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Building trust within organisations

Building trust within organisations

By Aileen Baird and Réal St-Amand

Public Service Commission of Canada


Editors comment


The implementation of the Employment Equity Act (1998) represents a step change for almost all (small, medium and large) organisations in South Africa. The scope and degree of change required has been quite a culture shock for leaders and employees alike.

The following paper points to the heart of why some change initiatives work – the elusive and magical TRUST element that needs to be instilled into the very fabric of the organisation for any Affirmative Action and Equity measures to be IMPLEMENTED AND SUSTAINED ON BUDGET AND ON TIME.

Ask yourself how well does your organisation stack up against the benchmarks presented in this report from Canada? Is trust the missing ingredient in your company’s approach to the implementation of fair and developmental people management systems and practices?


General findings

This paper surveys how trust was built and sustained within several organisations across Canada (Ontario and Quebec). The findings demonstrate that trust is important to the success of these organisations, as it is ingrained in their respective cultures.


Every participant of this benchmarking study agreed that they had:

>> Established trusting relationships within their organisation

>> Rrecognised that trust played a key role in ensuring their success.


Despite the diversity among these organisations in terms of number of employees, physical size and product, or service delivered, all had cultures based on similar values and principles. Although some differences were evident, every organisation had a strong esprit de corps, as employees were proud of where they worked. Each organisation strove to be the best within its respective industry and four values were shared:

>> Focus on the needs of the customer

>> Provide high quality products or services

>> Continuously learn or improve

>> Value and respect co-workers.

The organisations rrecognised that their success stemmed from their commitment to these values. Trust is important as one of the essential elements of their organisation’s culture ensuring that these values are consistently maintained.


1. Introduction

Building trust revolved around five principles:

>> Employee participation in the decision-making process

>> Autonomy

>> Feedback

>> Supportive supervisor behaviour

>> Open communication

2. Findings

Building trust required a commitment to transform the culture of the organisation to:

>> Achieve quality

>> Continuously improve

>> Respect fellow employees

>> Meet the customer’s needs

To do this, they developed and communicated the vision and values of the organisation to every employee, and made a long-term commitment to align the structure of the organisation with its values.

Various mechanisms sustained this process. Each mechanism is discussed in turn.

# Leadership

The culture transformations could only be achieved with a strong commitment from the leader of the organisation and top management. In most cases, senior management who provided the impetus for change defined the organisation’s values.

In one organisation, senior management simply began to walk around the organisation everyday. They talked with employees, constantly emphasising the values they wanted employees to become familiar with and eventually believe in.

Many leaders communicated the organisation’s values and goals through formal presentations to employees. Others distributed packaged information and showed videotapes to every employee to emphasise their role in ensuring that the goals of the organisation were achieved.


For some organisations, increasing management visibility was a part of the process of change; for others, this was the way management had always behaved. Where available, employee surveys confirmed this commitment.

As described in the next section of this report, every leader demonstrated a commitment to the values they promoted by:

>> Consistently practising an open, participative style of management

>> Supporting the people who believed in change

These two elements are essential to the success of the change process. All had a vision for their organisation and developed a plan of action to guide the organisation towards the attainment of their goals. Despite suffering short-term losses, managers remained focused on their targets and exercised patience and consistency to achieve long-term benefits.

# Participative management style

To uphold their values, traditional management through control, was being replaced with open communication and employee empowerment.

# Communication

Management believed that employees should be well informed about the present operations and future direction of their organisation. In most instances, information was available to all employees, rather than on a ‘need to know’ basis.

Information was communicated in a number of ways. Within a number of these organisations, management was visible and accessible to employees through an ‘open door’ policy or regularly talking to employees out of their offices.

A few organisations held regular Town Hall meetings to inform employees about current results, upcoming events and to share success stories. One organisation regularly scheduled a managers’ meeting for the sole purpose of communicating the contributions each had made to promote the organisation’s values and culture.

Some organisations had a newsletter. Newsletters communicated the values of the organisation, advertised upcoming events, recognised employees and reported on management’s response to employee concerns.

In the unionised organisations visited, communication between management and the union was also open. The unions had been invited to participate in the cultural change process from the beginning. Union management meetings were held regularly, and union representatives usually sat on a number of committees traditionally reserved for management.

In fact, the union became an ally of management, and together they participated in the management of change. Being open with the union, management prevented much of the anger, conflict and frustration usually associated with lay-offs and downsizing exercises.

Through management teams, senior management maintained lateral communication. Managers were informed of activities going on across the entire organisation. They were therefore able to understand how decisions impacted the organisation as a whole. One organisation replaced a level of hierarchy with a team of managers sharing information and collective responsibility. In another organisation, a Senior Management Team met biweekly and a number of Director Teams met through a conference call on a weekly basis.

# Empowering employees

"I work for my employees" was stated by a number of the managers interviewed. These managers also recognised that however able they were to think creatively and solve problems, they were no match for the combined effort of all employees. Such managerial behaviour promotes environments conducive to employee participation and risk-taking, where errors are viewed as an opportunity to learn.

