The trust deficit


Employees have too little faith in their managers. Repairing it should be central to your business strategy

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Trust matters. In our working lives as in our personal lives, trust is essential to the smooth functioning of any relationship. Amid the complexity of business in today’s economy, it’s a vital commodity – but one that seems to be scarce for too many organizations.

It demands that business leaders refocus on trust within their organizations. That has to extend beyond their role as individuals, to the wider structures of the organization – and, vitally, to middle managers. This tier plays a pivotal role in the creation, maintenance and extension of trust in any organization, acting as the transmission between senior leaders’ strategic aims and priorities. It makes them a focal point for the creation, or destruction, of trust.

But what if those middle managers themselves don’t trust their leaders?

Unfortunately, the evidence from a new CMI report suggests this is a problem for many organizations. Just one in three (36%) of the 1,456 middle managers we surveyed say they fully trust their senior leaders. This ‘trust gap’ means only 31% of managers are “very confident” in communicating company strategy to their teams.

The knock-on effect among employees is clear: four in five also believe that their staff lack full trust in their chief executive. But the results also link trust to business performance and growth. The overwhelming majority (85%) of both senior leaders and middle managers agree trust is critical to performance: and the report finds that fast-growing organizations are four-and-a-half times more likely to report a high degree of trust between middle and senior management.

Of course, trust is fragile, more easily broken than built. Improving levels can take time and is rarely easy, especially when perpetual change is the norm for most organizations. Succeeding in this environment demands that middle management is more agile, effective and connected than ever before. This could be termed ‘CIVIC’, as in civic engagement, but also meaning Communications, Integrity, Visibility, Interaction and Connections.

Communications demand a commitment to openness and honesty. Middle managers want to know what their leaders are thinking – and they want them to admit mistakes. Leaders have to be candid, and keep communicating their vision of the way ahead, especially in times of economic turbulence.

Integrity and ethical standards are also fundamental to trust. Delivering on promises and living up to the values and standards expected of others is vital.  Visibility pays dividends too. Middle managers clearly feel distanced from senior leaders, and creative thinking is needed about how to reduce that distance.

That visibility has to be partnered with interaction. Declarations that “the door is always open” aren’t enough. Finally, connections means recognizing the critical role of middle managers as connectors. They link those shaping strategic direction to those delivering it, and have a vital role in engaging and motivating teams. They also connect across business areas, between teams, and between the organizations and its external stakeholders.

Of course, building these sorts of behaviours may also take more investment from employers in their middle managers and their capabilities. It’s a part of the business all too often dismissed as a barrier to excellence rather than an enabler: ‘permafrost’ or ‘faceless bureaucrats’, among other pejorative terms. That has to change. Middle managers should form the beating heart of a successful business. The starting point may be refocusing on why trust is scarce, and how it can be repaired.
— Download The Middle Manager Lifeline, published by CMI with Top Banana

Patrick Woodman is head of external affairs at the Chartered Management Institute