All about trust: Part 1 – Organisational trust

Updated: Sep 21, 2020

In support of the upcoming IoIC London Region Annual Networking Event, I am running a short series of blogs on the event’s theme.

Trust is perhaps the most critical requirement for any communication to achieve its objective. If an audience doesn’t trust the source or what they are being told, no amount of great design or excellent writing will make a different. Trust in the context of organisational communications has many levels - trust in the organisation itself, trust in individual leaders, in management, between colleagues and even in the internal communications team and the channels used.

A whole book could be written on the subject of trust in communications (and likely has) so I am just going to broadly explore a few of the main areas, beginning with organisational trust - how it’s earnt and lost or maintained in the face of challenges, and what role IC can play in helping to create trust in an organisation.

Trust in an organisation is initially built through its brand and perceived reputation, which is then validated, or not, through a person’s actual experience as they begin to interact with that organisation. The gap between perception and experience affects where the level of trust is established. Often this is thought of as an external issue, but increasingly organisations are recognising the impact that their internal approaches can have on building trust with their audiences, and how internal experience can affect their own employees trust in them.

Not the company it seemed

When an organisation is not aligned in its words and actions, trust will quickly be lost. Externally this ultimately results in a loss of clients, market share and profits while internally this can reduce levels of productivity, loyalty, and retention. The crises that have plagued the ridesharing app, Uber, are good examples of this. Uber was seen by many as a youthful, cool, cutting edge company looking to revolutionise the taxi market for its customers, whilst also attracting employees with more flexible working practices. To a large extent, Uber was successful in this respect and the company grew rapidly. However, it wasn’t long until cracks started to show, initially through disgruntled employees demonstrating their dissatisfaction with their employment terms, then in 2017 a former employee publically blew the whistle on sexual harassment and gender inequality at the company. Not only did this result in a lot of negative publicity, but it eventually led to some very nervous investors, a loss of market share and the resignation of a number of senior leaders, not least the founding CEO.

Examples abound of employees who feel that their own integrity is being compromised by a inauthentic company reputation coming forward to share stories that shatter an organisation’s image. In the wake of the United Airlines passenger removal scandal, an internal communication was leaked to the media that, whilst admirably backing the employees, was disparaging towards the customer at the centre of the incident. Clearly this letter had left a bad enough taste in one employee’s mouth to lead them to share this with a more public audience, likely mindful of the PR backlash it would generate for their organisation.

Trust can be regained

However, it is usually what happens in the aftermath of such incidents that determines whether the company will suffer a sustained hit to their reputation or if trust can be, at least partially, regained. Starbucks showed how actions speak louder than words when they faced a crisis following an incident where two black men were forcibly removed from an outlet in Philadelphia, US. As well as releasing an apology (in the form of both a written statement and video), Starbucks followed up by closing 8,000 stores across the US six weeks after the incident to allow their staff to attend training that addressed issues around racial bias (which was perceived to be at the heart of the initial incident). Not only did this send a clear message to external stakeholders that the company was willing to do what was necessary to ensure the incident wouldn’t be repeated, but it also showed employees that the organisation was taking responsibility for the incident by addressing a gap in its training programme, as well as better preparing its employees to deal with similar incidents.

Building trust from the inside out

Organisations that build and maintain trust externally often work hard to do the same with their own employees. They will have an open and honest culture, free from fear and blame, with multi-way dialogue; one where everyone knows the company’s values and the behaviours expected of them; and where there is belief in the company’s purpose and customer promise and the motivation to deliver them.

Communications has a key role to play in enabling this, primarily through the facilitation of open dialogue throughout the organisation but also in the alignment and authenticity of messages. There are a few key questions that communicators can ask to ensure they are helping to build trust in the organisation:

  • Are the messages you communicate, both internally and externally, reflective of what really happens in your organisation? You should be able to identify proof points readily – if not, the message needs to be adjusted to better reflect the actual experience.

  • Are employees able to voice concerns when they don’t see alignment happening? How transparent is the organisation in dealing with any concerns? In large organisations it can be impossible to be sure that behaviours are consistent everywhere, with incidences often only brought to light when a customer complains or a crisis occurs. In many cases, employees may have known there was a issue but didn’t feel empowered to raise it or deal with it. IC channels can give employees the platform to highlight areas for improvement, and the opportunity to collaborate to identify solutions.

  • Does everyone in your organisation know and understand the company’s purpose, vision, values and ethics? Are they clear on what is expected from them in terms of behaviour and do they feel empowered to deliver the company’s promises? By sharing stories of ideal behaviours, whilst also communicating honestly and supportively when things go wrong, IC can help improve employees understanding. Providing a variety of feedback channels allows employees to become involved in building the narrative, whilst also helping IC to identify where they may be some gaps or misinterpretations that they can provide clarity around.

  • What can IC do to make communication more open and decentralised? Externally, we are now very used to seeing ‘unofficial’ sources providing information, whether that’s on social media sites like Twitter, or through review sites like Trip Advisor and the employer review site Glassdoor. Using technology and these new ways of communicating, trust can be built by allowing multiple sources to share information, provide feedback or even review things such as company benefits or regular courses and events.

Trust is a two-way street – by empowering your employees to have a voice the organisation is demonstrating trust in their expertise and their judgement. This in turn creates a virtuous circle since when employees feel they are trusted, whether that’s through a forum to share their view, or in other areas such as home-working practices, they themselves are more likely to trust their employer. This mutual trust is the foundation of an open and honest culture, where issues can be identified long before they become major incidents, and where behaviours that support the brand reputation are encouraged, supported and celebrated.

Do you have any examples of building (or regaining) trust in your organisation? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

If you're in the London area and are interested to hear more, make sure you are coming to the Institute of Internal Comms London Region Annual Networking event - Trust or Dare! on 13 September 2018.

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