Trust, Employees, and Success Are Inextricably Linked

By Mandy Wright


Talent Online Article

In the most basic sense of the word, “trust” is defined as an “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something,” according to Merriam-Webster. But what does trust mean in the context of business? “You have to listen and learn, and only then can you lead,” is the philosophy of Oscar Munoz, chair of United Airlines Holdings and an independent director who serves on the boards of CBRE Group and Univision Holdings.

In May, NACD, Edelman, and Grant Thornton hosted a virtual panel to explore rising levels of public trust in corporations and the board’s role in fostering this during the first-ever Leading Minds of Trust event, moderated by Lindsey Baker, associate director of partner relations at NACD. In addition to Munoz, panelists were John P. Bilbrey, a director at Campbell Soup Co., Colgate Palmolive Co., Tapestry, and Elanco Animal Health; Richard Edelman, CEO of the eponymous consulting firm; and Janet Malzone, regional audit leader and incoming national managing partner of audit at Grant Thornton. Below are key responses to questions from the event.

What is trust, and how has it changed in recent years?

Richard Edelman: We define trust in a very simple way, which falls into four buckets: ability, which means the company can deliver good products, for example; dependability, which means they do it all the time; integrity, which means that the company has certain core principles; and purpose. What’s happened since the 2008 recession is [that Edelman Trust Barometer survey respondents] moved from focusing 75 percent on ability [in how they perceived trust], to only 25 percent on ability. So now, 75 percent is about dependability, integrity, and purpose.

And, as of January, business has become the most trusted institution [compared to government, media, and nongovernmental organizations] for the first time in the 20 years that we’ve been following this. Business has always been seen as able, but not ethical. This year, it was the only group seen as both competent and ethical.

We’ve seen examples of this throughout the pandemic. Take Oscar [Munoz], for example. When he had to furlough people at United, he said, “We’re going to bring you back as soon as flying comes back, and maybe even sooner, and we’re going to go get government aid.” Even in difficult situations, companies were able to at least get credit for being straightforward and humane. Those are key words.

Media is in a tough spot right now, as we’re in a state of information bankruptcy. Government is deeply disappointing, and nongovernmental organizations are nowhere to be found. What are we to do? We’re relying on businesses—and that is a hefty weight for companies to carry.

There are so many different stakeholders today. Where do employees fall in the ranking of concerns, and how does trust come into play in the relationship between business and employee?

John P. Bilbrey: I started my career at Procter and Gamble. I believe it was [former Procter and Gamble chair] Brad Butler who said, “Look, if all the [company’s] buildings burned and all the assets went away, but I had the people, I could rebuild the company with great certainty, and we would continue to be a great company.” That always stuck with me as to how important the fabric and the people of the organization are. I don’t think there’s ever really a world in which you can’t think of consumers and your colleagues, as they’re at the top of the pyramid.

We also talk a lot about culture. I like to remind everyone that culture is a result of what you do, culture is not a result of what you say in advance, or saying, “This is how things are going to be.” Trust is fundamental to that. It’s born out of what you believe, why you believe it, and then the principles and values of the organization. If you’re clear on those things, so many other things are made easier, because there’s this connectivity around a common belief system, and it guides behaviors. Transparency is at the center of that, which leads to predictability because people know you’re going to say what’s actually happening. And when you’re guided by these principles and values, the whole system works better, and that adds to speed and effectiveness.

How have the last 14 months tested and changed corporations’ responsibilities toward their employees? How can boards help their teams now?

Janet Malzone: People are stressed. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re worried about this virtual environment and remote work. Over 70 percent of the workforce is saying that this period of time has been the most stressful of their professional careers. Usually when we see stress in a workforce, we see employee engagement drop and it doesn’t come back up for a couple years. And turnover increases.

We’re also seeing engagement issues based on this virtual environment because people are often only relating to their direct teams. They’re lacking camaraderie. Young people feel this more acutely than the higher levels. The higher levels are flourishing, but they are disconnected from the actual employee experience. Younger people are saying that they’re not feeling empathy or authenticity from the higher levels of leadership.

Studies say that 50 percent of the workforce is planning to find a new job in 2021 post-pandemic, and a higher percentage of those people are female. If you combine that with the number of diverse women that have left the workforce over the past year, that is a huge impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s going to take several years to rebuild to that.

What should you be doing as a board member? There are several actions. Ask your management team, How much are company leaders communicating? How often are they communicating? How open and how transparent are they being? What is the messaging about what post-COVID work looks like? Your people are watching these actions to determine if they trust management. Also, ask management what they’re doing to identify top performers and flight risks. You’ve probably heard about exit interviews, but do you have “stay” conversations? Are you reaching out to those top performers and saying, “I see you, I appreciate you, and I know you are important to this organization”? Finally, it’s time to reevaluate culture.

How can a company and its board develop a deep understanding of the changing needs of employees?

Oscar Munoz: I emphasize listening. Don’t just run around and do a bunch of surveys. We sometimes reach to sources outside of our environments for information about what’s wrong with us and how people are really feeling inside our companies. But there’s a very simple and cheap way of getting the answer—it’s inside your company.

The things that employees tell you are not always correct. The solutions that they suggest are usually untenable or impractical—everybody wants a pay raise. But their perception is their reality. Truly listen, and say, “I am hearing you, I understand, though I’m not agreeing to what you’re suggesting, and we may agree to disagree.” Offer that human interaction and consciousness. Human beings like for someone to just give a hoot about them. When you show them that genuine caring, you’ll learn a lot more about what’s really driving the emotion, the tone, the tenor.

We built something called “core four” [at United] and part of the core four is a concept called caring. If you act in a way that is indeed caring, you can’t get in trouble for that. You could say, “I held the plane, I know I’ve delayed our timetable, but there were 16 people, it was the last flight of the day. If I didn’t hold that plane, they were spending the night.” That’s very practical. For us, the formation of simple concepts like our core four and the ability to exercise your own judgment [allows employees to say,] I matter, I care. We may cause a delay here and there, but at the end of the day, it leads to a level of trust from our employees and customers.

How do you balance differing opinions within the organization and what you speak out on?

Bilbrey: Your authenticity is what people respect. We have to recognize that it’s okay to disagree, but you do have to be civil in your conversations, discussions, and debate. Just be transparent. When you are, you can actually be effective. When people quit talking to each other, it never turns out well. It seems as though it is far better to be dissatisfied in talking—we are always listening and learning.

Mandy Wright is senior editor of Directorship magazine.