Jobs and the Future of Work

What COVID-19 teaches us about the importance of trust at work

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Trusting your employees is vital to support them into the transition of virtual working. Image: Unsplash

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Future of Work

  • Even with a large percentage of the world now working from home, it's vital managers trust their workforce to complete the job at hand.
  • Trying to control a workforce signals they are not trusted, writes professor in management and organizations, David De Cremer.
  • Being vulnerable, by trusting in your employees, can be the start of a positive relationship and improved employee morale.

Although many technological solutions are at our disposal, many business leaders have felt — and still feel — uncomfortable with having their employees work from home. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, employees indeed signal the negative impact that their managers have on their life at home, which has now also become their work place. Complaints abound that managers care more about productivity than the health of their employees; that online meetings are becoming means to monitor and assess work attitude; and that little sympathy is shown about the fact that work and family life has now become an integrated reality with all the corresponding disturbances.

All these complaints have to do with the observation that most managers try to deal with the uncertainty of remote work by controlling and monitoring the employees’ work even more than before. And it is clear that such a controlling strategy backfires! Displaying controlling behavior signals to employees that in reality the default attitude of the company towards their employees is not a positive one. Rather, it is negative as companies clearly fear that their employees will try to slack off from work. In other words, by being controlling, managers send the signal that they do not trust their employees working remotely.

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Trust vs. Control

Although the two are often mistaken for each other, control is not the same as trust. Even more so, relying on control as a way to manage employees actually leaves little room to build trust. Why? In social sciences, the most commonly used definition of trust suggests that it is “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.” What can we learn from this definition for managers to be better equipped in building trust? First, if trust is present then it implies that the interacting parties have positive expectations about each other. One expects that the other party will act in ways that are honest, reliable and not damaging to one’s interests. Second, if such positive expectations are alive and well, then no reason exists to fear being vulnerable to the actions of the other party. Hence, no need should arise for using any control tactics.

What this means is that trust is present and alive when parties are okay with being vulnerable to each other’s actions and thus do not feel that monitoring each other is needed. When managers, however, do resort to actions that signal the need to control the actions of the other, then vulnerability is taken out of the equation and no trust will be experienced. In other words, theory and research are consistent in saying that without vulnerability trust cannot exist.

The controlling behavior that many managers have displayed during the COVID-19 crisis painstakingly makes clear that companies have problems in establishing and communicating trust to their employees. Trust has many benefits for organizations: These include promoting cooperation within and loyalty to the group employees belong to, sharing information, and increasing individual and in turn organizational performance. As these positive consequences are valuable for organizations to weather any crisis, COVID-19 can be considered a reminder for many business leaders that one of their main priorities should always be to build trust. Below, I outline why companies so often fail in taking the building of trust more seriously and how they can do things differently and reap the benefits of trust.

Benefits of working remotely
40% of those asked saw having a flexible schedule as being the biggest benefit to working remotely. Image: State of Remote Report

1. Companies do not invest in building trust.

Although most leaders will agree with the idea that lack of trust is one of the biggest threats to business, most companies do not consider building trust as a strategy that warrants significant investments. An important reason for this lack of investment is that trust is considered something soft and hard to measure. As we know in business, what you cannot measure is often not granted much importance. And, if it is not considered important, it does not need to be managed. One result of such a mindset is that companies are reluctant to invest in training their managers to establish trustworthy work climates. Because it’s so difficult to measure, most bosses do not regard trust as a necessary skill as it clearly does not directly influence productivity and hence company performance. If trust were to have any direct effect, it would be much easier to measure and see trust in action. And, they are right.

At the same time, though, they are also wrong. Trust is important to the functioning of organizations because of its indirect effects. That is, when trust is in place people will act in certain ways and it is those behaviors that will eventually lead to outcomes that drive performance. For example, when a trustworthy work climate exists, information is communicated more openly, people are more willing to help one another and willing to test ideas even if these may ultimately fail. Such behavior, over time, leads to outcomes that make companies more creative, innovative, cooperative, and fast moving, which are all factors that drive performance in direct ways.

2. Building trust is not compliance but a full-time leadership job.

Research shows that establishing trusting work relationships indeed makes companies perform better over time and even outperform companies that do not have a strong trust culture. But once a company has decided to invest in building trust, what should they invest in? Most companies decide to invest in compliance. Compliance, however, is often confused with trust. The more compliance measures are in place, the more transparency we create and isn’t this what trust is about? Well, not exactly, because most compliance practices, due to their monitoring nature, are implemented to reduce risks. And with reducing risk, people cannot signal that they are willing to be vulnerable to each other. As a result, when risk is removed, so is trust.

Research shows that establishing trusting work relationships makes companies perform better over time and even outperform companies that do not have a strong trust culture.

The investment that should be made is in training managers to become better leaders in dealing with employees. It is in how an organization treats its employees that trust is built or destroyed. Research shows that when the top management gives trust to its managers, its managers will consider this the way to act and will treat their employees in similar trusting ways. As a result, the normative behavior in place will become giving trust to each other. The activity of building trust is therefore an important leadership responsibility and one that should be exercised continuously. If accepting vulnerability and thus giving trust to others is observed as the default behavior, then it will become the norm to follow and foster all the positive effects of trust.

What these insights teach us is that in today’s COVID-19 crisis, we need managers to deal differently with employees who are working remotely. If there is a time that your company needs all the positive effects of trust to be at work, it is now. In times of crisis, companies are put in survival mode, which is facilitated when people stick together, help out where possible and explore in creative ways how to create value for all stakeholders. So, instead of worrying what will happen if your employees do not work and consequently start monitoring more intensively, managers should change their default attitude. Instead, the default should be that you expect employees to be at work, because once they notice that you are willing to be vulnerable by trusting them — rather than deciding to check up on them every hour of the day — trust and all its benefits will be alive in your employees and the performance they will subsequently give you.

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