Impact of Trust on Organizational Culture and Driver Retention

A quick search on Google for “why do people leave jobs’’ will report a range of interesting reasons, but the general theme is often the same. The main reasons for leaving a job usually relate to company culture, lack of career growth, poor management, feeling unappreciated, and working for a lousy boss. These reasons influence employees’ decision to leave more often than pay, working hours, or workload. While it’s easy to blame low salaries or insufficient resources for high employee turnover in the school transportation industry, the real reason for this issue is often related to poor management, lack of training, and leadership. It’s essential to address the underlying reasons for employee turnover, which have little to do with the physical work environment and are influenced by leadership and organizational culture. You can find thousands of leadership experts with catchphrases and fancy books, each providing different approaches to management. However, leadership is similar to being an athlete – various types require specific skills and physical attributes. For example, a golfer doesn’t need the same skills as a sprinter but needs the basics of athleticism, like endurance and coordination. Leadership is the same; while each company may need a different style of leader, there are essential qualities that build a consistently successful culture. TRUST is a crucial quality of leadership and the key to maintaining a positive climate and culture that encourages employees to stay and succeed.

Trust is a complex term that can be challenging to define. It varies in degree and situation, depending on the individuals and circumstances involved. We trust some bosses, but not necessarily all of them. So, as a leader, how do you develop trust with your workforce to ensure employees want to stay and work hard? My research on trust began early in my career when I worked with teenagers who struggled to succeed in the school environment. These students would argue, fight, skirt around rules, blame others for their mistakes, lash out at adults for no apparent reason, and break rules just to see what would happen. As I built relationships with these students, I quickly learned their apathy and behavioral challenges were rooted in the belief that they could not trust the adults requesting or demanding compliance. These students noticed the slightest inconsistencies; they focused on how the adults treated other students more than what specifically happened to them. They believed teachers placed unrealistic expectations on them by asking them to work hard only to be told repeatedly, based on grades, that they still did not meet the required standard.

Most importantly, the focus was not on growth but on complete compliance. I realized these students were not simply refusing to comply with school rules but attempting to expose the adults as untrustworthy and fake. It wasn’t the school rules they wanted to defy but the adults trying to enforce them. While learning with teenagers and adults, I discovered some straightforward ways we can both build and lose trust. We all want our employees to be committed, work hard, be problem solvers, communicate better, and, most importantly, stick around. However, trust must be at the foundation of it all to create an environment that provides emotional safety and encourages growth. Let’s consider how we can build trust with our employees through truthfulness, reliability, understanding, sincerity, and time.

Let’s begin by discussing the importance of being truthful. I can imagine your thinking: I don’t lie to people who work for me. At least, I hope that is what you are thinking; if not, we may need to start over at the top. The perception of your truthfulness is shaped by much more than what you say. Remember the difficult teenagers we discussed earlier; many of your employees are just like them, and they are watching everything you do. They perceive your truthfulness based on what you do to others more than your interactions with them. Consider having an employee blatantly breaking a specific rule or procedure. Everyone knows this person is breaking said rule. You send a memo to the entire company reminding everyone of the rule rather than directly addressing that person. Two problems occur in this situation. First, your big speech on accountability that you probably gave at the last staff meeting goes right out the door (you look like a liar). Secondly, everyone following the rule now feels unappreciated and frustrated that rules only apply to some people and not everyone. For another example, imagine yourself in a staff meeting. In frustration, you give a blanket proclamation that by a specific deadline, everyone will be in compliance, or they can look for employment elsewhere. The entire room understands your frustration; however, inevitably, one person will not meet the standard, and it will be someone you can’t simply fire. Now, that person is walking around your organization with everyone waiting and watching for your reaction. Most people know the HR nightmare of firing employees, so you let it slide and live to fight another day. However, your employees may perceive that decision as you being dishonest. They will feel that your words can’t be trusted or that you are only sometimes truthful in your interactions. And while they may not say it publicly, a small amount of trust has been lost. Let this happen repeatedly, and you will discover a staff culture where trust has been eroded.

