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Employees Are Becoming More Distrustful of Fellow Workers and of Leaders' Decision-Making Motives, Survey Finds

Many employees don’t trust the people they work with and are skeptical of the motivations of company leaders, says a workplace survey conducted by a Massachusetts firm.

Interaction Associates revealed in a survey earlier this year that there was a “downward shift” in the areas of trust, leadership and collaboration compared with results from a 2009 Building Trust Survey. The Cambridge firm noted, however, that the new findings could be reversed if company leaders strategically embraced collaboration skills and tools.

“We’re seeing that things are getting worse, particularly around trust and leadership,” says Andy Atkins, Interaction Associates’ director of research and development. “The alarming trends point to negative shifts for many companies, which also means the formula for success at top-performing companies is the one to emulate.”

In the 2010 survey, employees revealed they felt safe communicating with leaders and taking risks, but did not share the same favorable sentiment of their peers. When asked whether they felt safe sharing ideas with colleagues, employee responses dropped 18% from the previous year. In the recent study, employees also noted that their work environments were more secretive and less transparent than before.

The survey identifies the best practices employed by 211 business leaders across more than a dozen industries. Participants were asked to rate their organizations’ success in achieving a variety of business goals, including customer and employee retention, innovation and creativity, and maintaining a competitive market position. Then participants rated their organizations along the dimensions of trust, leadership and collaboration.

Leaders earned high marks for communicating change, but low marks for making clear the purpose and reason for decision-making. Leadership issues also took a hit – a 26% drop – when employees were polled on whether leaders reflected realistic optimism and confidence in the future. Companies with strong leadership, according to the survey, “demonstrate a high level of confidence in the organizations’ abilities to manage through the current economic crisis.” They also foster an equal level of trust in management.

Collaboration, says the survey, is a critical skill in high-performing companies, but one that is often misunderstood and mislabeled as a “nice to have” practice within an organization. Although leaders are widely credited for following formal process steps in decision-making, meetings discipline, and appropriate levels of involvement, overall, management is viewed as less supportive of collaboration in the 2010 findings.

“Yes, there’s a downward shift, and it’s critically important to understand,” says Atkins. “But keep in mind that strongly performing companies still get excellent results by focusing on behaviors and practices that build trust, empower leadership, and strengthen collaboration.”

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