How Trust Impacts Culture in a Cross-Generational Workplace

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The foundation of any relationship:


It makes sense, then, that trust is also the key ingredient to developing a successful work culture. So we must understand why trust has become increasingly important at work. And in a cross-generational workplace, we must know how trust is defined by the different generations.

In relationships, trust is an important foundation. It is the one element that influences behaviors, changes mindsets and ultimately strengthens those relationships. The same is true in business.

The Principles of Trust

Once trust is broken, the crux of the relationship has little foundation from which to build. The emotional investment that has been rooted over time can instantly be yanked out like an annoyingly persistent weed. Relationships that have developed to that point based on trust becomes fragments. It is then we rethink our alignment, perhaps become suspicious of intentions and question the value of what we once believed in.

A friend taught me his four foundations of trust – the principles by which I evaluate my own relationships in business and life:

  1. Knowing – Knowing someone comes with time, shared connection and shared experiences. This time together produces empathy; you understand what motivates the other and can intuitively predict how the other will react to situations.
  1. Growing – Following the same path towards a common goal instills trust. As long as both continue on the same direction, trust becomes stronger.
  1. Sameness – Sameness means synchronicity. It goes hand in hand with growing together. Wanting the same things, believing in the same causes and developing a commitment to move towards the common goals solidifies the relationship.
  1. Belonging – Belonging becomes the result of the above 3 principles. In families, belonging is intrinsic. In friendships and in groups, belonging manifests itself overtime. Like a club or a team, a sense of belonging allows individuals to open themselves up to the trusted members without fear of repercussion.

In many work cultures, trust is much harder to maintain.

Too often, the primary goal of the company – to drive profits – comes at the expense of its employees. This creates a divide between the organization and its people. Mistrust develops as the actions of the company makes trust difficult.

In these cultures, the employee doesn’t feel a shared connection. They don’t see themselves growing down the same path as the employer; they no longer feel they want the same things. And, most important, they don’t feel like they belong.

In our generational hangouts we delve deeply into the Future of Work discussion. These weekly ethnographic sessions bring together a strong community of people across all generations. The unique chemistry across Boomers, GenXers and Millennials has resulted in very honest conversations across a variety of topics.

As we explored generational perceptions on the evolving workplace, three elements have emerged as by-products of trust:

  • Autonony
  • Communication
  • Transparency


Autonomy is the Key

A company that trusts its people means it’s hiring the best to do their job; it means they have the confidence in these employees to excel in their areas of expertise. But this level of trust seems to be missing from many workplaces.

Instead, “managers” (as opposed to “leaders”) focus on compliance and conformity; they ask employees to prove their worth through audits, process and strict scheduling. The newer approaches to management encourages employees to forge their own paths and work outside of conventional approaches.

Some of our GenXers, who have had both corporate and entrepreneurial experience had this to say:

The reason I am an entrepreneur is that I have a lot of interests, and I’m productive, and I don’t like being limited; I’m not interested in being managed.

 ~ Brian Carter, GenX, Entrepreneur Digital Strategy

This issue is becoming more prevalent as Gen Y and Gen Z, who appreciate flexible work schedules and remote contribution, dominate the workforce.

The workday should be structured around volume and productivity, not just appearing at your desk… Allow employees to build their schedules around the work they need to execute as opposed to expectations set by others… ultimately, this encourages high levels of productivity.

~ Ross Quintana, Gen X, Entrepreneur, Strategist

For Joe, an older Millennial, who is used to the start-up world and thinking outside-the box, he says this:

Mico-f**king management. If that happens, then I’m out

~ Joe Cardillo, Project Manager, GenY

Giving employees autonomy allows them to exert their initiative to consider solutions outside of the norm. Trusting employees to do the work is table stakes. Giving them the necessary slack to take ownership over a project and inevitably perform beyond expectations instills greater reciprocal trust.


Communication is Essential

Developing sustainable trust – and specifically belonging – means being unafraid to approach to management with questions or feedback. For Millennials, the immediacy of feedback, good or bad, is essential.

Tell us in real time if we’re doing something wrong. Otherwise, how are we expected to learn? Sure, there may be those of us [Millennials] who’ll be mad and maybe they’re quit but they are probably not the ones you want on your team anyway.

 When I have something serious to say, I go directly to the individual – face-to-face– because I need them to see my face, hear my voice and understand the implications and next steps

 ~ Tiffany Daniels, GenY, Government and Community Relations

Some leaders, like Mila Araujo, a GenXer in the financial services industry, understand the importance of being in tune with employees. By listening to their unique needs and giving them the tools and resources to grow, she has managed to shift her department many times based on the strengths of its individual contributors.

Mila also feels creating a culture of empathy fosters strong communication. For her, this means developing programs to allow employees to look outside of their own immediate accountabilities and understand the responsibilities and goals others within the organization. This is imperative where employees may feel detached from the broader mission of the organization.

Boomers also largely agree that communication is the overriding force in building a culture of trust. In our recent hangout on What Makes a Productive Happy Workplace, Boomers said this:

  • “Respect is given from the get-go (until it’s lost), while trust is earned ”..
  • Communication is enabled through respect. Constant communication begins to build the foundation for trust.
  • Active listening is crucial.
  • Group think stymies creative solutions to challenges.


These days, trust comes from Transparent Leadership

When seeking trustworthy relationships with employers, Millennials tend to pay attention to leaders of the organization. What they say privately and publicly are scrutinized; hypocrisy is the where trust goes to die.

Within many corporate cultures, there is an unstated rule that tells employees to remain silent when spoken to, and to do your job. So when that company says they want progressive, out-of-the-box thinking and increased collaboration, we call ‘bullshit’ every time. Saying one thing and doing another is so foreign to us because we live in a transparent world.

~ John Graham, GenY, CEO Egofree Media

Steve, a Boomer who has worked in the social technology space, noted that we have built organization where everyone is out for himself and this has taken center stage over a cooperative environment. It’s the reason for lack of loyalty and high churn rates. This happens when profits take priority over people. The economy has contributed to this mindset.

We never taught respect for anybody else. We’re teaching if it’s not good for you, then run! …People need to feel a part of something.

~ Steve Dodd, Boomer, Social Sales

Boomers, who have seen this largely authoritarian rule over the span of their careers, agree that transparency has never really existed in their careers. Perhaps, it was never really a requirement.

Today, it’s absolutely essential. An organization that is honest in its pursuits, its failures and allows its employees “in” provides a view into its own vulnerability, but also gives employees a sense of responsibility and ownership in the outcome.

Knowing is transparency. Sameness is transparency. The more employees are aligned with an organization on these principles, the more they trust the company and its leaders.

In the end, trust – in our personal and professional lives – must be fostered through autonomy, communication, and transparency.

Remember the four principles we alluded to earlier: When employees trust the organization they are willing to invest their time to build it, contribute to its growth, and feel like they are truly part of something important.

How is your organization performing in those four areas? How autonomous, communicative and transparent are your leaders? More important: as a leader, what are you doing, right now, to earn trust from those who follow you?

This post originally appeared on Switch and Shift

Image source: Almightywind

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