A few years ago, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) were involved in a research project that looked at the productivity of knowledge workers. We wanted to understand the things that contributed to the workplace performance of teams, so that we could help ourselves and others to focus on the aspects that science told us were important.
It turned out that all the factors that correlate strongly with team performance are about relationships and that TRUST underpins all the others.
So, what is trust, and why is it so important?
Trust is defined as “a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something”. It’s a word we use all the time and its associated not only with human relationships but to our interactions with products, places, services and brands. Organisations work hard to earn our trust in their products and services – upon which their reputation and repeat business relies.
Within our relationships with family and friends, we build up a picture of who can (and cannot!) be trusted, and what they can be trusted to do. Because there is a lot at stake within these relationships, we may work hard to ensure that trust isn’t broken.
Somehow this approach doesn’t always translate to the workplace – often there isn’t a presumption of trust between colleagues, between manager and team members or between the organisation and the individual.
Hence, we may be going through our work life without the benefit of trusting others or being trusted. When you entered the world of work, did anyone talk to you about trust? About acting in a trustworthy way; about taking responsibility for the trust that exists between you and your colleagues; about addressing breaches of trust rather than accepting them?
If trust is a bedrock of our relationships at work, and it is scientifically proven to contribute to the performance of teams, wouldn’t you think someone would put some energy into it? Perhaps everyone thinks that it’s obvious, or that it’s a binary situation – you either trust someone or you don’t. Certainly, we hear managers say, “I don’t trust my team to work away from the office (flexible working)” – but when pressed they don’t have any real basis for that assertion or if they have, there has been no effort to honestly address the problem that led to the situation.
Often trust is confused with “competence” – i.e. “Fred isn’t competent to work away from the support of his team” (he lacks knowledge or experience) – which isn’t the same as “Fred won’t work in the best interests of the team when he’s away from the office” (he’ll spend his time watching daytime tv).
The big issue here is that if the organisation wants to move to more agile ways of working, as part of their workplace strategy and/or to attract and retain the best talent, then there has to be a presumption of trust and a willingness for people to work apart and trust each other to work in the best interests of the team and the company.
Looking at a different perspective – if you are responsible for workplace management, then you would like the people in your building to trust you to deliver an excellent workplace experience, to allow them to do their best work, every day. Delivering inconsistent levels of service and causing people to face workplace problems every day – things that get in their way and reduce their productivity – will affect their trust in you and potentially in the organisation. People need to know the organisation has their back – just as they need their colleagues and manager to look out for them.
There are many ways to establish trust in the workplace – some more subtle than others. Does your organisation have a trusting culture? Is there a presumption of trust between teams, between teams and service providers, between colleagues? Is trust something that is a value or a part of your business culture? One thing is for certain – change is much harder to execute well when there is a lack of trust. When we undergo change – one thing we really want is someone that we trust to lead us through the change.
As it is so important, we believe that trust must be proactively managed – and not just by managers or service providers, but by everyone. Everyone should take responsibility for the trust that exists between them and their co-workers, supervisors, managers and internal customers.
But what does that actually mean? How does it translate into actions? This is the subject of our next blog, but to give you a taster – think about people at work that you trust and those that you don’t. What are the dividing factors? What has happened between you and each person who is either trusted or not trusted? And what have you done to address those situations? Have you taken responsibility?
For further reading, please see our research on Knowledge Worker Productivity.