People & Performance – August 99 issue                                      back to articles menu

"In God we Trust, others pay cash…"

In our teambuilding workshops, my colleagues and I frequently come across the Trust issue. When working with Management teams, the issue seems to be one of 'doubt of the subordinates’ competence', or a disbelief that Employees are capable of having the same passion, or commitment, that Management have. When working with Employee teams – who have no choice but to trust Managements’ competence - we often hear the comment "I wish Management were here so they could hear this", or worse, "Pity Management weren't receiving this training too..."

In some organisations that are well established and where both Employees and Management have significant length-of-service within the Organisation, where distrust is present it is often deep-seated and has been there so long, it is in fact a recognisable part of the culture. This is particularly true of organisations that have come through the 60's, 70's and 80's and where there is a strong Union influence on-site or has been in the past. The Union Vs the Employer fight has gone on for so long that, even though this partisan environment has changed dramatically since the advent in NZ of the Employment Contracts Act, many of these long-serving managers, Union officials and employees-as-delegates appear to be unable to break with the past, or even accept that change is possible. In some cases the status quo is clung to like a life raft afloat on an ocean of change…

It would appear (for these organisations at least) that hope may lie only in the passage of time - young Management and Union (or other representative) executives growing and developing perhaps without being 'infected' by the attitudes of some of their seniors on both sides who will in time retire anyway. A Brave New World awaits…

It never ceases to amaze me, the difference in 'atmosphere' that I experience when working with some of our older companies on one day, and then working with a younger organisation the next day. I could take you to a company in Aucklands’ eastern suburbs where the symptoms start in the car-park – management spaces are right by reception, visitors stuck down the back – and as you walk into reception, you are transported back to the 1960’s, dark oak panelling, a receptionist who doesn’t even look up to say the words ‘Can I help you’ in a Prozac-induced monotone let alone attempt a smile, followed by an argument between the person I have come to see and the receptionist as to who booked the meeting room first. I am not for a minute suggesting that all older organisations have this problem - I have recently worked with an 'older' organisation where we trained the Management in Negotiating Employment Contracts, and then the company paid for the Staff Representatives on-site to be trained by us in exactly the same content. The feeling of Management was that they wanted a robust, long-term contract, and that this would only come about by creating equity in terms of knowledge and skill on both sides of the negotiating table. Naive? Risky? Inviting trouble? It turned out not to be so. Staff returned the investment by bargaining hard, but not disruptively so. Negotiations that used to take 5 or 6 months, accompanied by industrial action, this time were over in a month with no industrial action.

In the above case, Management learned that Staff could be trusted to act reasonably where Management demonstrated reasonableness in the first instance and to act competently when training had been applied. They learned that they could begin to create an element of trust by communicating effectively and often, and that by paying for the education of staff they in fact made their own task easier. It is asking too much to expect Staff to place the Organisation's welfare ahead of their own (and therefore their family), but we did achieve an acceptance by Staff that the survival of the Organisation was directly and inextricably linked to their own welfare.

The Staff learned that Management could be trusted to consistently act with the Organisations interests as a first concern but that Management were fully aware that the Organisation only survived as long as it had an effective Staff. Both sides were 'empowered', if you'll forgive the use of that buzzword.

As an example of a complete LACK of trust, I once took on an assignment with a very mature Organisation, a division of a much larger group. I was asked by the then recently-appointed General Manager to take the Supervisor group (8 persons) through a series of formal training sessions. With one or two exceptions, these Supervisors had been with the company since it's formation in 1960, some 30 years prior. The GM reported that there was a problem with this group, that they were uncommunicative & unresponsive. New initiatives such as ISO9000 seemed to penetrate only as far as this group, then foundered.

From the start, it was a disaster. The Supervisors were ‘directed’ to attend, and were neither counselled nor consulted prior to. It took two hours of using every trick in the book to get much response at all, and then it was only to release such a torrent of group bitterness and abuse directed at management on-site and in fact any management anywhere in the world, living or dead, that I started to feel a bit like the Priest in the film 'The Exorcist'.

