Seeking Organizational Resilience? Trust is a Must

By Doug Turner

It has been said that the amount of resilience shown by an organization is the product of both the personal abilities of individuals in the organization and the degree to which those people feel supported and comfortable in the organization. This holds true whether that organization is a family, school, community or any other group that has some common interests—such as the workplace.

Willingness and WIFM Overlooked
I would suggest that there is another, more basic, factor at play. The various and multitudinous theories, definitions and approaches to resilience all seem to assume that there is a fundamental desire and, more importantly, willingness, of the members of the organization to carry out the prescribed recommendations to improve resilience. This is often not the case. Apathy and disengagement are prevalent, as we know all too well from surveys on these topics.

The prescriptions are therefore doomed to fail because the staff, quite frankly, do not care about the organization being adaptable or resilient. This is largely because they do not understand why they are being asked to take certain actions, and even worse, they do not have faith (trust) that their interests will be served.

The degree to which individuals care about taking action depends completely on how confident they are that doing so will benefit them directly—as distinct from benefiting the organization as a whole. This is the famous WIFM question “What’s In It For Me?” In other words “why should I go out of my way to be creative and adaptable?”

Trust and Confidence Lacking
People always question the intent of those that are suggesting or directing something. Whose interests are being served? What is their agenda?

Troublingly, the “Building a Better Workplace: Employee Engagement Edition” research put forward by Ipsos-Reid in partnership with the Canadian Management Centre in 2012, paints a fairly bleak picture; consider the impact of the findings that:

  • 61 per cent of Canadian employees simply do not trust their senior leaders;
  • Over 60 percent of Canadian employees are not satisfied with how their leader communicates what is happening in the workplace; and
  • Less than half of Canadian employees actually expressed confidence in their senior leadership, with the lowest confidence rating shared by BC and Atlantic Canada at 43 per cent.

Communicating Intent Key for Leaders
Therefore, leaders must understand, and take responsibility for how a given message or directive will “land” with the recipients. How will it be understood? Will it be accepted? It is not enough to just say, “I told them clearly what we wanted to achieve.” Management must focus on communicating the mutual benefits of any given idea or suggestion.

Everybody recognizes that the WIFM question is fundamental, natural, justified and universal. Therefore any strategy to enlist the cooperation and energy of a group must satisfy the most basic requirement—answer that question.

Why is communicating intent so important to building workplace resilience? Resilience refers to the notion of responding creatively to adversity. It is critical therefore that when times get tough, or unexpected negative events occur, the individuals in an organization have the ability and desire to work together to be creative in their response to this adversity.

Connecting Intent with Innovation
Here again, the degree to which people share ideas and contribute to innovative solutions is completely dependent on how much they trust those around them. As discussed in previous PeopleTalk articles, the most common cause of the lack of innovation in business organizations is the distrust that develops when leadership fails to communicate their intent.

In the context of innovation, intent is the most important of Stephen Covey’s four pillars of trust—the others being integrity, capabilities and results.

Increasing the level of trust that people feel in an organization has many benefits, but in the current context the most relevant benefit is the willingness of people to give not only their time, but their intrinsic energy and ideas to the organization. This is the result of people believing that their interests will be met.

In Leadership We Trust?
As for the building blocks of trust for leaders at any level, they are worth revisiting:

Integrity: People trust leaders whose behaviour matches their words and who communicate thoughts and feelings that are consistent with what they say and do. This is integrity. It is tough to achieve and nobody is perfect, but higher trust levels are achieved when integrity is high—particularly when leaders are willing to be held accountable and open discuss difficult situations.

Public Recognition and Rewards: Most organizations struggle to develop or improve a culture. The most effective way an organization can move towards having a culture that differs from the status quo is to clearly communicate expectations—and then publicly recognize and reward examples of where the desired outcomes have been achieved. Notices in staff newsletters, recognition at staff meetings, and/or acknowledgment by senior management on video conferences are all very effective.

All acknowledgement must be accompanied by a tangible reward. The magnitude of the reward is not of primary importance, but it must be tangible and visible (i.e. gift certificates to restaurants are popular and appreciated). A confidential cash bonus may also be appreciated, but it does not have the same effect on the rest of the organization. When people see what gets rewarded, they will change their behaviour to optimize their results according to what they now know is expected.

Accountability Vs. Blame: Resilience in the face of adversity requires that people are able to “own” what they do, whether it’s good or not-so-good. People need to see that the organization expects them to be open about their failures—and that it is safe to do so. There is no finger-pointing, nobody plays the blame game and nobody gets “thrown under the bus.” Leaders must demonstrate this to build trust, so that adversity is handled constructively and serves a positive purpose.

Benefit of the Doubt: Leaders at all levels will encourage others to feel comfortable voicing their intent, if they themselves assume positive intent in others and behave accordingly. The absence—or removal of—policies and procedures whose primary goal is to check up on people, goes a long way to building a trusting culture. Give people the benefit of the doubt more often. This requires a more tolerant risk assessment attitude throughout the organization.

People will move naturally in the direction of adaptability and resilience if they care whether or not the organization improves as a whole. Their degree of caring will grow dramatically with their level of trust—which lies in your hands.

Doug Turner, MSc, MBA is a leadership and executive coach at True Balance Coaching.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2017)

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