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Dr Zofia Bajorek

Trust in senior management: What employees really think

Authors: Dr Zofia Bajorek Dr Zofia Bajorek

25 October 2013

Trust is often a term that is discussed when considering people management, the employment relationship and the psychological contract and which The Work Foundation explored in its report,  Deal or no deal?  An exploration of the modern employment relationship. Although there has been difficulty in defining and measuring trust in organisational research, its impact is still of great importance when considering organisational performance, motivation and employee engagement.  A recent report released by the CIPD: ‘Employee Outlook: Focus in trust in leaders’ provides further evidence of the role of trust and what implications trust, or the lack of trust, can have for organisations.

34% of the employees who participated in the CIPD study (from private, public and voluntary sectors) described trust as weak between employees and senior management (particularly weak in the public sector at43%, in comparison to the voluntary sector where 37% reported the relationship as strong).  The level of trust reported between employees and senior management also increased with the employee’s seniority. Senior managers much more likely to report a strong trust relationship between employee and senior management (40%), , as compared to  non managerial workers (27%).  The report suggested this was an indication that, “senior managers either had a tendency to view things through rose-tinted glasses and/or are out of touch with how employees are feeling”. 

However, the report was not all doom and gloom.  In contrast to trust in senior management, trust in both colleagues and line managers is reportedly strong, with 92% of respondents indicating they trust colleagues to a great or to some extent with  80% reporting the same for line managers. 

But what are the implications of these findings?

The  Work Foundation’s report, Deal on no deal, revealed that higher levels of organisational trust are associated with positive organisational outcomes. This is a result of improvements in social interactions between workers, reduced levels of uncertainty and the need to ask for information, and less effort required to protect against being exploited and to deal with litigation.  Additionally, trust was also reported as being a mediating factor between HR practices and performance.  For example, if an employee  perceived a breach of trust in their employment relationship this had significant implications on employee attitudes and behaviour (changes in employee satisfaction, reduced commitment, satisfaction and organisational performance). 

Let’s take the NHS as an example.  Seemingly, not a day goes by where we are reminded that poor standards of care are rising in our hospitals.  Poor quality standards usually stem from a ‘safety culture’, where staff are fearful of reporting mistakes in patient care  (which can lead to an improvement in care ) because they cannot trust the confidentiality of the reporting systems, and how managers will  respond towards them.  If there were  increased trust in managers and the system, then a safer and positive reporting culture could help to improve patient safety and outcomes in our NHS.       

Consequently, in light of this evidence of the positive role of trust, why are organisations seemingly paying little attention to it?

Results in low level employee trust are not new.  In fact, previous research conducted by the CIPD in 2009 reported bleak findings about trust (or more appropriately, the lack of trust) between employees and management during the recession. 4 out of 5 employees believed  that senior managers needed to restore or improve trust in their leadership, while  3 in 4 stating they were not consulted in important decisions.

So what are organisations supposed to do to improve or restore levels of trust?

The report by the CIPD claims that creating a climate of trust is “not rocket science”.  Employees reported that trust could be improved with ‘simple and effective practices’ where leaders are approachable, competent, consistent , act with honesty,  integrity and lead by example.  Employees also admire and trust leaders who admit when they have made mistakes, consult employees on major decisions, ask employees for their opinions, respect staff and treat them fairly.

However, if it was that simple, why are we still having reports 4 years after poor senior management trust was highlighted, still discussing the same issues? 

I acknowledge that in current organisational climates, where there is blurring of lines of management and where short-term demands and contracts are common, developing trust may not be at the  top of the managerial ‘to-do list’.  However, based on the research, greater importance needs to be placed on the employment relationship and creating psychological contracts which  are sustainable and less likely to be  breached.  If this does occur, it is more likely that an environment of mutual trust can develop.

I fear, however, that this will take time, and may not be as simple as the CIPD suggests. Despite this, it is imperative that action is taken so the distance between senior management and frontline employees is not widened.