Now more than ever, organizations must do all they can to help employees feel supported and engaged. There is no doubt that the current working environment has posed many changes and challenges for employees—including working in kitchens, conducting conference calls with dogs barking, and parents supporting and caring for their kids in addition to their many work responsibilities. For essential workers, the environment might be even more stressful. Organizations are understaffed, and employees are left feeling anxious and even scared. Amid uncertainty, the risk for less transparency, and the wide variety of differing needs of employees, the way your organization chooses to lead through these changes is critical—and how you treat your employees during this time will be a defining moment.
It boils down to trust
A large part of employee engagement comes down to a very simple concept—trust. Neuroscience research demonstrates that trust stimulates the production of oxytocin, a brain chemical that facilitates teamwork and performance. In his article The Neuroscience of Trust, professor, author, and neuroscience expert Paul J. Zak outlines several research findings that will help you create a culture of trust. In combination with additional research, these findings have been adapted below to be specific to the current COVID-related work.
Here are six behaviors you can adopt to create a culture of trust
1. Recognize top performance.
There is nothing more demotivating than a boss who does not recognize your contribution—or, even worse, who takes credit for the success. Be sure to recognize and reward your employees. One way to do this is through public recognition, which can inspire others to also work towards the achievement. Ensure that whatever method of recognition you use is motivating for that particular employee. We are all wired in different ways—some might prefer private recognition, others might prefer first choice on a project, and others might like to be given additional responsibilities.
2. Facilitate growth.
In order for employees to trust you, you must show you trust them first. After setting clear goals and expectations, demonstrate your trust by giving employees the freedom to achieve them. Being trusted to accomplish and execute a project with discretion is extremely motivating and encourages creativity.
3. Communicate often.
I cannot stress enough how important communication is. Employees who feel left in the dark often experience stress, frustration, and doubt. Simply communicating what is going on is typically better than the alternative stories employees might tell themselves—or, even worse, tell others. It is important not only to share expectations now that priorities have shifted and working arrangements have changed but also to communicate anything that will impact employees directly or indirectly (e.g., updates in policies, changes in staffing, adjustments to budgets). Transparency is so critical for building trust. If you don’t have the full story to share, share what you do know, and give updates along the way.
4. Provide voice.
Providing employees with the opportunity to give input and be part of the decision-making process is extremely important. If you aren’t able to include them in the actual decision-making process, make sure you allow them channels to voice any suggestions (e.g., team meetings, surveys requesting feedback, 1:1 conversations) to ease the change.
5. Create connections.
Many of your employees may be feeling isolated during this time. For your remote workers, find ways to maintain social connections by scheduling quick check-ins. These should not all be work-focused. Take the time to ask how things are going. Create channels and encourage opportunities for employees to share funny memes, pictures of their new unconventional workspaces, or furry friends. Provide opportunities to connect over video chats during lunch happy hours. These team-building activities are extremely important for morale and mental health.
6. Be direct and honest with bad news.
Organizations are facing many challenges, and dealing with organizational change may be one of the most difficult. It’s important to consider how to deliver bad news, whether that takes the form of layoffs, salary cuts, furloughs, or other unfortunate actions. First, it is so important to provide a justification regarding the decision. Good-faith explanations will increase the perception of fairness. This is important because often the perception of fairness is more important than the actual outcome. Second, explain your decisions to those impacted with humility and compassion. Layoffs are painful regardless of how thoughtfully they are implemented. They don’t only affect the person leaving but also the remaining employees, who might experience “survivor’s guilt.” This Forbes article outlines several concrete actions to combat survivor’s guilt, such as being sure to actively engage with employees. Third, it is critical to be accessible, visible, and honest. For example, leave an additional 15 minutes in your next few staff meetings for people to ask questions and talk about the recent events. Additionally, it is important to engage employees in conversations that focus their attention on areas over which they have control. For example, instead of ruminating about the company’s financial performance, focus efforts on a new process that will allow them to be more collaborative and reduce time to delivery. By communicating the reasons decisions were made and explaining the rationale, you will build trust in management, increase commitment, and reduce retaliatory behaviors that employees might otherwise engage in.
See positive results
By adopting some of these core behaviors, you will see an increase in productivity, energy, and collaboration, and your employees will be happier and healthier. Don’t wait for working conditions to be ideal in order to start building trust and strengthen relationships with your team.
Michaela L. Fisher, MS, is a business services consultant drawing her knowledge from the field of industrial–organizational psychology. Michaela earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Missouri State University and is currently pursuing her MBA at the University of South Florida. Michaela has experience working in various industries including hospitality, manufacturing, and higher education and has worked with clients across industries including IT, call centers, and non-profits. Michaela is an active member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and the Society for Human Resources Management.