Good communication boosts workplace trust

Despite a three year restructuring programme at retailer John Lewis, the company was able to increase its staff satisfaction scores around leadership and trust, Jane Beine, head of partner development, told the CIPD conference. Beine told delegates at the conference that high levels of trust within an organisation can drive employee engagement, even through times of turbulent economic and organisational change.

The retailer made 3,300 posts ‘out-dated’ roles redundant, but was able to redeploy 90% of affected staff elsewhere in the business. ‘It indicated to us that our leaders were being true to the values of the organisation,’ Beine said. ‘Strong leadership is an essential part of doing business.’

John Lewis operates a model where employees – or ‘partners’ – co-own the business and take a share in annual profits – which was worth 18 per cent of individual salaries in 2011, against a backdrop of tough trading conditions on the high street.

Beine added that this ‘unique business model’ gave the retailer a competitive advantage, as it doesn’t have to answer to external shareholders, allowing leaders to consider long-term success strategies, rather than focus on maximising short and medium-term profits.

John Lewis remains committed to one of its founding principles, which involves the engagement and empowerment of employees. High levels of trust feeding a strong organisational culture contributed to the long length of service among many of the John Lewis workforce, said Beine, citing the partnership’s board members who had all worked on a shop-floor at some point their career, with several progressing through the business after joining the John Lewis graduate scheme. While the trust relationship between the organisation and its employees was a ‘two-way deal’, Beine said ‘responsible leadership enables partners to contribute to success‘.

The emphasis placed on trust at work – at a time when it’s failing in other businesses – is significant, says AP co-director Suzanne Quinney. John Lewis is rolling out the eight leadership behaviours used in appraising its top 100 leaders to all managers and supervisors, so ‘every partner understands why they belong and why that matters,‘ Beine revealed.

Beine was joined on the platform by Veronica Hope Hailey, professor of strategic HRM at Cass Business School, joined Beine on the platform. The school is conducting an extensive ‘repair of trust’ research project for the CIPD, published in January this year. She outlined to delegates the different trust relationships that existed within workplaces – employees’ trust in each other, their leaders, their organisation or its institutional values, plus the external trust relationship with customers. ‘Ability, benevolence, integrity and predictability‘ are all drivers of a leaders’ trustworthiness, she said. And one of the greatest risks to organisations was ‘quit and stay’ employees who had mentally disengaged from a trust relationship with their leadership or organisation during the recession.

Although the report was originally produced in November 2011, it seems timely to remind ourselves of the success John Lewis demonstrates, while still paying its fair share of taxes.

Hope Hailey acknowledged it was difficult to prove a definite link between high levels of trust and increased performance or commercial value, but added: ‘The workplace is where people spend the majority of their life, so isn’t promoting trust a good enough outcome in itself? A lot of people in the workplace need to hear that, because they are fed up continually hearing about the case for shareholder value.We need levels of trust to operate as a society,’ she explained. ‘And how we configure people management practices affects trust in the workplace.

Suzanne Quinney, AP director, says the findings link to work they did in Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale with the local NHS team. ‘We did some organisational resilience with NHS HMR when they were going through a difficult period of transition, with over 130 HMR staff participating in the programme. Participants began by taking a strength finder assessment to identify their five key strengths, using Gallup’s Strengths Finder. The group also spent time identifying key factors that promote and support resilience, exploring how they might strengthen their own resilience, and looking at opportunities to increase their prospects. As a result, staff involved increased their personal resilience and wellbeing; HMR’s organisational social capital increased at a time of stress, and staff were able to take time to reflect on the best next steps for themselves, individually,in a time of organisational change.

If you’re interested in reading more about our organisational resilience work, you can our NHS HMR resilience case study in full here.