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Why Trust and not Engagement?

It seems a really important question to answer: “Why trust and not engagement?” We at Entrusted Consulting (www.entrustedconsulting.com) believe in reframing the way we work together and are often asked this question.

Turning to a wonderfully written report from the CIPD (Where has all the trust gone. March 2012), I would like to share an extract on why trust is so important in business and our personal lives, now more than ever.

This has been a central question from practitioners, yet conceptually trust is quite a different construct from engagement. Emerging as it has from the positive psychology movement, the term ‘engagement’ has become for practitioners an umbrella concept for capturing the various means by which employers can elicit additional or discretionary effort from employees – a willingness on the part of staff to work beyond contract. Different employers apply different outcome measures to demonstrate its efficacy as a management activity (Vance 2006; Macey and Schneider 2008). Engagement is about giving of one’s energy to an organisation, whether that is on a cognitive, emotional or physical basis (Kahn 1990), almost like an exchange relationship.

On the other hand, trust is about accepting a certain amount of uncertainty but being willing to trust the other party that they will act in a positive way towards you. Trust is about a willingness to make oneself vulnerable in the face of uncertainty or insecurity. Trust is a more personal relationship based on a perception of mutual and reciprocal aims and purpose. It is part of employee engagement, as the MacLeod Task Force ‘Engaging for Success’ acknowledges, but it is a distinct concept in its own right (MacLeod and Clarke 2009).

One simple way of thinking about the difference between trust and engagement is by comparing it with the relationship of marriage. Some days marriage partners can really love each other and some days love each other a bit less. Love is a little like engagement. It is an energy which can have fluctuating levels but for most marriages to work over the longer term each partner needs to trust the other to always have a benevolent and positive disposition towards the family, their home and their relationship. Very often when one party has an affair within a marriage it is often possible for the aggrieved party to love them again but they will report trust is more challenging to repair. Trust, therefore, can be seen as the basis by which people together create sustainable long-term relationships which see them through difficult or uncertain times.

The importance of trust at times of uncertainty is perhaps why we are more aware of it as a concept right now. People are feeling more uncertainty at a societal level and, in some cases, in the workplace. Those organisations which can maintain good trust relations or repair trust relationships will reap the business and operational benefits of trust, of which there are many. One distinct benefit of trust is its link to innovation. Some economic commentators argue that for UK plc to return to growth, restore job opportunities and find ways in which to deliver public services with reduced funding provision, innovative approaches will be key to these three activities within the workplace.


Another reason why a focus on trust is more relevant at the moment is that trust has a moral dimension to it. Engagement does not necessarily carry a moral dimension. In contrast trust does concern a firm’s moral and ethical principles (Becker 1998, Mayer et al 1995, Schoorman et al 1996). Perceptions of trustworthiness include the organisation’s competence (or ability) and predictability (Dietz and Den Hartog 2006), but also focus attention on two ethical dimensions (Searle [forthcoming]). One is benevolence, which emphasises the positive intent towards those who are trusting in them. Another is the integrity of the organisation, which concerns the degree to which they and their managers adhere to general moral standards. Research both conceptually and empirically illustrates that employees prefer to trust organisations that uphold moral and ethical standards (Gillespie and Dietz 2009, Searle et al 2011a).

As you know, I’m keen to explore further Trust and what lies behind achieving this mercurial ‘faith’ in your abilities as a leader. Please do share your thoughts on the subject – I am sure we can all learn something from each other.

Attempting to develop your ‘strategic muscle’? This McKinsey article offers three top tips for any leader who wants to be familiarised with strategic thinking. As strategy becomes a ‘real-time journey’ will you be running up to speed?

Birshan, M and Kar, J (2012) Strategy Practice, Becoming more strategic: three tips for any executive. McKinsey Quarterly

Appreciation in the Workplace Wins

While the bottom line in leadership is often about the 'simple' issue of delivering results, the reality will always remain that it is only through the goodwill, commitment and critically engagement of your colleague and reports that will make this happen.

It seems to me there is a worrying trend going on amongst many people I work with that talks about morale and engagement not being what it was.

While we can put some of this down to a number of issues, namely; tough economic times, time pressures to deliver results and little diminution of stakeholder expectation, this really masks a more fundamental basic human need that is missing, which is individuals feeling a sense of appreciation for what they do.

After working on this very issue in four different organisations over the past six months, I can honestly say the situation is retrievable. Our practical approach gets right back to the basics and involves everyone – including the most cynical!

Perhaps to shed some light on what might be going on and what needs to be addressed I found this recent article Margy Bresslour which, while written with an American bias the issues are truly the same for all of us wherever we lead, I hope you find interesting and informative as well as it adds to your own deliberations on the matter given your role:

Wouldn't it be great if we loved our work?

I hope you derive satisfaction and reward from your work, but research shows that's not the norm. Let's walk you through some of the current research on the typical American workplace and employee dissatisfaction, and then look at how we can improve.

Employees in 2013: Checked out

A recent Gallup study of the American workplace found that among the 100 million people in this country who hold full-time jobs, about 70 percent either hate going to work or have mentally checked out to the point they cost their companies money. The same study also concludes that "7 in 10 American workers are 'not engaged' or 'actively disengaged' in their work, meaning they are emotionally disconnected from their workplaces and less likely to be productive".

Two other studies point to similar findings. According to the U.S. Department of Labour, the number one reason people leave their jobs is because they "do not feel appreciated." In a number of polls, 65% of Americans report receiving no recognition during the past year at their work.
A study of over 1,700 employees conducted in 2012 by the American Psychological Association (APA) indicated that more than half of all employees intended to search for new jobs because they felt underappreciated and undervalued.

