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I ran a business based on trust. This is what I learned

By giving trust to your employees, you will be handsomely rewarded.

Teams with relationships based on trust are pretty great. I know this because I’ve had the privilege of working with one. We out-performed all our competition, we punched well above our weight, we featured in Deloitte’s Top 50 fastest growing companies for five years straight. All while having a bucket-load of fun.

I’ve taken a long, hard look at this environment to try to understand how the company developed and retained such high performers. A key foundation was trust.

Trust, however, is a buzz word that easily rolls off the tongue. What mattered was how we managed to build trust, and more importantly, how we didn’t destroy it.

Giving trust

When we employed a team member, there was a baseline level of trust between the individual and the organisation. From that baseline, the trust could either spiral down or rocket up.

In the end, getting people to trust each other was actually quite simple. I can share in three words how we did it – ‘We gave trust’. I also learnt there were strong forces working in the opposite direction to literally prevent us from doing that. These efforts came from long standing corporate ‘norms’ designed to minimise risk to the business.

A real example presented itself when one of our team members was diagnosed with leukaemia. He needed extensive time off work for treatment and he soon used up all his sick leave, annual leave and paid time off entitlements. The treatment was ongoing and it was unknown if he would ever return to work. The “corporate norm” told us to cut off the risk and stop paying his salary, as it saves the business from potential loss. Instead, we made a decision to keep paying his salary and allow him to accrue annual leave debt. Fortunately for all involved, he eventually made a full recovery and returned to work.

At the time, I didn’t realise the message that our decision sent to the entire team and it wasn’t about extra leave. It was more powerful than I ever imagined. It sent a message that we had our team’s back when times got hard, that we were prepared to do more than the minimum corporate requirement. It showed we trusted the individual to stay with us while he paid off his annual leave debt.

This and other examples taught me that by doing more than what was required by corporate norms, by making a bet on someone, they become determined to prove you right.

Corporate norms can erode trust

When a business uses corporate norms to guide all decisions, it’s possible to quickly build an environment that employees consider grossly unfair. As a result, trust can plummet.

Imagine a team member that consistently puts in extra hours to finish tasks to make customers happy. One day, the team member asks for half a day off to pick up a sick child and they’re instructed, per policy, to put in a leave form. It’s immediately perceived as unfair because the team member puts in discretionary effort, but in return, receives no discretion from the company. It immediately breaks the accrued trust in that team member’s mind – that the company would treat their request fairly. The response is likely to be an unhappy team member that will go out of their way to never put in extra time.

We need to remember that trust is not just on a scale of 0 to 100 –  it can venture into the negative too. When it goes this way, you get the opposite of trust which is disbelief, doubt and uncertainty – the characteristics of a horrendous work environment I can’t imagine anyone would enjoy being a part of.

Back to my previous experience, when team leaders and managers referred  to our HR leader for policy guidance, she was able  to catch these types of haphazard decisions. She was awesome. She completely understood the trust equation and was pivotal in amplifying a culture of trust in our team.

Mark Lewis is the co-founder and CEO of Crewmojo.

See our previous article on the importance of trust for creating effective teams.

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Ursula Young
Ursula Young

Great article – one size does not fit all. Every situation requires careful consideration and some line managers are really great at building trust and extending what I call ‘grace’ when people hit difficult times and this is almost always worthwhile in the end from a business perspective. But others are completely oblivious to the impact on the team when they are wedded to interpreting policies in a rigid (or ill-considered) way.

Bridget Holland
Bridget Holland

I once worked in a company where the GM stood at reception with a watch and if anyone was more than 5 minutes late, they were sent home and docked a day’s pay.
He came from a culture of telesales and getting the calls in. He was managing a team who did a lot of qualitative research, writing and marketing – people who routinely stayed late to finish a call with a contact, write up notes or hit a report deadline.
He didn’t last. Unfortunately neither did many of the team.

Marie Dulaurent
Marie Dulaurent

Warms my heart to see that there are some human element in making day-to-day decisions which allows for some flexibility from black and white policies. Sometimes rules are meant to be bent if not broken. I went to bat for one of my employees who was depressed and suicidal when his wife left him and took the kids. His manager wanted him fired because his work performance was less than satisfactory. However I didn’t want to give up on him and got him professional help and he made a full recovery.

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