To cut a long story short, after 3 such sessions I could report that we had succeeded only in lancing the boil and that we had a big task ahead of us. For the first time, feelings were out in the open. The facts are that the company had changed ownership 8 times in the last 15 years. Each time, the company was purchased by a large corporate group, who used it to 'blood' new or up-coming senior management. Thus the Supervisor group had been subjected to a seemingly never-ending succession of new owners, and (to use their words) 'wet behind the ears young yuppies' arriving seemingly every year or so, possessed of a University education and little else, who only stayed at most one year.

Not surprisingly, the Supervisors had banded together years ago for self-protection, and developed a highly sophisticated system whereby any new Management initiative is, on the surface, received with much enthusiasm and support from the Supervisors. This new initiative is then quietly pulled into the Supervisors ‘ruck’ in mid-field out of sight of the referee, and 'knobbled' - a kick here, a slashed tendon there - until it falls lifeless, a failure. The Supervisors then advise Management that they knew all along it wouldn't work, and that Management should really 'leave the real running of the place to us - after all, we've been doing it for thirty years', with the unspoken addition ‘and you're only here for another few months anyway’. In their place, can you really blame them?

In the end, Management chose not to continue with Supervisor training, and asked us instead to train a large group of Leading Hands. That worked fine, except that, not surprisingly, their Supervisors were dead against it. Fortunately the enthusiasm of the Leading Hand group overcame the negative verbiage unleashed on them each time they returned from a training session.

In this instance, I'm not sure there will ever be a happy ending (which will only come about through the creation of Trust), unless either a strong, mature Management team is appointed for at least four years, along with some serious counselling work, or unless that Supervisor group is removed entirely or disbanded within the larger group of companies. Which is a bit unfair, considering that they are, to a very real extent, a product of Management actions and inactions in the past.

As a final comment, I have read several articles on the subject of Trust, but I didn't see any discussion or comment on 'historical reasons for a lack of Trust', and it seems to me that in serious situations where such mistrust is a major impediment then we have to somehow bring out the causes of that mistrust, no matter how far in the past they occurred, and deal with them before we can proceed any further. Otherwise the 'trust' you may think you have created, may in fact be cosmetic only, a thin veneer. At the crucial point it may snap...

The drive to create Trust has to be initiated by Management, and the first risks taken by Management. It's quite likely you will experience reluctance among the Management team itself, which has to be dealt with quickly and visibly. Don't expect an immediate response from Unions or Staff Representatives, either. Building Trust takes time, and is based on constant communication and consistent actions, not merely verbalised intentions. The benefits are there for the taking, if you can achieve the goal.

If you can remember the building blocks for teams and apply them, you’ll be making a good start:

Clear role & objectives, ensuring that managements’ vision is transmitted and explained throughout the team at all levels, and where possible training and encouraging teams to set their own goals within the overall objective,

Mutual Support, recognising that each individual needs support at team level and that each team needs the support of the other – and that management is just another team in the Organisations’ structure.

Learning from mistakes, in fact ‘budgeting them in’, recognising that experiential learning is a powerful form of learning, that some skills are impossible to teach in a formal or simulated way and that mistakes are an essential part of that process both at team and individual level,

Shared Leadership, seen by some autocrats as abdication but in fact a recognition that decisions can made at all levels dependent only on information and training, that the further down the decision-making process permeates, the more ‘ownership’ teams and individuals have in the organisation – that elusive ‘passion or commitment’ that some management say employees don’t have, and last but not least,

Open Communication, the deliberate removal of ‘funnel-points’ (or gateways) erected by some in the truth that knowledge is power coupled with the misguided belief that they are the only ones capable of wielding it. Vital, strategic decisions are the domain of management but that does not preclude free-flowing two-way information paths to ‘poll’ staff where appropriate (pre-decision) or at least explain (post-decision). I may not like your decision, but I’m far more likely to support you if I understand why you made it. If you prick me, do I not bleed?

Happy trust-building,

(additional credit: Five Teambuilding factors – Ash-Quarry 'People Skills Series', Seven Dimensions, Australia)

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email:
Steve Punter 1999 All rights reserved by the author                                                                                                                                      back to articles menu