Building trust and letting it go

Sometimes you need to know how to work it

5 August 2016
By Sarah Lee, Assistant Manager, PwC Malaysia

We’ve all seen them. Those top ten lists on the coolest offices to work at, often billed as places that allow employees more leeway to decide how they work as long as they can perform at their peak.

Such companies are seen to be more trusted by their people, for the simple fact that they can take their work where they want – to the games room, the beanbag corner, the office café, cafés outside – and not have to report back regularly to the boss, so long as they can deliver.

So have these companies cracked the code on building trust among employees then? After all, they are associated with stronger workplace cultures, or are they?

Does trust come from ‘feeling good’ when you have more freedom and less rules around your work? And do start-up companies or less structured businesses find it easier to build trust compared to companies with more structured processes?

I beg to differ. While building trust starts by creating a great place to work for your employees, it goes beyond the fluffy stuff, the things we have come to equate as “culture” like the proverbial beanbags, foosball tables or even the ‘work where you want’ concept.

Building trust runs much deeper than that. It’s not so much freedom in the literal sense but more of empowerment to allow your employees to make the right decisions when it comes to serving the customer.

While it’s about giving your employees autonomy in their jobs, it’s also about giving them a stake in the future of the business. Companies would do well to seek the opinions and ideas of their people if they were to consider a new way of doing business, for instance.

Digitising the business is one example. When you reengineer your business processes, you may want to consider doing a focus group with a diverse group of employees to get their views on making this great leap forward. Consider engaging the Gen Y who’s keen to contribute ideas, the techie who always has his finger on the pulse of tech advancements, the sceptic who may favour changes that are more incremental than radical.

Focus on shared, instead of personal goals. Because let’s face it, people have different agendas. This includes the leader of the organisation. They may want a strong culture, but pay lip service to it, because they feel the bottom line is more important. They may expect their employees to be more ‘innovative and dedicated in going the extra mile for the customer’, but do little to set the tone because they are time-poor. This will be a major setback if they want to inspire trust through their leadership and the structures they put in place.

There are several multinational companies that have put structure into how they engage their employees, giving them a sense of ownership in the company’s goals, and by extension, earning their people’s trust.

Think Google whose “20% Time” has led to the development of Google News, Gmail and AdSense, thanks to a policy that encouraged employees to spend 20% of their time on top of their regular projects to work on what they think will most benefit Google. Colgate Palmolive created a “recognition economy” by distributing symbolic wooden nickels to colleagues who made noteworthy contributions to their projects.

Perhaps in some sense, they may have cracked the code to building trust, even though they’re not small or as fluid in their processes, as the typical start-up. Google for one, makes virtually all its performance management decisions based on data and analytics. This goes to show that structured processes are not counterproductive to building trust.

Most importantly, give trust to your employees before you expect them to trust you. The degree of trust you give though varies based on the type of business you are in. In the words of Malek Ali (1), Founder/Managing Director of BFM Media, consider whether your organisation is left-brained or right-brained. This will have an impact on the level of analytical or logical thought processes you need to apply in introducing policies built around trust.

A tech company which uses data to inform most of its processes would need more empirical evidence on the benefits of introducing a speak up policy for instance, compared to a fast- moving consumer goods company.

At the end of the day, trust is too dynamic to be defined solely in terms of flexibility or workplace perks in the traditional sense. Think big picture about how you want your employees to be ambassadors for your company amongst their social circle. Chances are, they will speak about the sense of pride they get out of contributing to the company’s goals, rather than the free ice-cream or working away from the office.


[1] Trust in business: Delivering authentic value, PwC, June 2016

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