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Trust me, I'm your boss

The problem with trust is that it is hard-earned but easily squandered

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OBSERVERS from all around the world were understandably sceptical about the outcome of the Trump-Kim show that took place earlier this week, never mind that both parties hailed it as an unprecedented achievement.

I'm sure there might have been more optimism if not for the fact that many agreements made with Pyongyang in the past have since fallen apart. And truth be told, neither political leader is exactly known for being reliable.

The problem with trust is that it is hard-earned, but easily squandered. It's not just the trustworthiness of the two leaders that is in que stion. All around the world, including Singapore, trust is a currency that seems to be in short supply these days.

While most of the attention has been focused on the trust deficit between the political elites and the general public, workplace trust is also something to watch out for.

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Why trust matters

You're probably wondering: why does trust matter anyway? It seems like a fluffy concept with little substance, but it can have a very real impact on revenue, profits and wages.

In economics, trust is closely tied to economic activity. Think of it as the underlying lubricant for transactions to take place smoothly. People sign contracts that they trust will be honoured. Employees work because they trust that they will be paid each month.

It is a form of psychological safety - if we spend all our time worrying about whether the company is able to survive, can you imagine the impact on morale and productivity? We might not necessarily be friends with our bosses or colleagues (that's a bonus), but it's probably more important that we are able to trust them.

Arun Sundar, chief strategy officer of relationship analytics provider TrustSphere, says: "To develop high-performance teams, it is very important for a team leader to be trusted to resolve conflicts and to stretch goals. They are able to create an internal drive in their team to accomplish the impossible."

Workplace trust is closely linked to manager or team leader support, he adds. For example, if the team trusts that their manager will let them innovate without being made a scapegoat if they fail, the results are likely to exceed expectations.

Without trust, work quickly degenerates into a transactional activity. Sure, things can still run, but it's probably not going to be exceptional. No one is likely to go the extra mile when people are constantly second-guessing what others are thinking or if they don't believe that their efforts will be rewarded. "The absence of trust is not only detrimental to the organisation's existence and growth, but also to employee morale and well-being," explains Mr Sundar. "In an age when people spend more time with their colleagues than their family, the relationships or lack thereof have a stronger impact on employee well-being and health than ever before."

Measuring trust

Over the past few years, Mr Sundar says that there has been a "substantial uptake" in companies keen to understand workplace drivers such as trust.

While trust is a social variable that cannot be easily measured, he says that it's possible to use technologies such as people analytics to measure and understand "employee networks".

An employee's digital trails such as email communication logs can be leveraged - apparently without looking at email content at all - to understand these networks, according to him. "By analysing these relationships, you can understand if people are sharing information with each other and between departments, or if managers and team leaders are interacting with their teams in a predictable manner," he says.

"We often hear the issue that certain teams are not collaborating with each other. How do you validate if it's true? This is where ONA (organisational network analysis) technologies can help by identifying which departments and individuals are collaborating and which ones are not."

Once that is identified, the organisation can then embark on specific initiatives focused on closing this gap. Measuring networks can also help leaders with self-awareness by finding out who is part of their "inner circle" and who is not, says Mr Sundar.

"These reports helped the leaders change their patterns of interaction to ensure that they built networks with departments and individuals who were left out unintentionally," he says.

Building trust

Technology can unveil blind spots, but it doesn't take rocket science to build trust in the workplace. Rule number one is that trust begets trust. Staff who are empowered to make decisions and take ownership of their work will often step up to the plate. Leaders who micromanage and do not trust their staff to perform will result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Trust also comes from being open and vulnerable. It might seem counter-intuitive, but employers who are regularly transparent about mistakes made or upfront about bad news will usually find that workers are more willing to place confidence in them.

While open, honest communication is crucial, it's ultimately your actions that help create trust, not what you say. Managers can talk till the cows come home and it will not make an ounce of difference if there is no follow-through.

This means backing your employees up when they need it. Many bosses claim credit when projects go well, but wash their hands off things when the going gets rough. That is the surest way for workers to lose faith in management.

Employees also need to play their part to build trust - if you consistently let down your teammates, don't be surprised if your reputation ends up in tatters.

Perhaps, the most important thing about building trust is simply to be consistent. Be fair in how you deal with everyone, and deliver what you promise. It's really as simple as that.

Trust doesn't sprout overnight, but grows deep roots through careful tending over a passage of time.

As a leader, your character is the only thing that people rely on when tough times come around. If employees know that they can trust you to do right by them, you will be surprised how everyone can go above and beyond to make things work.

A workplace consisting of fair-weather bosses and fair-weather employees is unlikely to brave any storm.