Latest Public Sector News

01.04.12

Trust me

Source: Public Sector Executive Mar/Apr 12

A new Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD) report into declining levels of trust in the workplace highlights particular problems for the public sector. PSE talks trust, and its impact on innovation, growth and efficiency, with report co-author Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice development at CIPD

A new report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), ‘Where has all the trust gone?’, emphasises that trust is not an airy-fairy notion or a ‘nice to ha ve’ extra: it is vitally important, and if it breaks down, it can have serious impacts. It can mean less co-operation and information-sharing, stifling the potential for innovation; time and attention diverted into non-productive monitoring duties; counterproductive work behaviours; suspicious staff; retention problems; and risk-averse working cultures where it is felt mistakes will not be tolerated, ultimately hitting productivity and efficiency further.

Importantly, the researchers say trust is not a nebulous concept, but can be classified into one of five main types of relationship. Different sorts of organisations – based on their sector, size, ownership structure any many other factors – tend to be primarily associated with one of these types, which the CIPD identified as being ‘trust in each other’, ‘trust in leaders’, ‘trust in the organisation’, ‘trust in external relations’, and ‘trust in the line manager’. The different trust relationships have different strengths and weaknesses, and some are more resilient than others in difficult times.

The financial pressures in the public sector and organisational responses to it have brought about a crisis in trust in senior leaders at many local authorities and departments, which have traditionally relied more on trust in the organisation, its wider purpose, and societal role.

Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice development at CIPD, told PSE: “Our quantitative research, surveying around 2,000 employees, did show some sector differences. The public sector had more people with low levels of trust in senior management, so there we saw the public sector in a worse position than the private or voluntary sectors.

“It’s something that’s come about since the economic downturn, then there have been continuing blips that seem to keep knocking trust. Those have played out into people not trusting those in senior roles, but the public sector has been more impacted.”

Typology of trust

Of the types, it is type 1, ‘trust in each other’ that is more resilient in adverse times, because it involves a many good relationships: between employees and colleagues, line managers, senior managers, customers, and the organisation as a whole, and if one of these relationships is damaged, others can compensate.

But when organisations rely more on one of the other types, if something undermines that relationship, it can seriously damage trust more widely. People who place their trust in an organisation, for example, can find themselves seriously questioning their purpose if that organisation comes under attack. Some local authority workers, for example, feel undermined not only by slashed budgets but the way councils are condemned by ministers in the media.

Danger zone

It’s harder to restore a damaged trust relationship than to build it in the first place, and times of recession and redundancies are obviously very dangerous for trust relationships. But the report says some organisations have actually found trust levels rising despite redundancies and short-time working. It says: “This is because these organisations either have excellent trustworthy leaders or invest in developing even stronger trust relationships with their community or their employees at that time.”

It includes Sunderland City Council and John Lewis among the organisations where a very well-managed and well-led approach in tough times kept trust high. Other organisations, however, have been so narrowly focused on efficiencies – and so restructuring and redundancies – that they have thrown trust out of the window, building up more problems for themselves.

Robinson told us: “The case study of Sunderland council is a really good one. The chief executive realised the organisation was in a bad place, but thought carefully about ‘what do we do, what’s the message going to be, how can we work our way through it’. There is a lot of pressure for efficiencies, and HR is often seen as the mechanic doing the redundancies, so HR can be ‘removed’ from the employee voice and support side when it’s squarely lined up with the restructuring, redundancies, and change of policies agenda. But with some thought in advance on what the impacts could be, that can be avoided: communicating clearly; no spin; fair and transparent processes. Where those were not in place, where people didn’t think there was a fair process going on, it just multiplied their drop-off in trust.”

No redundancies

The report notes that Sunderland is committed to making no redundancies, nor incentivising people to take early retirement. It convinced employees to place their trust in the chief executive, Dr Dave Smith, who, because of the bold moral stand on looking after employees, was seen as having real integrity, building an important trust relationship. The council also, more than most, involved the community in its decisions on changing the way it worked, having lost £58m from its budget in 2011- 12.

