Is Trust Synonymous with Engagement?

Posted by Matt Grawitch

In my last post on this blog, I emphasized the importance of “presence” as the primary element of the engagement experience. I stand by that definition of engagement, but I was criticized by both a reader who informed me that I “missed an essential point to promoting engagement…trust” and another blog for “[absolving] management from making an effort” because I did not highlight the importance of trust in my blog posting. Of course, this author also criticized me for not having given people a step-by-step guide to creating engagement – which could never exist because every context is different.

I decided to play the part of the good professional and respond to these critiques. Here’s a newsflash for everyone out there: trust does NOT equal engagement. If you have major trust issues with your employees, then why in the world are you spending time reading my blog post on engagement? Engagement is the least of your worries!

Trust is a crucial antecedent of engagement. If people lack trust in their direct supervisor, then it will serve as a barrier to the engagement experience. Workers need to:

  • Trust that you will have their backs when needed;
  • Trust that you will make decisions that will be good for the department;
  • Trust that you will consider their well-being when making critical decisions;
  • Trust that you will provide honest and constructive feedback about their performance; and
  • Trust that you will not keep them in the dark regarding important issues.

And I’m sure there are many more things we need to trust about our supervisor.

Of course, developing trust takes time – lots and lots of time. It is easy to lose and difficult to gain. That, unfortunately, keeps deep mistrust from being much of an actionable issue. Sure, there are probably some things you can do to help improve the trusting relationship you have with your subordinates, but that assumes there is something there on which to build.

An Organizational Development perspective treats relationships as the primary unit of accomplishing goals. Establishing trust and rapport with your subordinates is the cornerstone of accomplishing anything – whether it is day-to-day performance or improving the engagement experience. However, don’t assume that establishing a trusting relationship with your subordinates is the solution. It is only the foundation on which to build an effective culture.

And if you have serious issues of mistrust between you and your subordinates, one of you may need to go. As in sports, though, the easiest way to change the culture of a work team or unit is to remove the person at the top: You.

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