Walk the Talk

Building trust in the workplace

In the last issue of our print publication HR Insights, Heather Vaughn (“3 Behaviors That Erode Organizational Trust”) wrote about some possible causes for a decline in employees’ trust in their companies. One of those causes in particular, “disconnect between words and actions,” can have a far broader impact than the negative effect on company culture that Vaughn describes.

I have always been the type of person who does what I say I’m going to do (which means I have absolutely no problem saying no to a request that I know I can’t fulfill). I hold in high esteem others who also prioritize keeping their word. I just think it’s the right thing to do. Ethical issues aside, though, there are plenty of pragmatic reasons for making sure that words and actions are aligned—particularly in the workplace.

For example, if employees don’t consistently fulfill their commitments to their colleagues, none of those employees can get their work done. Resentment builds, morale slides, and before you know it the entire department is suffering. The last thing any organization needs is an employee who’s always dropping the ball. That’s one reason why hiring managers should look for indications of a candidate’s ability to be part of a team and follow through on assignment.

Likewise, managers need to fulfill their promises to their staff. For example, this means not misleading new hires about the nature of the work they’re about to undertake. One surefire way to drive new employees out the door is to do a bait and switch on them by describing their jobs one way during the hiring process and then giving them different roles and responsibilities when they show up on their first day. The high cost incurred by making a bad hire has been well documented in many places. Behaviors that increase turnover can hardly be categorized as “best practices.”

Delivering on promises also means that managers should not guarantee employees specific financial rewards (such as defined amounts for commissions and bonuses) that are performance- or market-based. Because those factors are not within a manager’s control, he or she isn’t in a position to uphold such promises. That means there’s a very real risk that employees’ expectations won’t be met and they will feel let down (or even betrayed) enough to become disengaged. And lack of engagement is expensive, costing American companies “between $450 and $550 billion each year in lost productivity.” Ouch!

On a larger scale, companies also need to keep the promises they make. An organization that wants its employees to give their best efforts needs to tell them in clear terms what its expectations are—and then follow through on rewarding employees who fulfill them. Companies must “walk the talk” with their customers, too. After all, when have you ever heard of an organization that told its clients, “We will deliver X to you,” didn’t fulfill any of those promises, and somehow still managed to stay in business? (Answer: never.)

Ultimately, it all boils down to the bottom line: a disconnect between words and actions can have a negative financial impact on an organization. The effects of a broken promise—to a colleague, to an employee, to a customer—are felt far beyond that one interaction. A company that wants to survive and thrive needs to make sure that it meets expectations and delivers on its word.