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Why some employees find it hard to trust companies

Imagine me walking into a corporate executive's office.

Imagine me walking into a corporate executive's office.

Me: How important is trust to the health of your workplace?

Executive: Why, it's critical.

Awkward pause.

Executive: Who are you? And why are you in my office wearing pajamas?

Me: I'm America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist. I wear what I please.

Then the police come, and there's some unpleasantness. All in the name of trust!

Most managers and employees agree trust is the foundation on which a happy workplace is built.

But a new survey by ELI Inc., a corporate training company that focuses on workplace conduct, found that about 30 percent of working people don't believe there is a "climate of trust" at their company. And about half the respondents complain that mangers tend to say one thing and do another.

This falls in line with similar surveys I've seen, and it raises the question: Why is this so hard?

Stephen Paskoff, president of ELI and a former trial attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said companies get so tied up with communication – sometimes devoting months to crafting mission statements – that they lose focus on day-to-day behavior.

"Many leaders don't really recognize that trust is a business imperative," Paskoff said. "And trust is about behavior. Companies in general struggle with all the words, but the words aren't what really matters. It's the underlying behaviors, and that's what needs to change."

Through its research, Paskoff's company has come up with three questions to help managers gauge their trustworthiness. They are also guideposts for simple ways to increase workplace trust.

–Do you do what you say you'll do?

–Do you tell the truth and admit when you make mistakes or when something changes?

–Do you listen to concerns or ideas and let employees know how they'll be handled?

This isn't difficult stuff. In many ways it boils down to the I Just Work Here mantra: Be a decent human being.

I agree with Paskoff's assertion that we tend to obsess on words, but I'd take it a step further and say we're too sensitive. We hesitate to say "You're wrong, and this is why," just as much as we hold off praise. We want trust and honesty, yet we seem to be afraid to be honest.

Jake Breeden, a leadership coach and author of the book "Tipping Sacred Cows: Kick the Bad Work Habits That Masquerade As Virtues," thinks part of the problem is the relentless pursuit of workplace fairness.

Humans are inclined to treat others fairly, as Breeden notes in his book: "MRI studies have shown the reward network in our brain is activated when we see people treated fairly."

But fairness can be subjective.

Breeden said we tend to assume that the needs and wants of others are the same as our own.

In his book, he wrote: "The first side effect of fairness is self-focus. The pursuit of fairness may cause you to treat others the way you want to be treated, without taking the time to discover if their needs are different from yours. Our brain's reward network needs help."

A manager might not like it when someone tells him bluntly that he made a mistake, so he assumes his employees also like criticism softened. But what if an employee would rather be told directly that she has screwed up?

That employee is going to struggle to trust the manager if she doesn't believe he's being honest with her.

"People tend to burden themselves needlessly," Breeden said. "They burden themselves with concerns over, 'What do I think this person wants? What do I think is the right thing to do? What does my company want me to do?' I'd say to them, 'Why don't you just call it as you see it? Why don't you just speak the truth?'"

Our workplace behavior is gummed up by fear of offending others and the desire to make sure everything seems fair. Whether it's from too much ill-conceived leadership training or from the way nonsensical corporate speak has invaded the lexicon, our ability to build trust is hampered.

We need to shake loose. If you want to build trust, interact with your colleagues – and trust them too. Don't assume everyone thinks the way you do – ask them how they think, how they prefer to be rewarded or criticized. Communicate and establish a path toward trust and stick to it, even if it isn't the path you'd choose.

We have made this complicated, and it shouldn't be.

And check out Breeden's book, as it nicely knocks down some of the walls we've built. Paskoff's company website ( has tips for building trust and simplifying workplace thinking.

Trust me, it's worth your time.



Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.


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