In August of 2015, The New York Times gave an insider’s account of life at the hugely successful online retailer Amazon. Workers described a hyper-competitive workplace where team members have to produce or else as the company boasts of “unreasonable” expectations. Most chilling perhaps was the report that Amazon’s internal directory provides contact information allowing employees to give anonymous feedback to others’ supervisors. Apparently, Amazon is a place of innovation, excellence, and performance – but not trust or joyful employee engagement.
The number one controllable predictor of organizational success is employee engagement. So, what’s the best way to insure your employees are engaged?
We’ve been preoccupied with this question for two decades in our work at TAG Consulting (www.tagconsulting.org).
Engaged employees are found in organizations with a great corporate culture. If you search “great corporate culture,” you’ll get 165,000,000 results! Our clients, such as QuikTrip and Balfour Beatty, are often featured in “best places to work” studies found in those results.
But the answer to the question “What does it take to create a great culture?” has remained elusive. At TAG, we have been researching that question since 1998 through an employee survey called The Engagement Dashboard (TED). Our database contains thousands of records from organizations in all three sectors – public, private, and social. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses of the American workforce, and our research was highlighted at the American Academy of Management in 2000.
One of the survey questions revealed an organization has a healthy culture when employees affirm that “Management can be counted on to come through when needed.” A factor analysis of our data reveals that this statement correlates at a very high level with the other 100+ items contained in TED. Any statistician will tell you that this is groundbreaking.
The number one ingredient in shaping a healthy culture is trust in leadership.
Trust is difficult to establish and easy to crush.Building trust is like a dimmer switch that takes years and years to turn on.Losing trust is like a light switch that turns a room dark in an instant.Establishing trust requires consistency, clarity, an ongoing presence, personal and professional support, and availability.This finding offers no quick fix.But it is essential and non-negotiable.
Our research reveals the four most significant facets of creating trust.
In organizations with trustworthy cultures, management can be counted upon to come through when needed. Leaders keep the promises they make, they are consistent, and their actions are predictable. Trustworthy organizations make and keep promises.
Dependable leaders are predictable and consistent when other leaders would cut corners, flinch on standards, or take easy ways out. In times of stress, employees in trustworthy organizations feel that their leaders care for them personally and will do anything possible to support them as individuals within the boundaries of the values and mission of the organization.
Trustworthy organizations excel in three facets of communication: how they manage information, how they communicate direction, and how they clarify expectations.
Trustworthy leaders share as much information as possible, defaulting to transparency, not secrecy. Making frequent use of digital newsletters, all hands meetings, and regular open ‘office hours’ for senior leaders, organizations with a healthy culture open the curtains and shine bright lights on important decisions. They engage all the stakeholders, whenever possible, before making big decisions.
Trustworthy leaders ensure all employees know the organization’s values, challenges, opportunities, and direction. From entry level to C-suite, people in the organization know why the organization exists and where it’s going next.
Every team member has a sense of how his or her own contributions shape and influence the overall direction of the organization. People crave to contribute, belong, and make a difference, and robust communication about organizational direction is key here.
Finally, most employees are asking of their leaders “What do you expect of me? What is in bounds, what is defined as success, and how can I know I am making my best contribution?” The most trustworthy organizations make expectations crystal clear and they do so in a systematic and intentional way.
The learning organization is marked by two characteristics: it learns as a collective, and it provides for the ongoing learning of its members.
A trustworthy culture has systems, processes, and structures that share best practices and benchmarking in its industry. It learns from its own mistakes.
Further, the best organizations have systems in place to encourage several specific behaviors – initiative, appropriate risk, problem-solving, and personal development. This emphasis on personal development marks stellar organizations.
Our research indicates that the most engaged employees feel that they are valued beyond what they bring to the organizational table – they count as individuals.
We heard repeatedly “Our leaders really care about me as a person” in organizations with trustworthy cultures. To be sure these organizations excel at workforce development and continuing education but beyond that they will give their people great opportunities to grow and stretch, whether this is by paying for community college classes, offering retreats for personal growth, and even paying for employees to take a day and explore a personal passion.
Finally, trustworthy organizations are known for their collective integrity and the integrity of their leaders.
People don’t leave organizations – they leave leaders. People give up great jobs with generous salaries if they don’t find their leaders trustworthy. But they will endure lower pay and greater challenges if their leaders live as the same person in public and in private.
There is a collective aspect to integrity as well. Every day, engaged employees know that they can trust their organization to do the right thing. A climate of integrity creates employees who make countless daily decisions that are full of integrity.
As you take steps to put into place a culture marked by trust characterized by dependability, clear communication, opportunities for learning, and individual and corporate integrity you will have the foundation for a truly great organization poised to discover and savor its unique Secret Sauce!
– Kevin Graham Ford is a Principal and was founding President of TAG Consulting. Kevin’s expertise includes strategic planning, organizational development, market research, and leadership development. Jim Osterhaus is a Senior Partner with TAG Consulting. Jim holds a Ph.D. from American University. Their newest book is The Secret Sauce: Creating a Winning Culture (CLICK HERE to get your copy).
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