Trust starts in the words that we use
I think it goes without saying that large parts of society have an issue with trust. Whether it is trust in politicians, trust in the media or trust in business. Institutions that once were seen as being cohesive forces in society are now the perpetrators, if not originators, of societal fragmentation.
At the heart of this mistrust is our inability to speak openly and honestly about subjects that are of mass importance, to be clear about the impact of change, to face into the repercussions of our actions. I wrote a few weeks ago about a session I did a number of years ago where I portrayed a rather bleak future on the back of the introduction of technology and how it fell on deaf ears compared to the sugar coated, unicorn riding, emancipation argument being offered on the other side. I’ll bet my house on which one of us is right.
The point though isn’t the change itself, it is our inability to be honest about the implications. And this is something that we see everyday in organisations, in the same way that the “self employed” delivery driver being measured by the second doesn’t recognise the benefits of technology allowing an executive to answer their emails from the Bahamas, too often we communicate an artificial version of the future that just doesn’t match with the reality that people experience.
Last month, Tesco announced around 4,500 job cuts in order to “serve shoppers better”. That’s right, having fewer employees in stores will be better for shoppers. Well I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of one time I’ve been in any retail outlet and thought, “I wish there were fewer employees here to serve me”. Of course the reality is that Tesco needs to cut overheads in order to compete on price and maintain its dividend and one of the most effective ways of doing that is through staff numbers. So why can’t they say that?
If we are going to try to regain trust in our organisations, in business as a whole, then we need to start by being honest. That means being straight up about the good and the bad, it means being honest when things will have a negative impact, it means facing into the implications of the decisions that we make. It means treating employees (see also voters readers and viewers too) as grown ups who are able to understand when they are being told the truth and when they are being fed an institutional mistruth.
Our corporate norms reject ideas of candour, the call for palatable half truths. Our corporate norms, however, have got us into this situation. Maybe now is the time to reappraise. If we can’t be open and honest, we can never truly build trust.