To achieve employee participation, many organisations improved their decision making process by replacing the traditional hierarchy with team structures.

In one organisation, teams of 4 to 15 employees were established for each stage within the production process. Each team operated as an independent business and was responsible for all aspects of its business such as scheduling, hiring and dismissal of team members. Problems were handled within the team, with involvement from senior management only when the situation impacted the rest of the organisation.

Even though it still operates within a bureaucratic environment, another organisation implemented a comprehensive workplace restructuring initiative. Numerous job descriptions, multiple pay classifications and several layers of job functions were replaced with one generic job, multi-skilling and mandatory job rotation.

Providing employees with increased responsibility and meaningful work, the restructuring substantially flattened the organisation to include only three layers of personnel: one senior manager, seven team managers and seven teams.

The teams, composed of multi-skilled members, rotate jobs on a regular basis gradually moving from the introductory to expert level within their areas of responsibility. This initiative improved customer service, improved service hours, reduced grievances, reduced absenteeism and increased job satisfaction.

Management in one organisation met with the employees daily to exchange information and receive employee input. The meeting, held on the plant floor, operated as an open forum for employees who wanted to participate. While providing employees with the opportunity to voice their ideas, it also provided management with an opportunity to update the employees on the actions they had taken to resolve past issues.

These meeting lessened the differences between management and employees and confirmed management’s commitment to the values of the organisation. This organisation also eliminated the first layer of salaried supervisors, agreed to allow unionised employees to fulfill that function and enlarge the span of control to twenty and sometimes thirty employees. In this way, traditional management through control was replaced by a ‘coaching’ style as all employees took it upon themselves to ensure quality of production.


By allowing employees to think for themselves, many of these organisations witnessed dramatic improvements in the quality of work produced. This translated into savings of varied amounts. For example, kitchen staff within one organisation saved over $250,000 in one year simply by reducing waste.

# Training

Most managers rrecognised that training provided another forum to communicate the values of the organisation to their employees. Training illustrated management’s commitment to those values by ensuring that all employees had the necessary skills to operate effectively on and off the job. Each organisation rrecognised that competence was a condition of trust and critical to the goal of being the best within their respective industry.

Training budgets increased dramatically for the organisations that were in the process of or had completed, a cultural change. These organisations provided both senior and front-line managers the training they required to understand and exemplify the values of the organisation. Training included communication skills, teamwork, and people-centred management.

Some taught managers and employees alike to read and understand a financial statement. Thus, everyone in the organisation could appreciate their department’s financial position as well as that of the entire organisation.

In one organisation, 15% of every day was allotted to training. Employees received training in a number of life skills that made them more effective people on and off the job. Employees learned about their part in the production process, and also how they contributed to the entire production process. Training in the dynamics of the market, conflict management, communication, teamwork and finance was also given. Every employee, including the CEO, was capable of doing the majority of jobs within the production process.

# Rewards

Most of the participating organisations recognised that culture and rewards go hand in hand. To uphold their values, they understood that rewards go beyond financial returns to include such things as recognition, feedback and meaningful work. Since consequences affect behaviour, many organisations used their reward system to discourage behaviour that conflicted with their culture.

# Recognition

Management within these organisations rrecognised that a regular pay cheque and good benefits did not guarantee high morale or job satisfaction for the majority of their employees. Most managers acknowledged that employees needed to receive recognition and feel appreciated to be truly satisfied with their jobs.

The organisations began to reward not only the exceptional contribution of a few employees, but also the contribution of the many who consistently do their jobs well.

FOR MOST ORGANISATIONS, RECOGNITION WAS EXPRESSED IN A SIMPLE HANDSHAKE AND A THANK-YOU FOR A JOB WELL DONE. Whether for completing a report on time, or for not missing a day of work in the last six months, management took the time to thank the employee in person. Although a small gesture, it let the employees know that their efforts were noticed and appreciated.

Each organisation relied heavily on informal, non-monetary, instantaneous recognition as an effective way to reward their employees for a job well done. Other examples of this type of recognition included a free lunch at the cafeteria, a round of applause from co-workers, even a telegram.

In conjunction with instantaneous recognition, many organisations used formal recognition programmes. A few organisations had special achievement awards as well as annual awards ceremonies to recognise the excellent efforts of their employees. A newsletter was used to recognise special achievements. Many organisations used cash bonuses as well.

# Feedback

Within all the participating organisations, regular feedback was given to employees and managers with an emphasis on positive reinforcement. Although feedback was received formally in an annual evaluation, managers are required to provide informal feedback on a daily basis, to ensure that the formal evaluation held no surprises for any employee. Where available, employee surveys confirmed that approach.

A few organisations used employee surveys as a feedback mechanism to:

>> Measure morale and job satisfaction

>> Identify problem areas within the organisation

>> Evaluate the performance of management

Survey results were taken seriously and management acted upon the problems identified.

One organisation assembled a task force to analyse the results of one survey and to make recommendations to the executive. Upon receiving the recommendations, the executive met with each group of affected employees, listened to their concerns and proposed a solution to their problem. Actions taken by the executive were published in the organisation’s newsletter.

