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Broken trust in the workplace

The great recession – the deepest economic downturn since the 1930s – created chaos in workplaces everywhere. In the process, the very underpinnings of trust were upended.

Today, one-third of working Americans say they plan to look for a new job when the economy gets better. Of this group, 48 per cent cite a loss of trust in their employer as the reason, according to the 2010 Ethics and Workplace Survey by consulting firm Deloitte LLP. Furthermore, reveals the survey, as many as 65 percent of Fortune 1000 executives believe that trust will be a factor in the potential increase in voluntary employee turnover in the coming months.

Also, for the first time in recent history, trust and transparency are more important to corporate reputation in the United States than the quality of products and services – a key finding from the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey on trust and credibility conducted by PR giant Edelman.

And while trust in business is up modestly in the US – after plunging 20 per cent in 2009 – the rise is tenuous, the Edelman survey reports. CEOs rank next to last on the list of trusted spokespersons, and nearly 70 per cent of people worldwide say that companies will revert to ‘business as usual’ after the economy recovers.

Broken trust at work – major and not-so-minor betrayals

Major betrayals in the workplace – from corporations grossly mismanaging worker layoffs to CEOs committing crimes and misdemeanours – can, and these days do, make headlines. To be sure, these breaches of trust are significant and often newsworthy. They do not, however, stand alone.

Minor betrayals, such as gossiping, finger-pointing, or taking credit for others’ work, are more pervasive than major betrayals and erode trust over time. In most workplaces, the accumulation of these ‘little’ betrayals becomes a big problem, negatively impacting people’s confidence, commitment, and energy. What’s more, according to our research, 90 per cent of employees report that they feel the effects of eroded trust on a daily basis. Additionally, we know that betrayal is universal: everyone has been betrayed, and everyone has betrayed others.

The high price of not rebuilding trust

When trust in a workplace remains broken, no one wins. Not individuals. Not teams. Not organisations.

The consequences also come with a high price. On the ‘hard’ side, there are major hits to productivity, performance and profits.

And on the soft side? In interviews, employees tell us, ‘My heart isn’t in this place anymore’ or ‘I just look out for myself’. Team members confess, ‘We’ve stopped thinking big and taking risks.’ And leaders report ‘a real loss in energy, passion and creativity’. (Some even sheepishly utter the words, ‘I hope we make it’.)

Broken trust won’t magically mend itself, however, and the process of rebuilding it can’t be short-circuited.

It is impossible to go through life without trust: That is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.

Graham Greene (1904 – 1991), The Ministry of Fear