Why trust is so important in employee engagement

As I struggled with deciding what article to read, what book to focus on, or where to take my next post, Simon Sinek‘s most recent TED Talk, Why good leaders make you feel safe, was posted in my company’s enterprise social network (ESN). And every bit of it speaks directly to my heart, to concepts I’ve struggled with long before I chose this topic to blog about for class. As he says,

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.”

He also gave a remarkable example of how this played out, in a real company. When Barry-Wehmiller was hit hard in the recession in 2008, instead of laying people off to make up the $10 million shortfall, the CEO decided on a novel approach:

Every employee, from secretary to CEO, was required to take four weeks of unpaid vacation. They could take it any time they wanted, and they did not have to take it consecutively. But it was how (the CEO) announced the program that mattered so much. He said, it’s better that we should all suffer a little than any of us should have to suffer a lot, and morale went up.

They saved twice what they needed to, in part because on their own, the employees voluntarily started trading time off. Workers who could more easily afford it would take more time off so that those who could afford it less could take less time off. As Sinek predicted, remarkable things happened.

And I wonder why we all don’t instinctively know this; or if we do, why we ignore it. It is the same for us at home, in our social circles, or wherever we go. If we don’t feel safe, we don’t give our best. We might do our duty, or do what we need to in order to look good or to save face. But when we truly believe that the people around us have our back, we give it our all.

I vividly remember a situation I found myself in where I was really scared to take action. I knew many of the consequences of acting weren’t desirable; the consequences of not acting, worse by most accounts. But the decision in the end was not about weighing the consequences. It came down to trust; to knowing that if the tables were turned, the other person would have done it for me. And that gave me the courage to push past my fear and act.

So great, I now not only feel this viscerally, but can also name it. Describe what trust means, and why it matters. And I can absolutely see how and why a lack of trust detracts from engagement in an ESN.

  • If you don’t trust that your contributions will be appreciated, why bother?
  • If you don’t trust that your leaders have your best interests in mind, why put yourself on the line?
  • If you don’t trust that your co-workers also have your back, why chance that they will use what you post for personal gain?

I also have a much better appreciation for why community management is more about culture than anything else, and often involves culture change. Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely have engagement in a culture that is not based on trust. Fear of consequences can and does motivate people to act. But the kind of engagement you’ll get in that kind of culture will be unlikely to bring about results that are better than they were before the ESN was implemented. And it surely isn’t going to increase overall employee engagement in the deeper sense.

Now that I’ve nailed that part of it, I’m off again to start digging into how to deal with the problem. What can be done to move away from fear and toward trust so that employees

will give us their blood and sweat and tears to see that their leader’s vision comes to life….

Or in this case, to feel free to contribute and participate in their company’s ESN to further the goals of their company.

Thoughts on working out loud

Any of you who follow Jeff Merrell (or me, on Twitter) by now know that last week, I participated in a WOL week as part of a graduate class I’m taking at Northwestern University. It was an interesting study in the benefits of working out loud, as well as how different platforms can serve different purposes and effect where the discussion goes. I missed part of the memo, and also started before the rest of the people in the program. So instead of doing my WOL in the program community, I took mine to Twitter. And once our class was onsite, many more from the class joined in the Twitter conversation. Jeff was posting stats, and the competitiveness of people came into play. We were trying to have more connections between us and others, and make sure our names showed up large enough that people could see. It would have been great fodder for a behavioral study! Jeff also created a Storify from most of the Tweets from days 1-2. Kind of fun to look back and remember how things unfolded.

In terms of what I’ve learned by practicing WOL, even for a short time:

  • I absolutely got some new ideas or perspectives on what I was thinking about.
  • It was also a great way to keep track of what we were discussing so that I can look back now and remember – online note taking.
  • And while I understand there is at least one study showing that old-fashioned note-taking (on paper, with a pen or pencil) is better for retention, I think there is something to be said for any activity where you actively paraphrase what you are hearing or capture an idea that is sparked by the discussions going on in a classroom.

Another takeaway – my team at work are going to try combining written and video WOL in coming weeks to see what impact that has. I’m hoping it will spark some more fraternity, as well as help me (us?) be less self-conscious about video posts. Perhaps we’ll even develop a model that we can share for use within other work teams. I’d love to make video a bigger part of what we do internally as a company, especially since I suspect it would help with building trust to facilitate more and better global collaboration.

Who are the real experts?

I’ve read a lot of posts about imposter syndrome, and theories about why so many people feel like they aren’t experts. But something I don’t remember reading about is how ludicrous this is at a time when there are so many people spouting off about things they know little or nothing about. A great example of this is the recent measles outbreak, due in no small part to a celebrity who didn’t do a good job fact checking and convinced a whole lot of parents that vaccines were very unsafe. She has since retracted her statements, but that is akin to newspapers running corrections on p10, or someone being released from prison after being found innocent – the damage is already done, and most people will never notice.

