If you can’t trust your employees, how can they trust you?
The key to any long-term relationship is trust. And as any relationship expert will tell you, the key to trust is communication.
Most employers want to maintain a relationship with their best employees for a long time, even for as long as the company stands. And while most companies recognize the need for competitive benefits and perks, many still underestimate the value of good internal communication.
Small communication breakdowns happen all the time and can cause little frustrations around the office. Someone accidentally deletes instead of responding to an email or a supervisor forgets to let some of the employees know this Friday is a casual dress day. Those moments cause headaches, and sometimes hurt feelings, but that’s not the kind of internal communication I’m talking about.
The type of communication that truly defines a company is the information that flows from the CEO down to the lowest ranking member of the organization. What type of information is shared, how quickly is it communicated, how is it shared and who gets to be in the know?
Turns out, there are about as many answers to those questions as there are companies in the world. But when the formula isn’t in touch with employees’ expectations, those employees sometimes take away a completely different message than was intended, and companies lose out on their best talent.
My friend Chris Powers put it this way.
Anything that affects the individual–either now or later–I would expect that to be passed along as quickly as possible. The timeline for that communication is also crucial, as any significant delay in hearing that information feels like betrayal.
To gain some perspective on this, I recently talked with a few of my friends — they all fall into the Millennial category — who used to work for someone and now own their own businesses. I asked them a few questions about their communication philosophies and practices within the new companies they started.
Jim Danis, a serial entrepreneur and president at prefabricated construction company Revolution Interiors in Ohio, offered an admittedly idealistic and maybe naive opinion:
Danis: Most employee dissatisfaction and some lost productivity can be directly attributed to not sharing enough information. I am perhaps too utopian in my views, but I choose to be fully transparent and open with my employees, from my own compensation to the strategies I am putting in place, and of course, sharing news of successes and failures.
In a perfect world, Danis shares all relevant company information with his employees, and they trust and respect him more for it. Is it really that naive to place that kind of trust in your employees?
Danis: Absolutely I trust my employees, and I try to lead from a position of service leadership, so I hope they trust me. I think in today’s digital world there is very little confidential information that a 12-year-old Norwegian kid cannot hack into. I constantly say that I hire adults and will treat them as such, so I share sales numbers, profitability, etc., with my employees.
When an employer opts for less-than-transparent communication, employees always get a message, and it’s often different from the words spoken or typed.Natalie Skilliter, owner of the Corner Kitchen restaurant in Dayton, made me laugh with this too-true perspective:
Skilliter: Regardless of the industry or business, I’ve consistently seen employees perceive the company for which they work as either: (1) rolling in dough, or (2) about to go under. Knowledge is power, and the more information you can give your staff and the more you display the trust that you have in them, the more of an authentic relationship you develop.
Matt Sliver, owner of ad agency Catapult Creative in Dayton, said he thinks 95 percent of everything that happens in a company needs to be shared.
Sliver: Personally, my biggest problem working at any job was that the manager would always tell me that “everything was going to be ‘okay,’” which was usually a lie.
Quick caveat: While all three of my friends favor open communication whenever possible, they both recognize the need for discretion when it comes to situations with ongoing negotiations that can cause information to change at any moment.
Sliver: I cannot stand telling people something is going to happen, getting them all excited, then suddenly I’m telling them that what they were so excited about is no longer. It makes for a fun line to walk of what I tell my employees, but it helps to have business partners to think through tough decisions of what to share.
I recently had lunch with Doug Watson, president of The Howard Company here in Milwaukee. His company, which primarily sells menu boards to quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, is entirely employee-owned. As part-owners of the company, every employee is entitled to full disclosure of the company’s financial situation, down to minute details.
As Watson put it:
If the janitor doesn’t like the way the company is spending money, he can voice that opinion. He can call into question why the CEO is staying in a Hilton instead of the Hampton on a business trip, and he deserves an answer.
With a few exceptions, I tend to believe that people are more trustworthy the more trust and confidence you place in them. The notable exceptions would primarily be sociopaths, and hopefully you don’t hire any of those.
I find it encouraging that my sampling of the next generation of entrepreneurs includes business leaders who choose to be vulnerable in building relationships built on mutual trust with their employees. I believe they will go far on that philosophy, and I’m curious to see if that attitude replaces the old-guard approach of sharing information only on a minimal need-to-know basis.