personal standing with their staff, does whether you can trust your manager really matter?

What damages trust?

It can seem like a rather woolly, know-it-when-you-see-it sort of term, trust. There’s a subjectivity that can make it difficult to pin down. So how can we define what trust in the workplace is?

The documents referenced in this article – and examples from across this site – identify some of the actions (or inactions) that damage trust. They fall into three loose categories: the physical things managers do, the non-physical things they do, and the things they don’t do.

Physical things could include helping themselves to stock or the contents of the stores cupboard, or making use of business cars for personal use. Non-physical things include taking credit for ideas or successes that weren’t theirs or, as demonstrated in Teresa’s story, having a too casual approach to employee responsibilities.

The things managers don’t do appears to be the most wide-ranging category of all. It encompasses failing to declare corporate gifts, allowing somebody else to carry the can for their own mistakes, not including individuals or teams in decision making, failing to manage time or clearly define tasks, and not being fair.

This thing called trust

A 2013 CIPD survey found a number of common elements in trusted managers3. They were approachable, consistent and competent. They acted with integrity, admitted to mistakes, treated staff fairly and asked for opinions.

The Human Capital Institute (HCI) defines trust in the workplace as: “the willingness to put oneself at risk based on another individual’s actions.” It finds that trust is based on past behaviour, a confidence in shared goals and expectations based on a person’s role.4

The HCI’s research also shows that trust is a decision, not – as it may be tempting to think – a trait. Trust is not a ‘you’ve either got it or you haven’t’ set of behaviours or a moral code. It is a decision to act a certain way, to treat risk a certain way, to approach challenges a certain way: with integrity.

Trust in the workplace – the evidence

In 2013, the CIPD explored the reality of trust in the UK workplace3. It found that the trust gap widens with seniority. The further you are (in a promotion/pay grade sense) from your most senior leaders the less likely you are to trust them. Conversely, trust between staff and their immediate line managers was high (80%).

As for the perceived importance of trust, employees ranked it as the third most important management attribute (behind competence and communication).

Are all managers the same?

Research by the CMI1 shows that, as a group, managers lack empathy compared to the general population. They are more likely to follow rules and are less caring in their decision making.

Yet within that group there are differences. Older managers are far more likely to break the rules. Women are more likely to be caring managers than men (by 5%) and religious managers are 8% more likely to make ethical decisions (the specific religion doesn’t matter).

If trust is a decision, it seems it is one that must be made by a group of people who are generally less well-disposed to making it than the average member of the population. And yet, increasingly4, managers are choosing the ethical route more often – and it’s showing in the results.

Does trust matter?

The HCI research showed a clear link between trust and performance. Employees in high performing organisations (ie with net profit growth above 5%) have more than double the level of trust in management and their organisation compared with low performing organisations (ie with net profit growth below 5%).

Employees in high performing organisations spoke of collaboration with leadership and respect running horizontally and vertically through the organisation. The leaders within high performing organisations ‘walk the talk’, engendering trust that directly affects employee engagement levels.

As engagement levels increase so does employee retention. Engaged employees are 87% less likely to leave the organisation than the disengaged5. Engaged organisations outperform disengaged ones in terms of profit (+200%), revenue growth (+250%) and customer satisfaction +12%.

A team can be engaged without trust, but with trust that engagement is likely to be deeper and easier to sustain. Why does trust have this effect? Because it is linked to the capacity of a team to solve problems, learn new skills and improve service (so called ‘team potency’)6. And the team that can do all of that becomes a better performing team.

More than ethics

Do trust and ethics matter? “Simply put,” says the CMI’s Ann Francke, “they must. Ethical standards are at the heart of every profession and management is no different. Without the trust of their customers or employees, organisations quickly flounder.”

The research shows that those “ethical standards… at the heart of every profession” are there not purely because they should be – because doing the right thing is some kind of manager’s moral imperative. They are there because they make a fundamental difference to team performance and engagement.

Trust is about more than ethics. It’s the difference that can drive organisational success.

If you have experienced loss of trust in your manager or your leadership team once too often, maybe you’d like to discuss your options and appropriate next steps. I am passionate about discovering what’s just right for you. And it could be just around the corner, if you’re ready!

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  1. Managers and their Moral DNA, Chartered Management Institute, 2014
  2. Managers and the Moral Maze, Chartered Management Institute, 2013
  3. Employee Outlook – Focus on Trust in Leaders, CIPD 2013
  4. Building Trust 2013: Workforce Trends Defining High Performance, Interactive Associates and HCI, 2013
  5. Corporate Leadership Council, Corporate Executive Board, 2004
  6. Arménio Rego et al, Are authentic leaders associated with more virtuous, committed and potent teams? Elsevier Leadership Quarterly 24 2013
  7. Rodd Wagner and James K. Harter, 12: The Elements of Great Managing, Gallup Press, December 2006