So why is it that many of us are so reluctant to embrace their inner expert? Are we afraid? And if so, of what? Many people are found out to be wrong, and rarely are they ostracized for it. In most cases, it is understood that new evidence has been found that sheds a different light on the facts. So they change their story and go on. Or cling to what they believe, assuming the next study that comes along will vindicate them. And so I ask again, what are we afraid of?

There are many examples of politicians and others saying absolutely ludicrous things, with a majority of the world looking on in disbelief, and yet those same people go on to represent us and make a lot of money doing so. There are also staggering numbers of people who don’t believe in undeniable facts – things proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Given this, we can’t possibly be afraid we’ll lead people astray by acting as an expert. Can we?

Come on folks, we live in a world where there are people who think reality TV truly is reality. It’s time to own your expertise! Recognize that no one is perfect or has all the answers. We are all learning together, all the time, and we need your expertise as much as the next guy’s. Tell us what you are good at, and why, and how we can be, too! And we’ll believe it, especially if you do. Or we won’t. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter if we believe you. If you’ve given honestly of your experience, it will matter to you, and to the people for whom your special expertise is most important.

Who are the real experts? We all are. Find what you are expert in, and embrace it!

Where are the edges of a Personal Learning Network?

In class last week, we read about Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). One of the exercises was to define a PLN in a single sentence, and also to read and respond to definitions written by classmates. After I finished the exercise, I found myself reflecting on my week. I realized I’d been thinking about PLNs specifically in terms of professional development, and in doing so had missed a very critical piece – personal development. Some of the best “teachers” in my PLN are not those I cultivated specifically for professional learning. Don’t get me wrong, I have many friends who were first in my network as business relationships; people I knew I could learn a lot from. But here I’m referring to people I first thought of as friends and only later realized how much I had actually learned from them.

And going down this unconventional path a little further, there are also people in my network that I wouldn’t categorize as friends at all. People I don’t even necessarily like, but whom I stay in touch with as a reminder of things I don’t want to learn. Is that a kind of learning on its own?

If PLNs are intentional, how much of the building that we do is conscious? And how much of it is actually serendipitous – tangential meetings or discussions with people you don’t think of as part of your PLN, but from whom you gain significant insights or learning?

No, I don’t have answers. This post is an exercise in thinking out loud – sharing half-baked ideas – born out of practicing what I preach. Thanks for the encouragement, @JeffMerrell.

Is trust the key to improving collaboration (in an ESN)?

To set the stage here, I’ve started a class in a graduate certificate program at Northwestern. It focuses on learning and organizational change, and as part of the class, we are required to write a series of three posts on a topic of interest to us individually. My original plan was to just post my first blog internally to the site we use for school and then post subsequent ones externally. But a little birdie reminded me that sometimes it is helpful for others to see the whole process, so here I am, starting my own external blog. About time, perhaps? Anyway, here it is, with some minor editing for a different audience.

Supporting an enterprise social network is my day job, so I naturally do a lot of thinking about what I can do to help build engagement. We’ve done well, but appear to have hit a plateau. Many people I talk to seem focused on the platform – if it only did this, if we could only change that. I think I was in that same place mentally for a long time when I first started in my current role. And to be fair, I still go there sometimes. But being in class – doing the reading, listening to people talk and ask questions and poke holes – I keep hearing references to trust. And actually, I heard it in a community managers’ webinar I attended recently. Our speaker (Michael Sampson) mentioned that if people don’t believe that what they say will truly be heard and seriously considered for action, they stop really trying to collaborate. At that point, they instead pay lip service to the process. And I recognized my frustration with certain supposed collaborations in that statement of his. I can see times where I’ve pretended to collaborate because I saw the end was already decided; or others where I’ve been frustrated because I thought that it was an honest collaboration and put a lot of time and energy in, only to find out that my input was ignored. So in terms of what I am working on here, I would define trust as a lack of fear – fear of judgement, fear of repercussions, fear of disappointment, fear of being ignored.

Because of this, in my series of posts for class, I want to focus on trust. I’m looking for a variety of articles, books, blogs, etc. that reference trust in relationship to collaboration and social networking. My goal is to hopefully tease out what it takes to build trust within this context. I’m certain the answer will be, “it depends”, and so in the end what I hope to come away with is a new series of tools. Perhaps I’ll be able to start to craft a playbook. I know that when companies feel or genuinely find that they’ve hit an engagement plateau they are often all too willing to use the tool as a scapegoat. Setting aside any personal feelings I have for the platform, I know that focusing on the tool is missing the point. Sure, having a “better” platform could help move the needle a few percentage points. Good design and excellent user experience is important, after all. But in the long run, people need to want to participate, to feel safe participating, and to feel that participating will help improve work in some way. Removing a false barrier, an excuse, isn’t really going to make a significant, sustained difference.

I’ve already spotted a few good references in our textbook, and in one or two other articles. But I really want to dig in and flesh this out. What things can be done to build trust in a way that frees people of the fears they have about collaboration? I’m very curious to hear of any great resources that I should be including in my quest.