The report notes: “Unusually, and possibly uniquely, judging by the bewildered looks the HR team has received from counterparts elsewhere in the country – SCC is trying to achieve this reduction without taking the obvious option of cutting headcount.

“In a city already buckling under high levels of unemployment, and acute social and health-related problems, it has argued that to throw another few thousand people out of work would be so unpalatable as to be impossible for it to contemplate.”

The alternative model, named ‘SWITCH’, was based on an internal jobs market and redeployment pool, matching people with jobs that play to their strengths if their existing post is made redundant.

Cuts ‘crippling’ trust relations

Despite this implicit criticism of less imaginative, ‘salami-slicing’ councils, Robinson said she didn’t want to generalise and that lots of specific local factors were in play at Sunderland. But she said those councils which did a good job of anticipating the budget cuts were in a better position to weather the storm when they arrived. The report does highlight a crisis in trust, however, saying bluntly that “current approaches are crippling trust relations” in the public sector.

Robinson said: “That situation can be turned around, but I wouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is. It requires people to think a bit differently, look at the capabilities of individuals as well as the supporting structures and systems. That doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t helped when you then get negative external publicity. That sort of stuff you can take into account, but it can still knock you.

“You have to do more than just get your internal house in order. You have to work hard to weather the external potential criticism, which is becoming more immediate with more social media channels, so what used to be containable is now very immediate and obvious to employees.”

Pride and shame

One example mentioned in the report is the banking sector, where staff went from feeling they worked in a respected job to being widely reviled in both the media and social situations. This has parallels in the public sector too, and can be dangerous when organisational trust has been the main trust relationship in the past.

Robinson explained: “The case studies that exemplify that are the councils and Royal Mail – although the ownership structure has moved on a bit, it’s a big, established institution that people are proud of. As a good example, with the Royal Mail, if you ask people whether trust is important, they very quickly go to the ‘we deliver your mail’ angle – ‘the public trusts us to deliver their packages’. Trust is implicit. But when you ask ‘what about your line manager’, the reaction is different.

“That can be similar in Government departments such as BIS, and HMRC. There’s a very strong identification for those people with the purpose they are serving. The reality is that ministers change; you’re serving different parties, different people, so the mindset is important. They can be quite hierarchical – band 4, level 3 – which is part of the organisation’s structure. That’s what their reference point is. If you start to talk about their line managers, the attachment is not there in quite the same way.”

In the trenches

The line manager relationship is a crucial one for trust, and is generally “the most resilient”, according to the report, as it is more personal, regular and immediate. Problems can arise, however, where the line manager is much closer to frontline staff than to senior management.

The report explains: “In some contexts, the direct line manager may have difficulty representing their own and employer’s interests simultaneously as, in effect, they are participating in two employment relationships – one with those they manage and one with those who manage them. Sometimes these managers themselves may feel angry about what is being decided at a corporate level and with what they are being asked to implement and therefore ‘jump into the trenches with the troops’.”

Formal structures

One counter-intuitive finding was that organisations with well-established formal employee representation systems are associated with lower trust levels. But Robinson said there is not necessarily causation there: sometimes formal bodies are set up because of low levels of trust in the first place, making it a symptom, not a cause. She said: “Historically, organisations that suffered from lower levels of trust and were more heavily unionised might have put those in place. It is slightly counter-intuitive at first, but trust is quite a personal thing, and if these formal procedures are in place of the open one-to-one type conversations, then they could be seen as negative. However, if they’re more like a supplement to those open relationships, they might not be associated with a lack of trust.”

The report ultimately highlights trust as vital to innovation and productivity and, in a business context, to growth too – meaning it has strategic importance for the entire UK economy. Robinson said: “A working culture where innovation thrives is going to be a lot harder to achieve where there are low levels of trust. It needs to be ok to make mistakes and to experiment; if your manager or boss trusts you to go away and you feel trusted, you feel enabled to be creative.”

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