Trust, a Slippery Slope For the King

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Remember when we were kids, and played “King of the Hill?” I was truly blessed. I remember where I grew up in an age before video games, actually before cable, but after light bulbs, before remote controls for TV, and only three or four good TV stations, and two or three fuzzy stations, spending hours and hours in the fields behind our house.

We would play “King of the Hill” for hours. There were little hills, medium hills, big piles of construction dirt, slopes in the yard, and all points in between. The concept was to rise or drive your way to the top, push all challengers out of the way, and maintain your position at the top as “King.” I can remember always struggling, almost to the top, only to get pushed down or slide back down the hill. It was like trying to climb a mountain made of loose sand. And I can also remember the excitement as we searched for a new “hill” to add to our games.

OK, If you are thinking this is another veiled Muetzel metaphor for your leadership and/or management style, humor me and read on, the article is not that long.

I am suggesting that the challenges of managing and leading Millenials and Gen X are not so much different. Every time we might identify the current landscape a new hill appears on the horizon. Such recent hills in management have been identified in the business media such as, Employee Silos, Employee Equity or Employee Engagement. We have seen them, accepted them, and started to climb them in many cases.

But I believe the largest hill on the horizon is far more than a gentle slope, the new challenge is the ever-increasing factor of trust in the workplace. Trust with our clients, and trust with our people. You remember them. Our people.

If an organizational culture is lacking trust internally, then how can we as leaders expect our employees to establish lines of trust with our clients or customers? If trust simply does not exist internally, how can we expect loyalty, or productivity, or new ideas for the good of the order, from our people?

All the data from the last two years suggest that over half of all employees do not trust management, and with employees under the age of 45 the numbers go up even higher. And with the slashing of budgets and people in the last six months, can you blame them?

Are you in denial? There has been a clear generational divide in this issue. In the past, Boomers, and Traditionalists would enter the workplace with an assumed level of trust. It was the way we were raised. But younger employees enter the workplace with a much higher level of skepticism regarding corporation rhetoric. Thus, the high turnover statistics with Millenial and Gen X employees.

But in today’s climate, the divide is gone. Now, the four generations all share going to work with a skeptical perspective on trust. And those of us with our actual or even metaphorical MBA’s often can’t see the “Hill for the Trees.”
Why? Most senior level managers are just not sure if the issue is real or just another fuzzy buzzword for authors…

1. It is hard to measure
2. It is hard to quantify vs. ROI
3. Lack of clear proven analytical models for improvement

But in today’s economic climate, after you have cut benefits, taken away the coffee pot, and ask those people that remain, to do more for the same or less pay, then buying pizza for the lunchroom and handing out a few baseball tickets just will no longer do the trick. (What does that say about our generation, but I digress,) You may be moving back on trust rather than forward.

Trust needs to be a senior level management initiative. Trust needs to be an inherent part of our changing cultures. Trust needs to be part of the interviews, part orientation and part of the review process. So what are the keys areas identified by employees for “trust?” According the awesome work being done by 42projects,

Top 10 Trust Factors (May 2008):

1) Demonstrate integrity (92.9%)
2) Hold yourself accountable. (87.5%)
3) Give honest and frank feedback (86.7%)
4) Give freedom to explore and experiment (85.7%)

So where does the slippery slope part come in? Many of us honestly believe and try to practice integrity, honesty, accountability and flexibility in our leadership styles. But unfortunately under times of stress or rough economic times, or meeting financial covenants, or even making payroll, subconsciously we revert back to the training of our MBA’s. Slash expenses, cut training, stop the bleeding. And the positive efforts we made to climb the mountain of trust are not unlike sliding back down the mountain of sand in the eyes of our employees. We find ourselves weaker or even farther back down the hill on the critical issues of trust with our people. And in this case even getting back to the levels on trust where we started from, is even more difficult.

Building, maintaining and fixing trust are not easy. Communication, involvement, recognition and transparency are critical. This is not a hill but a mountain. But the skills energy and empathy that helped you position your organization to be successful years ago will serve you well in your climb today.

Mike Muetzel is a nationally recognized Author, Keynote Speaker and Leadership expert. His work has been featured in the national media including, The Associated Press, Bloomberg Television, Boardroom Magazine, The Manager’s Intelligence Report, The IBM Small Business Advocate, and The Boston Globe to name a few.