The Trust Factor

Employees who are kept out of the loop feel betrayed and become less productive.

One strength of many federal workplaces is the camaraderie-and even sense of family-among co-workers. When feds retire, they invariably say that what they'll miss most is the people.

What makes personal ties so strong among federal workers? One factor has to be the public service mission they share. Another is probably their staying power. During those long careers, many feds spend almost as much time with each other as they do with their families.

Those two factors create a deep sense of trust in many federal offices. And trust, as organizational psychologists and relationship advisers would agree, is the backbone of any relationship, personal or professional. Strong organizations and managers "know it's the people that really count," says Michelle Reina, who-with her husband and partner, Dennis, of Chagnon & Reina Associates in Stowe, Vt.-advises federal agencies and other organizations on building trust. "It's the people and the relationships that get the work done. Business is conducted through relationships."

That's a fairly obvious point to most managers, but it's one worth remembering. A common complaint among employees in many organizations, including government agencies, is they don't know what's going on. They lack information. In the absence of information, they do what anyone would do: They guess. In offices where trust is weak, it's natural for people deprived of information to assume the worst, so they develop distrust of their managers and spread false rumors. They become less productive, or less interested in their jobs. They check out.

Keeping employees in the know is just one daily relationship responsibility for managers. The Reinas advise managers to be mindful of how each of their actions affects their relationships with employees. Do managers do what they say they're going to do? Do they deal with poor performers? Do they reward and recognize good performance? It is the small, day-to-day things that build trust-or lead to a sense of betrayal among employees.

In offices with trust problems, it's usually the mundane issues that weaken employee-manager relationships. "What's eroding trust are not the big, big things; it's the little things that happen every day," Michelle Reina says. "They accumulate." For example, a manager who doesn't deal with one poor performer might discover employees developing a skewed image of reality. "A trust issue can distort our perceptions," Reina says. "There can be one nonperforming employee in our unit and the dynamic surrounding that can be so dysfunctional that we no longer see one nonperforming employee. We see all kinds of people not performing, and they're all getting away with quote-unquote murder. It becomes distorted."

Good managers are mindful of a simple fact: They are in relationships with their employees. And relationships require tending. Managers who fulfill their relationship responsibilities will have more informed, and more productive, employees.

Those who aren't mindful could find themselves stuck in a negative feedback loop, in which a manager's action or inaction leaves employees feeling betrayed, so they don't perform well. Or they might even undermine their bosses, making the manager feel betrayed, so he withholds information from the employees, who then begin to assume the manager is working against them. "There are two very important truths around trust," Michelle Reina says. "Trust begets trust and betrayals beget betrayals."

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