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Trust and distrust are antonyms, but they share a similarity. The trust – or distrust – of others is easier to assume than it is to prove, especially in a workplace environment where trust may be expressed more than it is felt. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘perception is reality’. You may have shrugged or expressed a distaste for both sci-fi and psychology, but there is an important point buried in the aphorism. As a way of explaining it, I rather like this version from the JO Rules blog (aimed at junior officers in the US Navy, its advice in this instance deserves a broader audience):

Perception is reality. What it means is that for others, be they your peers, subordinates, or superiors, how they perceive you is reality to them — and how you perceive yourself has nothing to do with it. It means that your behaviours and their results matter infinitely more than your intentions.”

One of the long-standing conundrums of life in the workplace is the gap that exists between managers’ perceptions and those of their employees. This isn’t a new topic: CIPD’s Spring 2012 Employee Outlook showed that managers reported being in regular meetings with their employees that the latter reported were not happening – a gap that suggests that something more concrete than perception may be in play.

It was therefore less than uplifting to read Driving Business Results by Building Trust: Findings from 2013 Forum Global Leadership Pulse Survey, published recently by Forum. The Europe, Middle East and Africa Regional Data revealed some additional gaps in perception/reality that beg rather more questions than they answer:

How important to employees is having leaders they can trust?

 

Leaders

Employees

To a great extent

46.1%

6.5%

To a very great extent

48%

93.5%

 

How much do employees trust leaders now versus the past?

 

Leaders

Employees

About the same

31.5%

45.2%

More/Much more

21.1%

12.9%

 

How often do leaders acknowledge their own mistakes?

 

Leaders

Employees

Sometimes

35.3%

46.7%

Often

37.3%

6.7%

Always

24.0%

0%

 

When leaders in your company make mistakes, do they apologise?

 

Leaders

Employees

Sometimes

14.6%

30.0%

Often

35.0%

8.3%

Always

49.0%

3.3%

 

The publishers are in little doubt as to why their findings are important, drawing a clear link with one of the holy grails of every organisation:

We found a strongly positive relationship between trust in leaders and employee engagement; Employees who had low trust had an average engagement score of 2.8 (moderate engagement), while those with high trust had an average engagement score of 4.5 (high engagement).”

Looking for a cause for optimism, I cast upon an article at the HBR Blog Network, in which Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman look at the provocative question, Will Your Bad Boss Make You a Bad Boss, Too? Their findings suggest that many of us have taken to heart a message that would normally be interpreted negatively or sarcastically, but can take on a new optimistic light given the figures we’ve shown above: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

Surveying 6094 leaders – and those that report directly to them – their initial report finding wasn’t even remotely surprising: levels of engagement among those reporting to the worst 10% of leaders were abysmal, while among those reporting to the best 10% were distinctly robust. Middle-managers may not be natural born tailwaggers, but they do share something with puppies: treat them badly for long enough and they’ll stop loving or respecting you.

Unlike puppies, however, middle managers are unlikely to seek revenge. (If this were true, perhaps the senior leaders of the world would display more small puncture wounds and spend more time cleaning their carpet tiles.) In an earlier HRB blog, Folkman highlighted six simple ‘requests’ from the most disgruntled employees, responses to which could rectify working relationships:

  • Encourage me more
  • Trust me more
  • Take an interest in my development
  • Keep me in the loop
  • Be more honest with me
  • Connect with me more.

As he went on to affirm, drawing on research to support him:

There is most definitely such a thing as “the boss’s favorites.” And while, in any disagreement we inevitably find both parties bear part of the fault — that is, the disgruntled employees do certainly play some role in their own unhappiness — we consistently found in the analysis that their complaints were justified. Their managers were in fact treating the disgruntled employee differently than they treated their very satisfied employees. What’s more, when the managers in question started to treat their disgruntled employees like everyone else, the employees’ behavior quickly improved.”

The satisfying finding from Zenger and Folkman’s research was that, looking at the second tier of those working for ‘bad bosses’ – and at those in the third tier who reported to them – the correlation was still discernible, but to a far lesser degree. The sins of the metaphorical father (or metaphorical mother, of course: a gender-split of poor managerial performance was not highlighted) are not necessarily visited on the sons and daughters. Indeed, some of those working for the worst bosses are themselves amongst the best bosses. But as the authors point out:

First, we’d argue that our data show, happily, that great leaders do more good than poor leaders do harm. And to those who say their destiny is in their own hands, we’d say they could be right — the cycle of poor leadership can be broken.

On the other hand, we’d argue that good leaders are expending a lot of energy they could be using more productively when they have to manage and buffer a bad boss. This should be blindingly obvious. And yet, so often in our practice senior leaders ask us to “fix” the leaders below them. The reality is our job would be much easier if the leaders at the top were as highly committed to fixing themselves first.”

Effective working relationships are not an act of charity, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t share one common theme: the need to start at home.

There is most definitely such a thing as “the boss’s favorites.” And while, in any disagreement we inevitably find both parties bear part of the fault — that is, the disgruntled employees do certainly play some role in their own unhappiness — we consistently found in the analysis that their complaints were justified. Their managers were in fact treating the disgruntled employee differently than they treated their very satisfied employees. What’s more, when the managers in question started to treat their disgruntled employees like everyone else, the employees’ behaviour quickly improved.