In Human Terms—The value of engaging the workforce

May 30, 2001
By: Terry White

Building trust with employees, listening to them, and spending time face-to-face with them helps managers in little critical ways they never may have imagined.

In an era of declining employee loyalty, companies are discovering that a successful future may be linked directly to connecting with their workers in meaningful ways.

While there is no substitute for an overall retention strategy, strategies that develop trust and build relationships, while achieving business results, can position an organization for success in today's business climate.

Support is Critical

No matter where you want to take your organization, you will need the support and commitment of the majority of your managers and employees to succeed. Without loyal employees, it is extremely difficult to keep loyal customers in today's competitive environment.

In its landmark study of successful organizations, PriceWaterhouse Coopers identified six qualities that lead to superior performance. One of those six was the development of a culture characterized by trust-based working relationships. Organizations with this type of culture are able to execute effectively and adapt more quickly to change than some of their lower-performing counterparts.

Frontline managers are key players in developing trust-based working relationships because they have daily contact and influence with the majority of the workforce. While improving working relationships involves a number of factors, four key approaches can make a positive impact the work environment.

Be Willing to Admit Mistakes

Acknowledging your own mistakes or errors in judgment sends a strong, positive signal to employees. It suggests that the leader is not perfect and is willing to admit when he or she is wrong.

Managers often are reluctant to be forthcoming about mistakes; they are in charge, so many tend to think, "Who would want to follow anyone who is less than perfect?" However, managers usually gain more credibility when they demonstrate an honest assessment of a situation that did not go as planned rather than sugarcoating the event.

When a leader is willing to face reality when things don't work out for the best, employees make a additional deposit in what can be called a trust bank account. Think of this account as the sum total of an employee's trust in a certain manager. Managers can make deposits in these mental accounts by being honest and forthright. They make withdrawals with doubletalk and self-serving behavior.

For some managers, admitting mistakes might feel very uncomfortable. Fear not--most employees already have recognized that something went wrong and were wondering why no one else could see it.

Follow Through

Do what you say you're going to do. Often, in the blur of the workday, frontline managers make a commitment to an employee with every intention of following through but then don't. This event becomes one of those moments of truth that can either positively or negatively impact the employee's view of both the manager and the organization.

When a manager does not follow through, employees receive the message that their issues are not considered priorities. While the manager makes the commitment with the best of intentions, the lack of follow-up has a negative impact on the relationship. The critical maxim here is, "Don't say it unless you mean it".

It is important to remember that we all have the tendency to judge ourselves based on our intentions, but we judge other people based on their behavior. Although this may sound like a simple principle, applying it consistently will have a positive impact on the employee relations environment and built those trust accounts.


Listen to your employees. Again, a simple principle can have a profound impact in the workplace.

While truly being listened to can be an extremely affirming experience anywhere, listening is an especially critical skill in today's fast-paced work environment. By listening well, managers can pick up important information that affect decision-making relative to both strategy and customer relationships.

For most employees, the realization that their immediate supervisors care enough about them individually to take the time to fully understand their issues or points of view builds a strong bond and connection. Chalk up another deposit for the manager.

Be Visible

Create opportunities to maintain a high level of visibility with the workforce. As individuals, we tend to have a higher comfort level--thus more trust-in someone we see and can relate to on a personal level. In today's business world, it is difficult for managers to maintain a visible presence in the workplace. Managers often find themselves in an increasing number of meetings that pull them away from their work teams.

The competition for the manager's most valuable asset-time-has increased dramatically over the past 10 years. As a result, visibility often falls to the bottom of the priority list and, before long, reduced contact with the workforce becomes the standard rather than the exception. Most teams will tell you that today's world feels like "perpetual whitewater," as opposed to the 1980s, when times occasionally were slower and employees had time to regroup.

Regular contact with leaders can create a sense of grounding for the employee, which, in turn, builds positive relationships and those all-important mental trust accounts.

While these principles are certainly not new to most of us, they often are overlooked because they are neither complicated nor based on a recently published management article. However, in a world in which the rate of change continues to accelerate, perhaps simpler is better when it comes to developing a trust-based culture.

Terry White

Contributing Writer