A few organisations also used upward feedback mechanisms like a 360-degree review to provide management with an indication of how others in the organisation perceived their performance. One organisation used the results of the 360-degree review in the formal evaluation process.

A number of organisations also surveyed their customers regularly to ensure that their needs were being met.

# Meaningful work

The changes implemented in each organisation improved the quality of work for the employees. In many of these organisations, the traditional job has given way to more flexible roles in which everyone does whatever it takes to ensure that the values and goals of the organisations are met. The organisation made the work more meaningful for employees in a number of ways including:

>> Increasing employee responsibility and accountability while reducing the number of supervisors and managers

>> Eliminating unnecessary policies and procedures

>> Utilising multi-skilling and job rotation.

# Performance measurement

Most of the organisations quantified and measured the performance of both management and employees to some degree. These hard measures were usually included in the formal evaluation process along with less tangible measurements of a person’s ability to deal effectively with people, to communicate, and to generally exemplify the values of the organisation.

Although organised in teams, one organisation measured the value-added per individual employee, as well as the costs incurred by each stage of the production process and the quality of the service provided to the customer. These measurements were distributed to each team, which could then monitor its results and make improvements where necessary.

Another organisation implemented a performance management system, which relied on positive reinforcement to maximise performance. The system pinpointed desired results, measured employee performance against these results, and provided feedback to employees in graph form.

Instead of condemning poor performance, managers were constantly reinforcing success by recognizing improvements and celebrating results with employees. The system resulted in savings for the organisation by drastically improving the quality of work and service provided. It also improved employee morale and created a new sense of pride among the employees.

Another organisation evaluated managers’ performance in three key areas: people management and leadership; continuous improvement and; profitability. With their boss, managers decided how their performance was to be measured (each area had one hard measure) and what type of performance exemplifies the outstanding achievement.

# Recruitment

Many organisations ensured that their culture was maintained through their recruitment process. For example, in one organisation, potential candidates went through an eight to ten hour pre-employment session. Candidates were screened for certain attitudes and involved in role-playing exercises. The employer’s expectations were also clearly outlined before hiring.

Similarly, another company tested potential employees for team-building aptitudes during the recruitment process.

One organisation was moving towards behavioural based interviewing and most organisations included an assessment of a candidate’s people skills when recruiting for managerial positions.

One organisation used co-operative education and summer employment to test for proper "chemistry". Students who demonstrated the technical competence and the right attitude were offered full-time work.

The use of core competency profiles was under development in a few organisations as well. The profiles outline the skills and attitudes required to be successful in the organisation. Developed for recruitment, they also reinforce the type of behaviour required from present and future employees to sustain the culture.

# Compensation

Although not the focus of this study, it was apparent that some organisations were aligning their compensation systems to support and sustain their values and goals.

A few organisations used gain sharing and quality bonuses to encourage employees to meet and exceed their targets. Skill or knowledge based systems were also used in two of the organisations. Some were experimenting with team-based pay.

Some organisations were experimenting with aligning their compensation systems with evaluation results.

# Community Involvement

The organisations visited strove to be good corporate citizens by using environmentally sound practices and being involved in their community. For example, one organisation contracted the services of Goodwill (3) for assistance in a major project. This provided hundreds of welfare recipients with computer training and jobs.

Most organisations were involved with local schools. Not only were they involved in the community, but also they could influence curriculum decisions and ensure the supply of a qualified group of potential employees. For example, one organisation assisted in the education of high school students unable to cope within the normal school setting. They provided students with on-site classroom instruction and on the job training. Another organisation regularly invited elementary and secondary school students to their plant to encourage students to consider pursuing a technical education. A number of organisations also had strong ties with local universities.

Most of the organisations rrecognised that work is only one facet of their employees’ lives and that their employees also gain personal fulfilment from their activities away from work. As a result, these organisations supported employees’ involvement in the community, recognising that:

>> Happy employees were more productive at work

>> It was good public relations to encourage their employees to be active members of the community.

To support employees in their roles outside the workplace, many of the organisations encouraged alternate work arrangements (part-time, flexible hours, compressed work week). One organisation had an on-site day-care facility.

One organisation had a basketball court, a weight room and a baseball diamond on-site for their employees’ enjoyment. The same organisation had company t-shirts and jackets which many of their employees proudly wore. Such activities are believed to support team building.

Most organisations planned a variety of social activities for employees including, dances, golf tournaments, bowling nights and summer picnics. These activities helped foster an esprit de corps. Their popularity among employees provided tangible proof that they believed in, were proud of, and prepared to promote the mission, values and culture of their organisation.

3. Conclusion

Building and maintaining trust within each of these organisations is not a simple or rapid process. It requires a commitment to creating and sustaining a culture that is customer focused, quality driven and respectful of employees.

Unlike organisations that only talk about vision and values, these organisations make them real, building trust in the process. This exercise confirmed that trust is an important element of success for the participating organisations.

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

Managing Director


C: +27 (0)82 416 7712

T: +27 (0)10 035 4185 (Office)

F: +27 (0)86 689 7862

Website: www.workinfo.com
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