Business development · 4 June 2019

The SME employer’s guide to building trust in your leadership

New research reveals bad news for CEOs in the trust department. Employees trust their CEOs less than they did seven years ago, according to The Institute of Leadership & Management.  Here’s what you can do to steer your startup with a trust injection.

Released today, the Trust in Leaders report reveals the levels of trust in British leaders and managers, and how it has changed over the last seven years.

Trust helps organisations to run smoothly, increases engagement, improves processes, drives individual and team performance, ultimately benefitting the customer or service user. “The more CEOs are trusted, the more likely employees are to believe in their ability to navigate the organisation through difficult times of economic uncertainty, such as those we are experiencing with Brexit,” says Kate Cooper, head of research, policy and standards at The Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM).

ILM has carried out research into business trust since 2009 to see how employees perceive the trustworthiness of organisations and their bosses.  Using an overall trust score out of 100 across seven dimensions of trust (ability, understanding, fairness, accessibility, openness, integrity and consistency), The Institute surveyed more than 800 leaders and managers to assess whether the levels of trust had changed since the last research was carried out in 2011.

The 2018 findings revealed workers trust their CEOs considerably less – 8% less to be exact – than they did in 2011.

Respondents noted the biggest performance failing for CEOs was understanding the role of their employees and the contributions they make.

“With a decline in trust being a recurring theme reported in the media – against the backdrop of organisations going into administration and falling rates of productivity – CEOs are so much more high profile than they used to be,” says Cooper.

“Headlines about high levels of CEO remuneration, putting their own interests over those of the company and, most importantly, their employees, haven’t helped the situation, so it’s not surprising levels of trust have fallen over the last few years.”

So how do you rebuild trust? Very few people go out on a limb to start their own business only to alienate their teams and create a divisive work culture. If your team loses faith in their captain, who will they look to for guidance to steer the ship? Where do you go from there?

Check in with your staff

The first step is to figure out what your staff actually thinks of you. “For any organisation to be successful, trust is not ‘a nice to have’, but is intrinsic to the culture of the organisation,” explains ILM’s Cooper. Whether through an anonymous staff survey or one-to-one meetings with your team, run an audit of your leadership by asking the right questions.

A leadership audit checklist

Employee engagement has a direct correlation to the effectiveness of your leadership. Low staff morale can lead to disengagement, loss of productivity, and attrition. There are multiple free resources you can use to create an anonymous staff survey, including Google Forms and SurveyMonkey. Some HR Management software also provides anonymised feedback for managers, while sending automated survey reminders to staff so everyone responds to these crucial questions. We’ve compiled a few sample questions and scenarios to help you get started.

