Building a culture of trust is critical.

“Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I may remember. But involve me, and I’ll understand.”
— Chinese Proverb

Many workers today feel that the owners and top managers where they are employed are uninterested in their input, hiding away in executive suites and board rooms, and acting secretive about what the future may hold for them and their co-workers. I also hear that there aren’t procedures that allow them connect with senior executives to provide input regarding issues, challenges or other situations that they have uncovered and believe need to be heard. Most workers say that their company’s leaders are not communicating well with them, both in listening and in giving information, according to a new study of about 25,000 workers.

Only 42 percent of employees feel that their senior leaders demonstrate a “sincere interest” in their well-being, and just 51 percent say their companies are open and honest.

I believe that most companies intend to be open and honest, but that many leaders get distracted by forces and events affecting business goals causing them to scale back on the amount of information they share – it comes down to time and they often use it as an excuse.  Events like WorldCom, Enron, Disney, Delta Airlines and others have increased employee apprehension and distrust.  So wouldn’t it be smart to realize that openness and honesty build trust?

I think so. 

Some companies do realize this need.  Read the book, ‘Good to Great’ where it’s author reveals that people and the way they are treated by their leaders result in a company performing at a great level rather than just good.  There are tens of thousands of good companies out there – but far fewer are great.

American Express, for example, scored well on survey questions that measured executives’ ability to link what’s going on in the marketplace to how it affects employees. When a competitor comes out with a new credit card offer, for example, Amex makes sure its employees know the kinds of questions or objections customers and prospects may ask about the offer, as well as how to answer them.

Companies that scored well on feedback surveys received high marks for having leaders and supervisors who effectively communicated with employees.  These businesses were seen as open and honest and revealed both bad news as well as good news to staff – the more information that is shared really increases the level of trust.

Coaching note:  Employee satisfaction surveys may not be the best source of information about how you might be doing in as a leader, but they do divulge which way the wind is blowing.  And while 360° assessments often are valuable, I prefer to personally interview the key stakeholders who, when asked to be open, honest and forgiving regarding their employer and its leaders, reveal leadership’s true behavior and embedded company culture.

I also find a wealth of information when I conduct exit interviews on departed employees who are usually more willing to speak to a third party. 

A large Atlanta newspaper carried an article where the columnist essentially said that exit interviews weren’t worth the paper on which they were written.  “If there is a more futile exercise in workplace non-communication, I haven’t run into it yet”, she wrote.

I disagree.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to communicate, even in an exit interview.  I’ve been conducting exit interviews for clients for more than ten years and what I’ve found is it’s during these telephone calls, when really powerful questions are asked of the former employees, that the dialog generated results in valuable feedback that organizations can effectively use to improve retention, employee morale, reveal poorly managed business units and legal violations, and create a platform for needed change. 

This type of process impacts their becoming an employer of choice and it drives countless dollars to the profit column on their financial statements. 

And when performed like the newspaper columnist suggested, exit interviews are meant to serve the employers’ need for personnel file closure and not the former employee’s need for closure or to benefit the company in any other way.  That’s not the way to effectively communicate and build a trusting culture.  It’s just providing jobs . . . and that’s not going to be enough anymore.