Develop Your Leaders, and Employee Trust Will Follow

leading group of colleagues

"When people trust that their boss is looking out for opportunities in which they can advance their career, that drives a tremendous amount of motivation and engagement." - Jordan Birnbaum, VP and Chief Behavioral Economist at ADP.

Organizations with high employee engagement, by definition, have high levels of employee trust. To learn more about how investing in leadership development changes how employees respond to leaders who prioritize trust, we talked with Jordan Birnbaum, VP and Chief Behavioral Economist at ADP. In Part 2 of this two-part conversation, Birnbaum further explores how leaders can build trust with employees in today's workplace.

Q. How can managers create personal relationships that build employee trust?

Birnbaum: "As I mentioned earlier, proactively demonstrating interest in people's lives is a great building block. Learning about employees as individuals and keeping tabs on what's going on with them helps create a rapport where trust can grow.

When leaders learn of something significant happening with an employee, such as a sick parent, they should go write it down and set a reminder on their calendar a week later to check in. A boss can say, 'Hey, how's your mom feeling? I know she was sick.' For an employee, that's a very meaningful indicator that somebody cares about you. That doesn't only matter for building trust — feeling like somebody cares about you at work is on its own one of the most powerful drivers of employee engagement.

Supporting employees' development and career advancement is a huge factor in building trust. When people trust that their boss is looking out for opportunities in which they can advance their career, that drives a tremendous amount of motivation and engagement. By extension, the employee becomes much more committed to the organization's success, and therefore enthusiastically puts in much more discretionary effort. Since the idea of career development is future based, and because trust is future-looking, they naturally support one another.

Fairness and consistency are also bedrocks of trust. As we mentioned, building trust is about helping people make better predictions about your future intentions and behavior. The perception of fairness establishes trust, and consistency strengthens and reinforces it.

Another area where you can really build trust is through transparency. When people have access to all relevant information, they can once again make better guesses about the future. The less things feel hidden, the more trust builds.

There are simple things you can do to increase transparency in ways that build trust. For example, if you ever speak well of someone to one of your senior managers and they're not around, tell them that you did that. They have no way of knowing that you have their back or that you're supporting them if you don't tell them. And of course, any time a leader can do things that employees can witness directly, all the better."

Q. How can leaders build personal connections with employees without becoming unprofessional?

Birnbaum: "It's a tricky balance, no question about it. Once you're socializing outside of work functions, that is probably a sign that you've crossed into an area that could become exceedingly difficult and problematic. I think that managers should always think to themselves, 'I could conceivably have to fire this person some day.' And use that as a guidepost for balancing your efforts to build a relationship while also maintaining an appropriate amount of separation.

Can you ask them about their sick parents? Of course. Can you ask them to tell your stories about their vacations? Yes. Can you go to their weddings? Yes. But should you be calling them at 10 p.m. on a Friday night while drinking just to chat? In most cases, that would be too much."

Q. How does employee feedback help inform a leader's behavior?

Birnbaum: "When done correctly, it's everything. How can a leader follow through on her intentions without understanding how her team perceives her? We mentioned earlier an example of a leader who believes she is being supportive while the team experiences him as being harshly critical. Good luck building trust with that dynamic. So leaders need to collect feedback, whether formally or informally.

But there's something really important to remember about feedback. It is not about whether that feedback is objective or accurate. It isn't. Feedback from people is entirely subjective and often more reflective of the inherent needs of the feedback provider. But that doesn't decrease feedback's relevance — it increases it. Knowing how their people perceive them ought to be a roadmap for how they engage with them moving forward.

Unfortunately, leaders often experience critical feedback as unfair and demoralizing, rather than as insight on how to get the most from this person. This can make providing and receiving feedback a complicated endeavor."

Q. How does ADP Compass help leaders build more trust with employees?

Birnbaum: "By facilitating feedback, ADP Compass is a leadership development tool that provides confidential and anonymous feedback to leaders from their teams, framing that feedback as indicative of team needs rather than managerial deficiencies. Because the feedback is kept confidential and not shared with a manager's supervisor or with human resources, there is no need for impression management, greatly increasing the chances that leaders focus on using the feedback to better serve their teams.

Unlike a performance evaluation, which tries to approximate an objective assessment of performance, ADP Compass focuses exclusively on the subjective experience of employees.

Once leaders receive that feedback, the support from Compass continues in the form of weekly email-based coaching on the area that ranked lowest among their employees. Supporting leaders in this way allows them to improve their leadership skills and build trust with employees without feeling as though the development efforts indicate some kind of failure on their part.

Similarly, the confidentiality and anonymity of Compass means that teams (the feedback providers) can feel safe to provide honest feedback, knowing that the coaching their managers receive will be based on that very feedback. Feeling prioritized in this way generally improves dynamics moving forward, helping to support motivation and engagement.

It's been very meaningful to substantively improve the relationships between leaders and teams for so many clients."

Go Deeper

Part 1: If You Build Trust, Engagement Will Come

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