We live in divisive times, and many of the world’s most successful companies are struggling to adapt. Earlier this month, Google’s Chief HR leader Eileen Naughton stepped down after years of internal turmoil over a host of issues, including the company’s handling of sexual harrassment, crackdowns in workplace free speech, and the termination of employees who spoke out against Google’s contracts with U.S. immigration agencies. In the past year Tesla has seen departures of over 20 senior executives, including their senior HR leadership. This kind of high level turnover illustrates the challenges managers face in addressing the needs of an increasingly complex workforce. Passions flare as issues like sexual misconduct and differences in gender, age, race, religion, and sexual orientation all compete for air time.
The one thing everyone has in common is the expectation that the companies they work for genuinely care about them — personally and professionally. Managers now have to take responsibility for employee engagement in addition to KPIs and OKRs. At Google, the dissension was about internal employee policy, but it was also about how their business practices affected society at large. Companies expect their employees to be all-in, and in return, employees want to belong to a tribe that aligns with their personal values.
Creating that sense of belonging is only possible through a proactive cultivation of workplace trust. Trust isn’t a soft concept. Trust is the fabric of a healthy culture, and it has real economic value. To build trust, you have to start from a place of openness. It’s easy to extend the olive branch in tight communities with shared values or in friendly social circles. But today, the key challenge lies in building trust with people who are not like you — and often people you don’t particularly like.
4 simple steps to building trust with anyone:
1. I understand you
You can’t show respect for someone if you don’t understand them. Take time to get to know people before starting to work together. This sounds really simple, but many people jump into assignments and skip this critical step. This is like skydiving without checking your parachute. Today we have four generations in the workplace: Boomers, Gen X, Millenials and Gen Z. There are some big differences in values and preferences that can cause problems if you’re not aware of them. Find out what matters most to people: their aspirations, needs, strengths, hot buttons and concerns. If you show sincere interest you will learn how to best connect with, leverage, and communicate with them.
2. I appreciate you
Once you know more about a person, you will be able to show meaningful appreciation by recognizing the things that they care about. In this step, you prove that you actually see who a person is by acknowledging their values, motives, strengths and contributions. This is easy to do, but the gravitational pull of endless tasks often draws focus away from interpersonal connection. I have sat in countless team building sessions where people who’ve worked together for years learn really important things about each other for the first time. This kind of personal knowledge creates bonds that accelerate collaboration.
The other roadblock to appreciation comes from a general tendency to manage by exception, or default to “no news is good news.” In this approach positive behaviors are ignored and negative behaviors are singled out immediately. Not only is this a huge missed opportunity for building productive relationships, it is also a leading cause of turnover: 79 percent of people who quit their jobs cite a lack of appreciation as their main reason for leaving.
3. I have your back
Find out what it means to the other person to have his, her, or their back. Take the extra step of asking what success looks like for them and what they would like to see from you. Then you can support and stand up for them, even when they’re not in the room. Support does not translate to automatic agreement on your part, but it means that you will actively consider their interests, even when they compete with your own. This behavior makes the other person confident that you respect and appreciate them.
Think of this step as creating a “social contract,” a bit like a personal SLA (service level agreement). This is a high-quality agreement about mutual expectations on how to work together, not just what you will do for each other. In addition to clarifying roles and responsibilities, a social contract goes the extra mile in defining personal needs like communication preferences, desire for visibility, and inclusion in certain decisions. These first 3 steps build an emotional bank account with the other person, which lays a strong foundation for taking the next step.
4. I tell you the truth
When a disagreement or tough subject arises, address it directly and in a timely manner. Once you’ve established a strong relationship, it becomes much easier to have difficult conversations. The recipient knows your message is coming from a place of mutual respect and care. Think of this final step as relationship housekeeping. If you take care of issues before they fester, you won’t have such a big mess to clean up. And in the best cases, conflicts are opportunities for creativity and transformation. Ultimately, trust is cemented when it’s tested.
Practicing these steps requires conscious effort, and it often takes a back seat to the “real” work of day-to-day execution. But smart leaders understand the importance of this investment. Building trust goes a long way towards creating an environment of psychological safety, which Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School defines as “a climate in which people are comfortable being themselves.” That is a noble and essential goal to strive for in these times of polarization and discord.