How Not to Build a High-Trust, High-Performance Culture in Your Company

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  • May 29, 2018

We should start this post with a disclaimer: It’s a very bad idea to not make an effort to build a high-trust, high-performance culture in your company. Need proof? High-trust companies are two and a half times more likely to outperform those with lower levels of trust. High-trust organizations also have more innovative and engaged employees and less turnover. So why would anyone choose to de-prioritize trust and performance in their culture? Well, the answer is that it’s probably not a choice. Low trust and bad performance can result from things that we do or don’t do without even realizing it. In this post, we explore a couple of conscious or unconscious missteps that can lead a company down this path.

Don’t Clearly Define a Mission for Employees to Be Passionate About

Simply put, money isn't a great motivator. In a TINYpulse survey of more than 200,000 people, only 7 percent of employees said that they’re motivated by money to “go the extra mile” for their employer. Why? Money is important, but it’s “now viewed as a the baseline reason for taking a job,” TINYpulse reports. The survey identifies camaraderie and the ability to make a positive impact as more important motivators. However, “making money” becomes your organization’s de facto motivator if you don’t clearly define an alternative mission. So if you don’t want passionate employees who are willing to go the extra mile, definitely don’t clearly define a mission for them to be passionate about.

Defining your organization’s purpose and connecting people to it is also a critical step in building a high-trust culture. In fact, Great Places to Work, the organization behind Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, ranks this as a key step in building a high-trust culture. Michael C. Bush, the CEO of Great Places to Work and the author of A Great Place to Work for All, explains that a clearly defined mission signals values that leaders will use to make important decisions. “They are the bedrock principles that guide executives’ choices in complex, difficult matters. Matters like hiring, firing, geographic expansions, doing more for customers and mergers.” What happens when leaders value profits over purpose? Employees can’t trust that they won’t be fired or that a company won’t pull out of their community if doing so would make a quick buck for shareholders or private owners.

By all means, micromanage your employees

Few management traits are as universally disliked by employees as micromanaging. A Gallup poll found that more than half of all U.S. employees have left a job because of micromanaging boss. In fact, micromanaging creates such a stressful culture that research shows it’s actually bad for employees’ physical health. Ultimately, micromanaging conveys a lack of trust in an employee’s character, judgment, and abilities. The direct result is a drain on energy, motivation, and passion, leadership expert Skip Prichard writes. This leads to diminished profits, loss of productivity, and higher employee turnover. If you don’t want to build a high-performance culture in your company, by all means, micromanage away.

Of course, few managers make the conscious decision to micromanage employees. Many managers do so reflexively. Human performance expert Laura Stack explains that most organizations have long been structured in traditional command-and-control hierarchies. As a result, lower level workers have historically had “little power or autonomy.” New technology, new approaches to leadership, and more have loosened those old norms, but many managers are behind the curve. In her book, Faster Together, Stack writes, “Micromanagers aren’t necessarily on a power kick; rather, they mistrust everyone. They’re afraid if they don’t ‘ride herd’ on other team members, everyone will make catastrophic errors. Afraid of the consequences of letting go, they hold on to as much of their power as they can.” Alternatively, micromanagers might not have received adequate leadership training or been prepared for their roles—and are just doing the best they can.

Regardless of why a boss micromanages employees, however, the end result is the same. It “drives a stake through the heart of team productivity,” creates a “stifling environment, in which everyone’s time gets wasted,” and ultimately drives away the best employees.

Establish an “Us Versus Them” Mentality Between Managers and Employees

We’re living in a changing world. In an American Management Association survey, 82 percent of executives said their organizations were often required to implement changes that impact people, processes, and products, and 69 percent said at least one significant change had done so in the previous year. That’s good news if you don’t want a high-trust, high-performance culture. You don’t have to do anything! Simply not taking a proactive approach to change management will create a destructive “us versus them” mentality between managers and employees. The Society of Human Resource Management explains, “Sometimes decisions about major organizational changes are made at the top management level and then trickle down to employees. As a result, why and how the company is changing may be unclear.” That communication breakdown can lead to competing interests and—you guessed it—an “us versus them” workforce divide.

Change management is a critical component of building a high-trust, high-performance company culture. If communicated incorrectly, organizational change can signal that there’s something wrong with an employee or an entire division of employees, setting the stage for the “us versus them” mentality. Expert on organizational communication Dianna Booher notes that most employees are intimately connected to their work. “We take pride in our achievements. Yes, we’re open to progress, change, improvements, growth. But to have a new leader walk in and talk about ‘rebuilding’ implies that what has gone before has become worthless. Many employees consider it arrogance for a new leader to begin ‘change for change’s sake’ before he or she knows what’s what and why what’s what,” she writes in Communicate Like a Leader. Offering little to no communication about big changes creates the perfect circumstances for reduced trust and poor performance.

The Final Word on Not Building a High-Trust, High-Performance Culture

Nobody sets out to build a company culture that doesn’t drive high levels of trust and performance. The point is that organizations can do so unwittingly or subconsciously. This can result from the vestiges of the command-and-control leadership styles of yesterday, failure to communicate, failure to recognize changing employee-manager relationships, unconscious bias, or many other factors. Whatever the cause, awareness is the first step. The next step is to take action. 

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