Improving Employee Trust Through Better Communication
Q: I've heard from some of my managers that people don't think we communicate well. Being a small company, I think we do a pretty good job. As a matter of fact, I think people know too much. Do you have any advice for me?
A: From your question, I assume that the trust level in your organization is not where it needs to be. One way to build trust within a company is to communicate only that which you are sure of. Keep in mind that each communication does not have to involve a major announcement. It is a good idea to communicate smaller decisions and to do so frequently. Each communication event gives you another opportunity to build trust.
A small company I am familiar with recently completed a morale survey, and the results indicated that employees didn't understand management direction. On hearing the report, the president's response was, "Get everybody in the auditorium and I will tell them again." One employee of the company told me, "He totally missed the point. We all remember what he said the first time. What we don't understand is that what he says and what the managers do don't match. Which one does he want us to respond to?" The president, in this case, was confusing communication with telling people things.
Good communication is grounded in trust. No matter what people say, if they are not trusted, they are not believed. Therefore, in order to have good communication in an organization, you must make sure that you do what you say you're going to do. People who do what they say they're going to do are trusted; people who don't are not.
In the name of keeping people informed, many executives tell employees about things they intend to do that don't happen. While the intentions may be good, every time this happens, employee trust erodes. As you might imagine, it doesn't take many such events to create communication problems. It is not unusual for our consultants to recommend that organizations actually communicate less often as a step to improving trust. Employers should tell people only those things that they have complete control over and know will happen as they say they will.
I was recently consulting with a company that was in the middle of a long, drawn-out merger. Morale was poor, and few people trusted management. Rumorsabout what was going to happen, who was going to be fired and who was going to be moved were rampant. The executive team asked my opinion about conducting some interim communication about the situation as they knew it, knowing that some of what they said would probably not happen. My advice was, "Don't do it." They responded, "But the rumors are hurting morale and productivity."
"Don't do it," I reiterated. "Communicate only that which you know will happen. If you are unsure about something, don't tell it." In other words, until they began to increase the correlation between what they said and what they did, any discrepancy would be noted and would make recovery just that much more problematic.
In situations where there are high levels of trust in an organization, you have much more flexibility in communicating. If managers do what they say they're going to do the vast majority of the time, employees will give them some leeway if a mistake is made, or if things don't happen exactly as stated. When trust is high, communication can be more relaxed and casual. When trust is low, people won't give you the benefit of the doubt, even if management has the best of intentions.
Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's bookBringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit www.aubreydaniels.com, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.