Widespread distrust and the notion that people aren’t people when they come to work has haunted company cultures and halted leadership development for far too long.
According to Edelman's Trust Barometer all industries fall short of maintaining employee trust.
Phrases like, ‘it’s not personal; it’s business’ or ‘there’s no place for emotions at work’ make the corporate world seem somehow disconnected from the rest of life.
Customs like hiring part time workers en masse to get out of paying for benefits, or refusing to give employees vacation time are indicative of workplaces that glorify slim cost savings at the expense of people. Managerial tendencies to make unilateral decisions, or to tightly constrain employee schedules creates a climate of control instead of collaboration.
While these situations are specific, they highlight a running theme of skewed priorities that only alienate, discourage, and delegitimize workers.
Senior leaders at companies that operate under these circumstances are essentially stuck in a box of distrust and misunderstanding. This box can only be broken down with awareness, humility, and a desire to treat employees, managers, interns, and all workers as who they are - human.
unboXt was created to bring trust and human-centered leadership to the companies that need it most because, in reality, business is personal. Work is emotional. Employees of all statuses deserve to be treated fairly, and a company’s profitability is not at odds with its integrity. When these truths seep into a leader's heart and begin fueling action, that leader is able to get unboXt - to release themselves from the vestiges of distrust.
These steps are presented from the perspective of a senior leader at an organization because in order for an entire company to get unboXt, top and bottom have to adopt a change mindset. If you are a team leader, supervisor, or employee, these suggestions may still be implemented on a smaller scale.
Step 1: Awareness & Humility
What is in the best interest of your employees is generally in the best interest of your company. If you hire great people, you should trust those people to know what’s best for themselves, but you have to give them the space and encouragement to feel comfortable speaking up.
Therefore, if you are even a tad suspicious that your company’s operations or priorities might not be in sync with your people, you have to talk to them; you have to ask open-ended, difficult questions and be willing to sit in uncomfortable truths.
To get started, consider why, what, where, who, and how.
- Why am I setting out on this journey?
- Have I noticed problems or patterns in my company that have led to high turnover, disengaged employees, or a generally impersonal culture?
- Why is getting unboXt important to me?
- What biases do I bring to the table that might cloud my ability to listen openly to feedback about my company?
- What kinds of open-ended questions might yield fruitful responses?
- What is my timeline for making adjustments?
- Who in my company should I speak to?
- Who should I consult to make sure I am going down the right path?
- Where should I have these conversations? Might people feel most comfortable in the office, out for a coffee, on a call, or in another locale?
- Where shouldn’t I have these conversations? In group settings or one-on-one?
- Where should I prioritize changes based on these conversations?
- How should I present questions or topics of discussions? Might an online survey be appropriate, a written document, or a conversation?
- How do I ensure confidentiality, and how should I handle hearing uncomfortable perspectives on my company?
After introspecting on these questions and taking time to listen to your people, think critically about what you learned. If your conversations are written down, consider putting them into a word cloud generator and see what words come up the most. If you hold discussions in a group setting, ask members after each conversation what themes they noticed and what notes they want you to prioritize.
Do your best to lean away from defensiveness, blame, and anger. Instead, lean into humility, self-awareness, and a desire for growth. Getting unboXt frees you and the teams you oversee, so even if becoming aware of problems is difficult, remember that you have a lot to look forward to!
Step 2: Goal Setting & Action
After sifting through your newfound knowledge, create short-term and long-term goals attached to qualitative and quantitative metrics. In addition, make a few immediate changes, especially if more serious allegations arise (ex. employees being kept from their government mandated breaks, sexual harassment, actions that violate anti-discrimination policies, abuse, etc).
A change mindset begins the acceptance that change will be a journey.
Being open and vulnerable to company leadership isn’t easy, so it is up to you to show your people that their trust in you will be met with trust in them. Though deep-seated change takes time, a show of good faith can’t be weeks or months after you become aware of a problem; consider balancing an urgent adjustment with company-wide policy changes.
For instance, if you hear from your people that your company’s paid time off policies have made them consider going elsewhere to work, and you decide to evaluate offering more PTO, it might take time to review current employee contracts, connect with HR, and decide on a path forward. In the short term, you could consider giving the whole company a paid Friday off. A few weeks later, after you’ve had time to confer with relevant stakeholders and conduct follow-up interviews, you could announce that PTO plans are being re-evaluated. Then, your final policy adjustments can be enacted.
A mix of urgent action, transparent communication, and the implementation of long-term change is vital.
Step 3: Evaluation
The impact of programs implemented should be reviewed over time, by many stakeholders, and from many perspectives. The ‘results’ of company-wide changes are varied, and they can’t be evaluated solely by checking off finite, numeric key performance indicators and moving on.
Carrying over the example from the previous section, if your company decides to give employees a Friday off, in the short-term, employees could be thrilled… or they could see the move as a cheap way to get out of a larger responsibility. Therefore, you’d want to ask team leaders about the reaction of their teams following the announcement. Then, after the day off, check back in with your people.
As you are working on long term PTO adjustments, think not just about the fact you are making a change, think about how the change itself might be perceived. If the policy you initially create does not properly address complaints, be transparent with your team about obstacles faced and come to a compromise.
Reviewing results of initiatives both immediately and throughout their lifetime, consulting with everyone affected by company changes, and attempting to see announcements from many vantage points complements a people-centered leadership approach.
Depending on how far your company’s culture and your leader’s priorities are from the people-centered, trust-based model, it might take considerable time to see lasting change. If this process is both top down and bottom up, that time is reduced, but if everyone at your company is not committed to change, results of new policy and cultural programs might not be seen because they might not be broadly implemented. Therefore, part of your evaluation process should include an analysis of buy in. For instance, if you give your people a Friday off, but their immediate supervisors ask them to work from home, this conflicting messaging could breed further distrust.
Furthermore, the impact of an action or policy rarely matches the intent. This is true across all industries, causes, and programs, so as you are evaluating the results of your initiatives based on metrics set during the planning phase and new information, be realistic. Own what does well, and own what flops. The most important aspects of this phase are transparency, honesty, and collaboration.
Step 4: Continuous Improvement
The essence of Buddhist teaching is everything changes.
People are dynamic, so people-centered cultures founded on understanding and trust have to be as well.
Even wonderful policies, norms, or initiatives implemented 6 months ago could fail the test of time. The guiding force in your organization should be what is best for your people, so as long as that north star ambition is being upheld, don’t bog yourself down with attachments to traditions that don’t serve your primary goal.
Operationally, the best thing you can do to inspire continuous improvement is to establish regular check-ins between all managers and their people. Employees spend most of their time within a smaller team, so strengthening teams strengthens companies, and builds positive cultures. When the relationship between managers and their employees is based on trust, lines of communication are open so team-wide or company-wide improvements can be disseminated and implemented continuously.
Getting unboxt should be freeing, not constraining, so think about continuous improvement as a continuous opportunity to create a company culture that you and your people adore. By obliterating the line between person and employee, your people get to fully embrace who they are and what they do.
Outside of the Box
At unboXt, we’re hoping that new business phrases like ‘trust transparency’ and ‘put your people first,’ will take hold over the old ways. Instead of chasing marginal cost savings with unethical operations, companies can achieve profitability through their commitment to the only people capable of pushing for it - their employees.
Leaders, managers, supervisors, employees can accomplish marvelous wonders, and enjoy a renewed zeal for their jobs while and after getting unboXt.