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Employees trust supervisors more than senior leaders

Employees are more likely to trust their supervisor or manager than they are to trust the senior leaders in their organization, a recent survey finds. Nevertheless, experts encourage leaders to work on building trust.

A survey of 2,700 employees released Aug. 7, 2012, by the management consulting firm Healthy Companies International found that two-thirds of respondents (66%) said their boss earns the trust of employees.

And a majority of 2,616 North American employees surveyed by BlessingWhite, a global consulting firm, said they trust their senior leaders and managers, with a slight increase in each figure between 2010 and 2012. However, employees are much more likely to place trust in their managers than in senior executives, the research released in August 2012 finds.

Trust in Executives   Unfavorable   Neutral   Favorable  
I trust senior leaders (2012)   22%   21%   57%  
I trust senior leaders (2010)   24%   24%   52%  
I trust my manager (2012)   14%   12%   74%  
I trust my manager (2010)   14%   14%   72%  

Source: BlessingWhite, 2012

“It remains difficult for leaders at the top to build trust with people who they rarely see or may have never even met,” said Joan Dasher, employee engagement practice vice president for BlessingWhite, in a press statement. “Yet our findings also suggest that leaders are becoming better at it.”

After all, when it comes to immediate supervisors and managers, “Their teams see them in action,” Dasher explained. “They can demonstrate trustworthiness in their daily actions and become known as people beyond their titles.”

As for executives, “The workforce scrutinizes everything that executives say and do -- and then speculates about their motives,” she added. “If leaders do not communicate with care, many employees draw incorrect, and unfavorable, conclusions.”

Communicating to build trust

Employees judge leaders’ trustworthiness based on what they do and what they say.

Therefore, when it comes to communication, leaders should consider employees’ generational values, expectations and behaviors, and tailor messages to fit, suggests Giselle Kovary, managing partner of n-gen People Performance Inc. and co-author of Upgrade Now: 9 Advanced Leadership Skills (n-gen People Performance Inc., 2012).

It’s not just what they say, but how they say it that matters. Kovary said leaders should select the most appropriate communication method to ensure their message is clear and interpreted appropriately: “Since communication theory holds that words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% of all communication, it is important not to rely too heavily on technology that doesn’t allow for sufficient body language or voice tonality,” she wrote in an e-mail interview with SHRM Online.

The ability to convey credibility is key. “Leaders must project confidence and competence when communicating with their employees,” according to Cara Hale Alter, founder and president of SpeechSkills, a San Francisco-based communication training company, and author of The Credibility Code: How to Project Confidence and Competence When It Matters Most (Meritus, 2012).

“For over two decades, I’ve studied this phenomenon with thousands of leaders,” she told SHRM Online in an e-mail interview. “I’ve identified 25 specific visual and auditory cues (explicit behaviors for posture, gestures, vocal skills and eye contact) that affect the perception of credibility.”

She provided three examples:

Keep your head level when speaking. “This means no raising or dropping your chin, which can appear aggressive or submissive,” she wrote. “The power of this one skill -- to literally be levelheaded -- can be transformative.”

Speak with optimal volume. “In business, most people -- leaders included -- speak too softly or drop their volume at the end of sentences,” Hale Alter explained. “If you want to be a strong voice, speak with a strong voice.”

Hold eye contact for three to five seconds. “There is a difference between making eye contact and holding eye contact,” she wrote. “Duration is critical, and in the Western world, holding eye contact for three to five seconds is considered optimal.”

Key messages should be repeated to ensure understanding, Kovary added. “Some communication theories suggest that messages need to be heard seven times before they are fully internalized,” she wrote. “With this in mind, it is important to communicate key messages more than once, using multiple delivery mechanisms (e.g., face-to-face, e-mail, presentation, tweet, etc.) This will also appeal to a diverse employee base that may wish to consume communications in different ways.”

Trust leads to engagement

Kovary suggested that leaders keep three principles in mind to build a trusting and engaged work force:

Transparency. Leaders are open, honest and forthcoming with information, including motives and intentions, regardless of employee level or role. Everyone knows how their role impacts the big picture.

Responsiveness. Leaders listen to employees, solicit their feedback and commit to taking action in a timely manner. Expectations are managed.

Partnering. Leaders recognize that employees are equal partners and investors in the business and therefore seek a win-win relationship with all employee groups. Leaders consider themselves as part of the team and act collaboratively.

“Trust forms the foundation for higher levels of retention, productivity and performance—critical to getting the ‘above and beyond’ behaviors that contribute to organizational success,” said JC Heinen, senior vice president and leadership development global practice leader for Lee Hecht Harrison, in an Aug. 1, 2012, press statement, but noted that first trust must be earned.

“To help build organizational trust, today’s leaders can find opportunities to connect, stay visible, communicate more and show genuine interest in their employees,” Heinen said.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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