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Are you giving your colleagues the silent treatment?

Chris Adcock takes a look at how keeping quiet at the right time can help foster higher levels of trust.

For 20+ years Joe Folkman of Zenger Folkman has been researching the leadership behaviours that drive business success. In a recent article he wrote “When I think there is nothing else that will surprise me, I unearth another gem”.

Joe was referring to his ongoing analysis of 360 feedback reports relating to over 97,000 individuals, which clearly shows that employee engagement improves in lockstep with the ratings given for trust by direct reports in their managers.

"When I think there is nothing else that will surprise me, I unearth another gem”

Intuitively this makes sense, however the surprise – the gem he unearthed – is that if just one employee in a team has low trust in their manager then engagement drops by almost 15 percentage points.

When we give 360 feedback, we often come across just this situation. The leader’s response is usually along the lines of: “I’m not surprised, I have been performance managing one of my team.” But what this gem tells us is that a lack of trust – any lack of trust – is toxic and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Trust in a virtual world

Some of our clients talk of spending eight to ten hours a day on back-to-back video calls. One even described his colleagues as “increasingly polarised towards either panic or insouciance”. After 12 months of working virtually, even the most confirmed introverts are craving human interaction. People who are normally calm and level-headed report heightened sensitivity and a propensity to be upset by the slightest thing. These are difficult times in which to maintain trust.

Many leaders we speak to are rightly concerned about the impact of remote working on trust levels. However, faced with unremitting workloads and high levels of uncertainty it is all too easy to get frustrated. As one client blurted out: “The problem is that they just need to trust what I am saying!”.

The power of trust

Stephen M. R. Covey (“The speed of trust”) describes trust as the “hidden variable” in the formula for business success. We generally talk about how strategy plus execution delivers results, but trust is the multiplier:

(Strategy + Execution) x Trust = Results

A company can have an excellent strategy and a strong ability to execute but the net result can be torpedoed by a low-trust tax or multiplied by a high-trust dividend. Trust always affects two key business outcomes: speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up. Our ability to move quickly is ever more important since recent events have accelerated the trend towards digitisation, and ongoing market pressures mean we are continually being asked to deliver more with less. A lack of trust has never been more expensive.

Employee engagement and trust

Highly engaged employees are more effective. They bring high levels of discretionary effort that in turn get reflected in business results. We know from the data that employee commitment is the liquid gold that powers the growth of an organisation, through committed employees who go the extra mile. So, in these days of remote working how do we maintain and develop high levels of trust and reap the rewards?

The same research data that reveals the effect on engagement levels of one disgruntled employee also points to a further ingredient: the ability to balance “getting results” with a concern for others’ needs. This leads us to a second insight that has emerged from our work with leadership teams: the importance of silence.

The power of silence

When we explored our client’s frustration about the apparent inability of their people to trust what they were saying, it quickly became apparent that they saw communication as a competitive sport where the first person to draw breath is declared the loser! Because the finger was permanently on the “transmit” button there was no room for 2-way communication. The constant use of “broadcast mode” undermined the relationship.

This is where silence comes in. A former mentor said to me that human beings have three essential needs, to:

- be heard

- feel understood

- have meaning

Flicking your switch to “receive” creates a space in which the other is heard, and it has a powerful and positive impact on trust because it meets a deep-seated human need. Silence allows new thoughts, ideas and initiatives to emerge, because people who are heard and feel understood have the confidence to speak up. Without this we are in danger of reverting to “H-POP” (highest paid opinion prevails)!

The key question

Greater levels of trust create stronger engagement. This unlocks new levels of discretionary effort that underpin business success. Without trust you will not “pass go”. If you want to get the most out of the people in your organisation, ask yourself:

“What am I doing to foster higher levels of trust and allow others to be heard and understood?”


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