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Building Trust Inside Out: New Frontier in Comms

December 11, 2019

When Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos said: “We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company” two decades ago, it was a bold claim. Today, we’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that doesn’t put its customers first. But how exactly do they do that?

Here’s the argument of this blog: to be customer-centric, organizations must become employee-centric first.

We see sophisticated external campaigns carefully crafted to make customers think, feel and act in a certain way. And employees? They get long memos and uninspiring emails. The business of engaging them – connecting what they do to the organization’s purpose – is often left to their own devices.

Companies are surprisingly laissez-faire when it comes to getting their own people to think, feel and act in a certain way so employees can go ahead and solve customer problems.

Worse, communication may completely bypass the internal team who learn critical news from the company’s website or someone’s tweet. Unfortunately, we see this during major changes or crises. When the news is bad or ambiguous, some organizations shy away from communicating with their own people altogether.

This contributes to a decline in trust we are seeing in Canada. According to our Proof CanTrust Index, after three years of stability, the average trust levels in institutions and leaders in our country fell from 45 in 2018 to 39 per cent this year. Trust in CEOs or most senior bosses among their own employees dropped 10 per cent over four years to 45 per cent.

We know the message from the top and “official” channels is mediated through complex webs of relationships. It goes through an informal circle of trust – people like us we believe. This is consistent with the CanTrust Index showing Canadians trust their family, friends and peers the most.

Is there anything organizations can or should do to manage the internal trickle-down that may erode their culture and contribute to undesired behavioural outcomes? While informal networks are notoriously difficult to control, best-in-class companies seem to have figured out how to engage them productively. IBM experimented with online “jam” sessions where colleagues input into everything from business policies to strategic decisions. Gucci created a “shadow committee” of millennial employees that CEO Marco Bizzarri meets with regularly to gather insight and ideas for innovation.

Here are a few lessons we can glean from leading organizations about building trust and engagement inside:

Put your people first

Richard Branson said it well: “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” It’s not about cheering, hand-holding or entertaining, but giving reasons to care, deliver and innovate. Bezos knew this even during Amazon’s early days when he brought empty chairs to meetings. Each represented the customer – the “most important person in the room.” The gesture made the company’s purpose, its deeply held “why,” palpable to the employees.

Open a conversation to co-create

The responsibility of leadership is not to come up with all the ideas but to create an environment in which great ideas can thrive,” said Simon Sinek. Small teams can huddle with a few chairs, coffee and donuts to flesh things out. But how do you “huddle” with thousands of employees, on many continents, working remotely to bring out those game-changers, the iPods and Blackberries of the world? Leading brands don’t just create. They CO-create. Internal communication – enabling conversations across the board – is where much of this germinating process unfolds.

Empower managers

Our Proof CanTrust Index shows Canadians rank honesty (73 per cent), integrity (61 per cent) and transparency (43 per cent) as the most important trust builders for leaders. So, empower your executives to actively share the big picture through both successes and struggles. Give them a compelling purpose narrative so they can engage your people, with words and visuals that make sense to them, to co-create solutions to customer problems. Leadership that is accessible and communicates openly builds trust, and managers closest to the team are a vital link. People trust those they know, right? Coach your managers to regularly listen and probe for diverse perspectives, and they will deal with the inevitable “Why should I care?” comfortably while unpacking new paths to value creation.

Any meaningful conversation about what’s important to the organization starts with its people. It’s unfortunate few companies fully power that employee engine that keeps them going. If they commit to building trust inside, their people will pick up and carry their story – and their mission – inside out.