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Without Trust, Engagement is Dead

Employee engagement is a big topic for good reasons, but “Improving Engagement” often seems like a daunting and abstract task. This challenge has very little to do with identifying reasonable first steps (ChatGPT, Claude, and google provide similar sets of suggestions), the “whats” of employee engagement if you will.

Some suggestions like increasing learning opportunities and skill development might be easier to knock out. Others might be more of a stretch. Bottom line, pick one, get started, and systematically evaluate and adjust as you go along.

BUT along with this bias for action, give some thought to the hows and whys, the way that engagement improves at the level of the individual employee. I specifically suggest you focus first on the role of trust.

Trust sounds mushy but the economic impact of trust is well documented, particularly with respect to high trust societies and their enhanced ability to create extended networks of information exchange. These networks lay the foundation for the accumulated knowledge and knowhow underlying the development of individuals, firms, and societies (for more on this topic read César Hidalgo’s insightful “How Information Grows”). The smallest unit in these networks of course, and the one you can immediately impact, is the individual person.

To see how trust comes into play for employee engagement, think of an explicit effort to improve the skills of your employees. If you make this effort, you are saying in effect “I trust that you have the ability and drive to see this through and grow as a result”. The long-term benefit is not only the incremental improvement in human capital but a gain in trust and the potential for others in the organization to leverage that new knowledge and knowhow.

If you don’t make the attempt though, you are instead saying “I don’t trust you” or perhaps “You are not worth the investment” or maybe even “I think you’ll outshine me and we can’t have that”. Do this a few times and you’ll see trust (and engagement) tank. The engagement survey will flag it as an engagement problem, but the underlying issue? Trust through and through.

We spend massive energy writing and talking about engagement drivers, but in the end, employees look around and see what gets rewarded. If those who play games, take the credit, and deflect the blame are the ones getting promoted, the worst will rise, the best will leave, and the rest will withhold information and keep their heads down. If, on the other hand, your employees see you making a genuine effort to build their skills and craft the right role, they will pick up on that trust and make strides towards the autonomy, belonging, and competency that helps individuals thrive and organizations grow.