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you at work?
    If there’s one question to ask your employees regularly, it’s this.  It’s the most direct of questions to ask employees regarding workplace satisfaction and it’ll help you gauge company morale at regular intervals so you can adapt your policies.
  2. Would you refer someone to work here?
    How likely an employee would refer someone can reveal how satisfied this person is at their job.
  3. Do you have a clear understanding of your career or promotion path?
    Find out if your staff have a clear understanding of what lies ahead of them in their career. If their answers are negative, you might be dropping the ball with employee engagement. The answer to this question could help you figure out whether your business needs to start offering developmental opportunities to keep people engaged.
  4. Hypothetically, if you were to quit tomorrow, what would your reason be?
    This may be a loaded question, but the answer to this will inform you if your employees feel like they’re valued and engaged enough to stay or if there are underlying issues that are driving them to look elsewhere for work.
  5. Do you feel valued at work?
    Feeling valued at work is a huge motivator. This open-ended question can be presented as a free-form text box so your employees can let it all out.
  6. How frequently do you receive recognition from your manager?
    If your team say they’ve gone more than two weeks without recognition, there’s a good chance morale is dropping.
  7. Do you believe you’ll be able to reach your full potential here?
    Think back to when you hired your key staff. Chances are you were impressed by their drive and passion, which is like rocket fuel in a small business. Employees want to work at a place that will nurture their desire for growth. This question can reveal whether your promotions, pay rises and other key markers for progress are effective in motivating your staff. 
  8. On a scale of 1 to 10, how likely are you to reapply to your current job?
    Happy employees look forward to coming into work and supporting your vision for your startup. If they enjoy what they’re doing, chances are they’d go back and do it all over again. The scaled format of this question can provide you with an idea of where in the spectrum your employees sit on average.
  9. Do you foresee yourself working here one year from now?
    If a majority of your employees are saying they don’t see themselves working here in one year, you’ve got some changes to make. And fast!
  10. Do you believe the leadership team takes your feedback seriously?
    People don’t usually join small businesses for the huge pay packets or a cushy life. Passion is one immeasurable trait that every startup runs on, which is why this question can reveal whether your employees feel heard and valued. When leaders don’t take feedback or suggestions seriously, it shows that they’re not committed to making improvements, which can kill passion and loyalty in even the most driven employees.
  11. Do you feel like the management team here is transparent?
    There are some things you may not be at liberty to share with the wider team, but when it comes to short, medium and long-term plans, as well as goal-setting, it’s crucial to involve every member of your small business. Do they feel like you’re open with them? This question may be very telling.
  12. What three words would you use to describe our culture?
    Find out what your employees think about your culture with this question. Culture can make or break an SME, so use the results to find ways to strengthen and improve your culture to suit your employees’ needs.
  13. On a scale of 1 to to 10, how would you rate your trust in the leadership team?
    Are the leaders in your business building a positive work environment or a negative one? With this question, you’ll be able to dig a little deeper to find out how well leaders are upholding company culture.
  14. Do you feel comfortable giving feedback to your line manager and/or leadership team?
    Employees should feel comfortable providing feedback to their supervisors so that they can continue to offer suggestions for improvements. This question may also reveal any instances of workplace bullying or something your senior management team may not be telling you.
  15. Do you have fun at work?
    This may seem like a facetious question, but it has hidden depths. If your employees see coming into work everyday as a worthwhile and enjoyable endeavour, that’s half the battle won.

Examine your leadership style

Now that you have an idea of how your employees feel at work, use this feedback to identify your own leadership style. Whether you consider your leadership style as autocratic, democratic, transformational or laissez-faire, your ultimate aim is to keep your business running smoothly; which includes keeping your staff happy.

Love Energy Savings recently conducted a study on employee satisfaction, investigating how UK employees would rate the performance of their managers. The statistics were largely positive, with almost 50% of respondents rating their managers’ performance as good or excellent.

However, 20% of respondents claimed that they work with an inadequate manager. This would indicate that some managers are struggling to build a rapport with their employees, which could have an impact on staff loyalty, retention and ultimately affect their company’s bottom line.

Common mistakes leaders can avoid

To better understand why so many workers are dissatisfied with their company’s management, we need to take a closer look at the root causes. There are many common issues that can be easily avoided, and if approached properly, can empower staff to perform to the best of their abilities.

1. Give your staff space to excel

When you have a lot of responsibilities as a manager, it’s only natural to want to get stuck in and make sure things are running smoothly. The danger here is that there’s a thin line between taking care and taking over.

Nobody likes to be micromanaged, and by doing so you’re advertising the fact that you don’t trust your team enough to let them do their jobs without supervision.

By taking a step back and showing your employees that you trust them, they’ll feel empowered – after all, you hired them for a reason.

2. Show you value your staff

As a manager, your staff are your greatest asset, however, too many people take their employees for granted. Thinking of your business as a well-oiled machine may be a good way to visualise your day-to-day operations, but your team are more than just cogs.

Lucia Knight, a career satisfaction coach, says that “Many of the individuals I work with feel that no one really cares about their career within their organisation, just what’s needed from them”.

She goes on to offer a simple solution to this: “a ten-minute real listening exercise can really nip some small problems in the bud before they become big problems in the future”.

By understanding what makes your team tick, you’ll be able to help them overcome any issues and excel in their careers.

3. Leave your ego at the door

When working in a position of authority, it’s crucial to make sure you’re not abusing your power. It can be all too easy to assume that you know best, after all, you are the boss.

Not only will staff morale plummet in the shadow of your ego, but you’ll lose your objectivity, which could lead to poor business decisions. Recognise that you have teams of intelligent and enthusiastic employees at your disposal, giving you a pool of expertise to put to good use.

