Why trust is key to leading in challenging times

HR practitioners must help leaders to give their teams autonomy, create cultures of appreciation and ask searching questions, says Claire Gearon

Battle-weary leaders may be wondering how they’re going to keep employees engaged and productive following the government’s latest ‘work from home’ pronouncement. The opportunities to engage with teams face to face, even if only occasionally, have once again been snatched away for many, and it is clear most managers will be working at a distance from their staff for at least the next six months.

In the midst of coronavirus chaos, employees need a strong steer from their leaders – and the one thing they need to be sure about is that they can trust them to be transparent, to tell the truth and to treat them fairly. Without this trust, employees can quickly become mentally paralysed by the uncertainty and ambiguity in their working lives. They feel vulnerable, lose motivation and confidence in their abilities and are unable to perform at their best. The last thing they need in these tough times is leaders who are reactive, unpredictable, inconsistent or who renege on their promises.

Research suggests that lack of trust is a real issue in our current, fractured workplaces. A recent survey by employment law specialists Slater and Gordon revealed a high degree of suspicion among key workers that their employers would act fairly and ethically, while almost half had blown the whistle on their organisation for engaging in dangerous workplace practices during the pandemic.

Part of the problem is that many leaders simply don’t know how to build the high-trust environments needed in these challenging times. Many are facing possibly the biggest leadership challenge of their careers and are feeling desperately adrift.

HR needs to explore what it can do to make trust the golden thread that runs throughout the organisation’s leadership and people processes. Practitioners need to think about how they can best help leaders develop trusting environments in their individual teams, sometimes building from the ground up, if they are working in an area where trust has previously been eroded.

Giving people autonomy, for example, is a great start. It’s an important psychological factor in engagement as it allows employees a degree of personal control over the way they manage their work and are empowered to make decisions. It sends a powerful message that they are trusted by those who lead them – making it more likely they will give their trust in return.  

Creating a culture of appreciation is also key. Performance management processes typically focus on hauling people up for what they are doing badly. Leaders instead need to catch people doing something good and reward them for it, so they are motivated and energised to deliver even better results next time. Giving employees opportunities to experiment and take risks – and helping them learn from what goes wrong as well as from what goes right – is an important part of building trust and has the potential to create a powerful bond between managers and their people.

Of course both of these approaches rely on leaders having the skills to give (and receive) feedback effectively and the ability to have confident, constructive conversations with their people. It’s about being honest with employees, tackling difficult issues head on and nipping conflict in the bud so that misunderstandings are not perpetuated and grudges are not allowed to rumble under the surface.

There is often a fine balance between having an open, trusting culture and being taken advantage of. Indeed, this is something that often holds leaders back from giving their people autonomy and shifting from a controlling to an enabling approach.

Managers need the confidence to reinforce that part of their role is to challenge and ask searching questions – but to stress that this comes from a place of genuine curiosity and enquiry, rather than from a place of doubt. Having supporting processes that make it easy to see when people are performing well ensures that managers don’t have to undermine trust by continually asking for ‘proof’ or justification of what has been done.

Building trust is essential if leaders are to help people deal with crippling uncertainty and create the fair and just cultures necessary for high performance. Those who invest time in this will be in the best position not just to maintain business as usual, but to emerge from the pandemic in good shape.

Claire Gearon is MD and head of programmes at the TCM Group