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Paula Allen is the senior vice-president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell

Creating a trusting relationship between the work force and senior leadership has always been a priority in successful organizations. There’s an obvious reason why. Without that trust, employees simply won’t give their best – or be fully engaged – in the daily work of supporting the vision that senior leaders have for the organization. But if trust is so important, why do so many large Canadian organizations and businesses struggle to build it into their work force culture?

In research that Morneau Shepell conducted with employees across Canada, we have identified a “trust gap” in large organizations. Our recent survey of 84 Canadian companies, as part of our Employee Recommended Workplace Award program, revealed that 80 per cent of employees in small companies trust their senior leaders. That number drops to 70 per cent in large organizations. This trust gap, related as it is to organizational scale, provides an avenue into understanding the problem here.

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In smaller organizations, relationship building between senior leadership and the work force is, as expected, more organic. It’s more informal and includes more face-to-face interaction than in larger organizations. This is vital in fostering a dynamic that we call “two-way caring” – an important ingredient for building trust.

In larger organizations, it’s more of a challenge to create the reality of two-way caring, an environment where people feel they have a voice, a sense of belonging and that their well-being is supported. So what can leaders in larger organizations do to close the trust gap and enable two-way caring as a source of strength in their work force culture?

1. Set realistic expectations about trust-building. If a relationship can be described as a book, trust will not appear on page one, or even the first chapter. It’s more likely to appear much later, as a patient consequence of many actions, working together, to help people trust a situation or leader. Understand that what you do consistently over the longer term, not just what you say in the moment or any series of moments in the shorter term, affects the trust-building process.

2. Strive to operationalize the trust-building dynamics of a smaller company. Here are some questions for senior leaders to consider:

  • Are you committed enough to discussion forums – that is, town halls, breakfast meetings and employee round-tables – that favour informal conversation and candid debate with employees over formally scripted modes of communication?
  • Is there genuine respect across your organization – not retaliation, blatant or subtle – for people who speak their minds?
  • Are you empowering and training leaders at all levels – not just your senior team – as storytellers and conversation leaders, all toward breaking down the top-down bias in corporate storytelling?
  • Are you measuring the effectiveness of your communications channels with employees through surveys and other ethical data-generating techniques?

3. Personalize your digital channels. Many large organizations have invested in internal communications processes on powerful digital platforms. Too many don’t personalize how leaders use them and are satisfied with one-way forms of communications such as formulaic e-mail messages from the top. By definition, social-media platforms are about giving a voice to everyone with a digital connection, not just the corporate broadcasters at the top of the communications food chain. Ensure leaders respect and respond to those voices and, wherever possible, encourage people to start conversations, not just follow yours.

4. Trust your people, don’t patronize them. There is a tendency in large organizations to spin difficult news – or soften criticism – out of concern that employees may not be able to handle the truth. This is outdated thinking and patronizing. It doesn’t mean being harsh or insensitive but rather holding yourself and your leaders to a higher standard in telling it like it is.

5. Invest in the well-being of your people. If you want to really assess what’s holding your organization back from building trust between employees and senior leadership, evaluate the policies and programs of your culture from the perspective of how you contribute to the financial, social, physical and mental well-being of your people. No matter how creatively you communicate, if employees don’t believe you care for their well-being, you’ll never earn their trust or get them to care about the success of the organization. While two-way caring suggests a relationship between equals – each party responsible to the other – there is much more accountability on the organization and its leaders to set the conditions for trust to flourish.

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Trust-building is a journey. Are you on the right path?

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

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