Sue Andrews, Business and HR Consultant at KIS Finance, recognises the importance of listening to and understanding your team. She says that “Empathy is not always at the top of the list of characteristics that people see as essential in a good leader. But without the ability to place themselves in others’ shoes, and see the wider picture, leaders run the risk of taking an autocratic approach, which may eventually prove unpopular with those around them”.

Rely on your line managers

“Our research clearly shows there is a lack of trust at the top level, but interestingly, it is being maintained at the more personal level of line manager.  This is bad news for CEOs and should be a wake-up call for them,” adds ILM’s Kate Cooper.

“The more someone trusts a colleague, manager or team member, the greater the likelihood that they will collaborate, share information and work effectively together.”

Your line managers are your eyes and ears on employee performance, morale and everything else in between. Lean on them in your meetings to check in on how the wider team is doing, and make sure they know you support them with any development projects for individual employees.

Stop scaring away talent!

The extent of poor SME leadership in the UK has been revealed in another piece of independent research from Process Bliss, which surveyed 1000 small business employees. It reveals that 45% of SME employees have quit a job because of a boss. 60% believe the business would work better if they were left to get on with their job, while 40% of respondents believe the boss interfering in their role adversely affects company productivity. The infographic below from Process Bliss reveals more.

What can leaders do to inspire staff?

Although managers can fall into bad habits, there are a number of ways to make sure you’re appropriately managing your employees. Here is some guidance on how you can ensure you’re enabling your employees to flourish.

1. Invest in your staff

Your employees are your strongest commodity, so it’s only right that you invest the time into helping them grow and develop their skills. Without proper attention, you’ll find your team will quickly stagnate if they’re not pushed to achieve their highest potential.

Let your staff get their hands on an exciting new task to flex their creative muscles and break the day-to-day monotony of their regular work. This will give them something new to try, as well as show them that you have faith in their abilities.

It’s also crucial to make sure you put personal development plans into place – giving your employees the chance to have a say in how they want to progress and giving you the chance to say how you’ll help them achieve it. By investing in your staff, you’re helping to shape the future leaders of your organisation.

Mireille Harper, PR & Communications at Catalyst Collective, believes that a business’ success rests on how well it can adapt to new ideas. She says “In today’s rapidly changing and dynamic world, our companies need the value that diversity brings. Good leaders seek to find, promote, develop and champion those who’ve historically been excluded from leadershipin the workplace”.

“Strong leaders can handle the ambiguity and creative tensions that come with diversity, and still foster an environment of inclusion, value and respect, where each person can show up at their best”.

2. Be transparent

If you want your employees to respect you as a manager, you need to be open and honest with them. By creating a culture of communication, you’re empowering your staff to ask more questions and gain a better understanding of the direction of your business.

Showing your team that you’re all in it together is the quickest way to create a real connection – rekindling their sense of purpose and reminding them why they’re there.

3. Be a leader who inspires their team

Actions speak louder than words. Think about your own performance and how you’ve managed situations in the past. Take the time to reflect on your experiences: could you have seen better results if you had reacted differently to the situation?

Every failure and success story should be used as a learning experience to help your team reach new heights and avoid mistakes. Self-reflection helps you and your team develop and shows that you’re all working towards shared targets.

Bob Bradley, managing director and founder of MD2MD, knows how inspiring your staff can help your business reap the benefits. He says “Business leaders have three choices. They can try to command hierarchical power, expert power, or respect power. The latter is the most effective for an organisation”.

“Leaders must have the ability to create willing followers. Naturally, in order to do this, they must create something tangible to follow: a shared vision, a common goal, a culture, and a way of working”.

Suzanne Haughton, recruitment consultant for Love Energy Savings, commented on the importance of managers keeping their staff inspired in the workplace.

“Making sure people feel involved and listened too is something that filters from the top down in our organisation and is a responsibility that every manager takes seriously.”

“Our CEO, Phil Foster is a great example of this. He’s currently in the middle of a project called ‘Food with Phil’; hosting sessions and bringing together teams from different departments,” she adds. This initiative is breaking down silos, and helping every employee learn about the organisation from the people on the front line and buying everyone lunch in return. “Staff feel empowered, the business benefits and everyone gets fed.”

What do you do to build trust among your employees? Share your story with us: editors@businessadvice.co.uk

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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