Trust breaches make employees feel ‘disconnected, critical and cynical’



‘Distrusters’ are damaging workplaces, says Professor Rosalind Searle at the CIPD Annual Conference

“How many of you had your business affected by the Brexit vote, or the result of last night’s US election in terms of your business?” asked Professor Rosalind Searle at the start of her talk at the 2016 CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition. “I am asking because I believe your work life has a critical role in shaping the disconnect that leads to such events.”

At a time when her talk, Managing trust in the face of change and uncertainty, could not be more relevant, Searle sketched a picture of a society where distrust is inherent. Trust is low across the public and private sectors, the manufacturing industry and the worlds of sport and politics. People commit injustice and walk away from it, she said – and in both our professional and personal lives, we are currently witnessing the dismantling of trust.

“Last night’s result and the Brexit vote show there are a critical group of people, who we call ‘angry distrusters’, who don’t respond in ways to rational thought, but are capable of critically undermining and destabilising our world in very fundamental ways,” she said.

“We need to be paying much more attention to why, and how, this is happening to people, and reaching out to stop it.”

When trust in an organisation is high, productivity, employee wellbeing and innovation are also high, said Searle. However, many companies today have employees who are experiencing increased amounts of distrust in their organisations, a lack of confidence in the choices being made during times of uncertainty and change, and a lack of care from their managers.

“Low levels of ‘cognitive’ trust impact on our certainty and confidence in our organisations, but there is another crucial area, which is about effect: feeling that you genuinely care about, and respect, your colleagues and employees,” Searle said.

“This is the world angry distrusters link to, because they don’t feel respected, they don’t feel cared for and they don’t feel anyone has their best interests at heart. Effect-based trust is very low in a number of organisations today.”

Establishing a strong culture of trust is grounded in organisational practice, the strength of line relationships, and individual and collective employee experience, Searle explained. CEOs, line managers and HR professionals have a responsibility to deliver realistic job previews, be honest with their employees about what work involves, and embed transparency into every aspect of their working behaviours.

Managing expectations, delivering consistency and introducing balanced control systems to an organisation are crucial, said Searle, and – if implemented correctly – can improve trust even during times of uncertainty. When they are not delivered, the consequences can be catastrophic, she added.

Searle cited case studies that have shown public sector employees who have low levels of trust in their line manager or company demonstrate a lack of controlled coping strategies when facing change – ignoring problems instead of actively managing them. Absenteeism rises, confidence falls and counterproductive working behaviours such as theft become increasingly common. People cease to care about their workplace and react against their managers in increasingly unpredictable ways, and the whole organisation suffers.

“A strong culture of organisational trust is critical for making people more resilient and reducing their wariness in times of great change and uncertainty,” Searle said. “People will always feel the impact of distrusters managing change in their business.

“Breaches of trust make people feel disconnected, critical and cynical in the ways they work, and beyond. What has happened with Brexit – and now with Trump – is a group of angry distrusters pressing the panic button. We are all feeling the consequences.”


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