Each new year provides the opportunity to reflect on the past and set goals for the future. As we begin 2016, we should strive toward building high-trust organizations. The alternative has a disturbing cost and operational impact.
There is a logical correlation between trust and employee engagement, a significant problem in our national workforce. Stated more correctly, there is a direct connection between mistrust and employee disengagement.
Gallup found that “less than one-third (31.5%) of U.S. workers were engaged in their jobs in 2014” (“Majority of U.S. Employees Not Engaged Despite Gains in 2014” by Amy Adkins, www.gallup.com). Surveys in 2015 showed only modest improvement, reaching 31.9 percent in June (www.gallup.com).
Referring to Gallup’s research, FranklinCovey, a leader in personal and organizational effectiveness, wrote, “96% of engaged employees trust their companies, while only 46% of disengaged employees do” (www.speedoftrust.com).
These numbers alone do not tell the whole story, but applied to labor figures, the impact becomes clear. Fiscal Year 2015 Department of Defense manpower estimates totaled 791,900 personnel (http://prhome.defense.gov). Using the more generous June 2015 Gallup findings, 68.1 percent of those employees were disengaged. That’s more than half a million people, and almost 300,000 of them distrust their organization. That is startling, and so is the cost.
In the same year, the DOD requested $69.8 billion for civilian pay and benefits (http://comptroller.defense.gov). About $48 billion was paid to employees who were not “involved in, enthusiastic about [or] committed to their work” (Gallup’s description of engaged employees).
Even if we ignore the cost, high-trust organizations should be our goal, and it starts with leadership. People don’t mistrust organizations as an entity. Mistrust is personal.
In high-trust organizations:
• Leaders are transparent and shun personal agendas. Subordinates know how they contribute to organizational goals and strive toward mission accomplishment.
• Leaders are humble and recognize superior performance. Subordinates become internally motivated but know outstanding efforts will be rewarded.
• Leaders are consistent in setting and upholding standards. Subordinates know what to expect day-to-day, they work without fear, and the organization becomes self-correcting.
• Leaders are fair, do not play favorites, and hold themselves to a higher standard. Subordinates trust their leaders and their peers and operate as a team.
• Leaders are courageous and do not acquiesce to bureaucratic nonsense. Subordinates sense the leader has their back and they return the favor.
In low-trust organizations, subordinates avoid innovation because the fear of failure outweighs the benefits of success. Leaders lack confidence in subordinates’ abilities and question their judgement and motivations. They foment these feelings among their people and create conflict. And low-trust leaders have a propensity toward treating symptoms while ignoring the disease. Many factors lead to disengagement, but low-trust leaders are unable, unwilling, or do not care enough to uncover them. Instead, they exacerbate the problem.
We would all rather serve in high-trust organizations and lead an engaged workforce. They are more effective, more efficient, and more enjoyable. But how do we get there?
A close friend and mentor is reading this, nodding his head, and saying, “covenant leadership.” He’s probably right. Relationships in which leader and follower work toward shared goals build an immense level of trust. But it requires developing leaders who truly care about and for their people. These leaders are less likely to question subordinates’ motives, abilities, and judgment, and they build genuine trust up and down the chain of command.
Whatever the strategy, reducing by half the number of disengaged DOD employees would be the equivalent of hiring 250,000 fully engaged workers at zero additional cost. Imagine the impact in other executive departments, like Veterans Affairs, where the workforce tripled but productivity declined by nearly half from 1997 to 2011 (“A Bigger Staff Isn’t Helping VA Process Disability Claims Any Faster,” by Bob Brewin, www.nextgov.com).
More employees are not the answer. Engaged employees are the answer. Whether you lead a dozen people or a thousand, two-thirds of them are probably not enthusiastic about or committed to their work, to your mission. You can change that by making your organization a high-trust unit.
Senior Chief Murphy retired from the Navy after 21 years of service. His June 2012 Proceedings column, “Bring Back Humility,” was included in the recently published Naval Leadership, a volume in the U.S. Naval Institute Wheel Book series.