How to Build Organizational Trust That Boosts the Bottom Line

The purpose of communicating with employees is to share information to influence behavior, drive engagement and achieve business goals. But what if employees distrust the source of that information–or the information itself? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening in today’s business world.

In fact, according to research from Watson Wyatt, only 39 percent of employees say they trust senior management, and a mere 45 percent say they have confidence in their management’s abilities.

As professional communicators, it’s up to us to start building trust in our organizations. While that trust must start on a personal level, there are also things we can–and should–be doing to help build trust at the organizational level.

Here are five strategies to help you do that.

1. Start sharing more information. Research from CHA, a U.K.-based consultancy, found that 90 percent of employees who are kept fully informed are motivated to deliver added value by staying with a company longer and working harder, while 80 percent of those who are kept in the dark are not. As communicators, it’s our job to encourage our executives to share information more frequently and more openly.

2. Do a trust-based communications audit. Take a look back at all communications with employees (or any stakeholder group for that matter) over the last six months. Include e-mails from top executives, intranet postings, newsletters and so on. Then evaluate those communications for their openness and honesty. Look at whether or not any commitments were made in those communications–and if those commitments were kept. Finally, determine if there was consistency in messaging across each platform. Is your organization speaking with one voice? Or are you sending mixed signals?

3. Conduct a trust-based risk assessment. When it comes to trust, it’s much more difficult to rebuild it than it is to maintain it. That’s why it’s so important to be proactive. Start by looking across your organization and pinpointing all of the touch points with your key stakeholder groups–employees and retirees, analysts and investors, media, customers and so on. Then identify the areas that are either (a) most vulnerable to a breach of trust or (b) would cause the most damage to your reputation if there was a breach of trust.

For example, an organization that has hundreds of customer service representatives taking calls 24-hours per day faces the risk that any one of those representatives could breach a customer’s trust at any moment. Just look at the damage that was caused to AOL when a customer (who also happened to be a blogger) recorded a call with one of the company’s customer service representatives when he tried to cancel his service. (If you haven’t already seen it, check out the video on YouTube:

When it comes to breaching an employee’s trust, the most risk is likely posed by his or her direct supervisor. Failure on the supervisor’s part to tell the truth or follow through on commitments could do irreparable damage to the trust he or she has established with that employee.

4. Create SOPs for any major risks. Once the highest threats for a potential breach of trust are identified, you need to develop a risk mitigation plan. In the situation above, for example, you might offer additional training to customer service representatives that includes an overview on how social media tools like YouTube and mySpace are making it all the more important to provide excellent service on each and every call. Or you may offer workshops for managers that help build their leadership skills with an emphasis on building and maintaining trust with their direct reports.

Even with a risk mitigation plan, however, you still need to be prepared for the inevitable breach of trust. But how quickly and effectively your organization responds can make all the difference in whether the hit to your reputation is a mere chip in the armor or a devastating blow.

5. Start a dialogue about trust with your executive team. Once you’ve conducted a communications audit, completed a risk assessment and developed a preliminary response plan, it’s time to start a dialogue with your executive team about the importance of building trust with all key stakeholder groups. There is a tremendous amount of research (including the 2008 Edelman Trust Barometer highlighted in this issue) that provides concrete evidence of the low trust epidemic and how it’s affecting (among other things) employee engagement, customer loyalty and financial performance.

(c) Bon Mot Communications 2008