Valuing Employees: The path forward

These statistics are bleak and present a sad commentary about the modern workplace. However, there is hope when it comes to building strong organizational cultures that support and retain employees. Other studies show when employees feel appreciated and valued they:

  • increase their individual productivity;
  • increase engagement among their colleagues;
  • are more likely to stay with their organization;
  • receive higher loyalty and satisfaction scores from customers, and
  • have better safety records and fewer accidents on the job.
Next to physical survival, the greatest need of a human being is psychological survival, to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

We all want to be appreciated for who we are and the value we offer in the workplace. Studies show that employee engagement is directly linked to how leaders and managers interact with employees. Gallup found that managers who focus on employees' strengths eliminate active disengagement and double the number of workers who are engaged.

A worldwide study by Towers Watson concluded that "the single highest determinant for engagement is whether or not employees feel that their manager is genuinely interested in their well being".

Appreciation also leads to positive changes in attitude, relationships and viewpoints

In his book, Bringing Out the Best in People, Aubrey Daniels concludes that "recognition and appreciation are the most powerful motivators of improved performance". He states, "Building a successful business means most of all bringing out the best in people – only people-oriented positive reinforcement in the form of appreciation, recognition and gratitude can do that."
In addition to improved work product results, appreciation also leads to positive changes in attitude, relationships and viewpoints, which help build a strong organizational culture.

When you work for an organization that doesn't care about you (or doesn't demonstrate that it does), it's common to question your self-worth, including your strengths and contributions. You may start to ask, "Do I matter?" This attitude tends to follow you outside of work. In contrast, when people notice and acknowledge the good qualities and characteristics you have, you begin to see them too.

There's even more good news to share: people who give appreciation benefit as well. There is evidence that sharing positive messages with others promotes a feeling of happiness in the person delivering the message.  The results are simple and intuitive. There's a tremendous amount to gain by appreciating those around you in the workplace. Wouldn't you enjoy working with productive and fully engaged employees who are proud of and speak highly of the organization where they work?

Finally, if you're really interested in knowing more around the whole subject and some insights into the areas to work on, I have got hold of a copy of the Gallup Survey mentioned above and attached it for your information.

To conclude, while the bottom line in leadership is often about the 'simple' issue of delivering results, the reality will always remain that it is only through the goodwill, commitment and critically engagement of your colleague and reports that will make this happen. On a personal level, as I mentioned earlier, I know that my tried, tested & validated in practice approaches to getting behind these recommendations and making them real, delivering enhanced engagement and productivity do show how teams and organisations can make great strides in meeting these basic and necessary goal. I suppose it's having done it now four times over the last six months and refined the approach that leads me to feel so confident about the outcomes.

It's probably no news to most people who work that poor leaders produce disgruntled, unengaged employees. Our research also shows convincingly that great leaders do the opposite — that is, that they produce highly committed, engaged, and productive employees.

And the difference is cavernous — in a study of 160,576 employees working for 30,661 leaders at hundreds of companies around the world, we found average commitment scores in the bottom quarter for those unfortunate enough to work for the worst leaders (those leaders who had been rated in the bottom 10th percentile by their bosses, colleagues, and direct reports on 360 assessments of their leadership abilities). By contrast, average commitment scores for those fortunate enough to work for the best leaders (those rated in the 90th percentile) soared to the top 20th percentile. More simply put, the people working for the really bad leaders were more unhappy than three quarters of the group; the ones working for the really excellent leaders were more committed than eight out of ten of their counterparts.

What exactly fosters this engagement? During our time in the training and development industry we've observed two common — and very different — approaches. On the one hand are leaders we call "drivers"; on the other, those we call "enhancers."

Drivers are very good at establishing high standards of excellence, getting people to stretch for goals that go beyond what they originally thought possible, keeping people focused on the highest priority goals and objectives, doing everything possible to achieve those goals, and continually improving.

Enhancers, by contrast, are very good at staying in touch with the issues and concerns of others, acting as role models, giving honest feedback in a helpful way, developing people, and maintaining trust.

Which approach works best? When we asked people in an informal survey which was most likely to increase engagement, the vast majority opted for the enhancer approach. In fact, most leaders we've coached have told us that they believe the way to increase employee commitment was to be the "nice guy or gal."

But the numbers tell a more complicated story. In our survey, we asked the employees not only about their level of engagement but also explicitly, on a scale of one to five, to what degree they felt their leaders fit our profiles for enhances and drivers. We judged those leaders "effective" as enhancers or drivers who scored in the 75th percentile (that is, higher than three out of four of their peers) on those questions.

Putting the two sets of data together, what we found was this: Only 8.9% of employees working for leaders they judged effective at driving but not at enhancing also rated themselves in the 10% in terms of engagement. That wasn't very surprising to many people who assume that most employees don't respond well to pushy or demanding leaders. But those working for those they judged as effective enhancers were even less engaged (well, slightly less). Only 6.7% of those scored in the top 10% in their levels of engagement.

Essentially, our analysis suggests, that neither approach is sufficient in itself. Rather, both are needed to make real headway in increasing employee engagement. In fact, fully 68% of the employees working for leaders they rated as both effective enhancers and drivers scored in the top 10% on overall satisfaction and engagement with the organization.

Clearly, we were asking the wrong question, when we set out to determine which approach was best. Leaders need to think in terms of "and" not "or." Leaders with highly engaged employees know how to demand a great deal from employees, but are also seen as considerate, trusting, collaborative, and great developers of people.

In our view, the lesson then is that those of you who consider yourself to be drivers should not be afraid to be the "nice guy." And all of you aspiring nice guys should not view that as incompatable with setting demanding goals. The two approaches are like the oars of a boat. Both need to be used with equal force to maximize the engagement of direct reports.

A good one for those who think it one way or the other – the best know when to apply the 'right' approach!

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