Losing and Gaining Employee Trust – Say Yes When Possible

Rank and file employees’ trust in the good intentions of their bosses is a very fragile. It is slow to be earned, and accumulates through micro-choices, but can be lost in an instant when efficiency or bottom-line thinking supersede the human factors inherent in managing staff.

These pivotal moments are easy to identify in retrospect, but can be difficult to avoid as they spring into existence. Two easy examples, one from several years ago and one from today:

  • Staff had been arriving back from their days off sporadically tardy, and it was becoming a drag on both the administrative end of things (scheduling them for an activity or responsibility is tough when you can’t be sure they’ll be back on time), and for the individual counselors who were being screwed over by their peers. As an administrative team, we had a productive and appropriate brainstorming session as part of our weekly long staff meeting on Sunday afternoons, and we came up with an adaptation to the days off scheduling (starting/ending at 9:15am instead of 9:30am). The change was shared later that evening at the weekly all-staff meeting. While staff followed the new rule, I learned in the end of summer feedback forms that this was a particularly discussed and maligned decision. Staff felt like we’d had one way of doing things, and we were screwing them over by changing the rules to their time off mid-summer. While we fixed the short-term, non-vital problem, the damage we did to their trust in the administrative staff proved irreparable. To be honest, this is just one example, as is to be expected in a long and exhausting season, there were many other micro-choices in that summer that also contributed to the overall distrust (more of an ‘us versus them’ than a ‘we’re a happy family’ – we’re not talking like huge trust issues here, just the subtleties of maximizing intrinsic motivation). 
  • This evening was the last night of the first session, and traditionally we have had counselors stay on duty for an extra half hour in order to get a little extra time in with their campers on the last night. Instead of being off-duty at 9:30, they are free starting at 10:00pm. Right as all of camp was heading back to their cabins around 8:30pm, a bunch of the administrators gathered and it was realized that none of us remembered letting counselors know that Friday nights are a little different. Right as we were about to decide what to do (expediency was required), a first-year counselor piped up from the edge of the conversation group and said “I think most people were split on this, we were talking about it a couple days ago and staff was about half and half” – I replied “Well I’m glad you guys were thinking about it, that’s the kind of question someone should ask Ad Staff, since we hadn’t remembered and it would have been great….” Here I hope/think we made the right quick choice and I sent around the most easy-going and chill member of administrative staff to let people know that they would be covering until 10:00pm. Because a counselor had given us the information (or in the first case had we asked the counselors what they thought) we were able to make a choice that we wanted for camp and do it in a way that would assuage any potential backlash. 

I guess the moral of this post is one effective way of maintaining employee trust (and thus intrinsic motivation to perform at their highest level) is to find room for their preferences and desires to be expressed and met when possible. Or – Say yes when possible

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