Building trust can seem difficult for leaders who have to make tough decisions because if they do, they fear alienating one or both sides. However, this is only partially true. Employees want leaders who are bold but also truthful. What does that look like? Most importantly, if you say you will do something, make sure you do it. If you can’t fulfill the promise, own it and publicly tell them why, even if you aren’t questioned. By proactively sharing our mistakes or shortcomings, we build trust. On the other hand, if you wait for someone to point out your mistake, your response may appear defensive. It’s okay to make mistakes, and owning up to them can encourage a culture of growth, which, in turn, can foster emotional security, creativity, problem-solving, and efficient teamwork. The most important thing is to learn how to apologize sincerely and appropriately, as honesty is more valuable than perfection. When honesty is valued over perfection, then truthfulness sets the foundation for trust.

Learning to be more truthful even in small interactions becomes more manageable when we focus on reliability. These two qualities are closely related; one cannot exist without another. As we discussed earlier about truthfulness, reliability comes into play when considering the consistency of our actions, not just singular events. Truthfulness requires us to own our mistakes and apologize when necessary. Reliability requires learning from those mistakes and working to prevent them from happening again. Reliability is closely linked to competence.

Employees want leaders who carefully consider all possible outcomes before making decisions. The most evident way reliability, and by extension trust, is broken is through inconsistency. For example, suppose you implement a new evaluation process for your employees. Your team creates the new process, and you decide to implement it. A week later, you got so much negative feedback that you reduced the expectations and omitted one whole section of the evaluation to appease those questioning the reason behind the changes. Six weeks later, only half of the supervisors use the evaluation tool, so you scrap the whole thing and start over. The evaluation tool was immediately withdrawn due to negative reactions, overshadowing its original purpose. More importantly, the purpose or “the why” was not clearly and specifically communicated, which may have reduced some negative responses. Unfortunately, volatility and change ignite the brain’s emotional center and prevent clear and logical thought processes.

Change is inevitable; sometimes, you may have to act fast, but the only way to appear reliable is to develop consistency in creating change. There must be a steadfast vision that anchors all decisions for your company. As an educator, my anchor has always been to put the students’ needs first and ensure their safety at all times. By knowing and naming my purpose and ensuring all my decisions support that vision, people learn to rely on me and my decisions. As people understand the purpose of change, they begin to trust the process, which allows them to innovate and connect even when change seems overwhelming. We are in the process together because we trust that all decisions will be measured against the shared vision and purpose we have committed to. We rely on the organization’s and leader’s vision and purpose to maintain trust.

Truthfulness and reliability are two essential qualities that employees expect from their leaders. Another critical aspect of trust is understanding. It is almost impossible to trust someone whom you feel doesn’t understand or value you. Leaders should take the time to learn about their employees’ values and perspectives. Sometimes, leaders unintentionally create situations that undermine their trustworthiness. For example, a survey is sent to employees to collect feedback, but the survey is difficult to complete or not widely publicized, resulting in inaccurate and incomplete results. Additionally, if leadership doesn’t like the survey results, they may ignore or manipulate them. This can make employees feel their opinions don’t matter, and the organization does not value their input. Beyond surveys, employees want more than just their opinions heard; they want to feel that their job is meaningful and understood. Having a deep understanding of the complexities of the work and the difficulties faced by employees instills trust in leadership’s ability to make informed decisions and advocate for their best interests. It’s not necessary for leaders to have firsthand experience in a particular job, but a willingness to learn and inquire is crucial. The old saying, walk a mile in my shoes, is an excellent rule to follow. It is difficult to trust what we don’t understand. To foster trust, we must prioritize gaining a deeper, more open understanding of one another. This enhanced comprehension leads to improved communication and a stronger sense of community, ultimately resulting in increased trust between team members and their leaders.

Beyond understanding, sincerity is the sugar that helps the medicine go down more easily. Sincerity and understanding go hand in hand, and they can work wonders in making the process of building trust possible. Sincerity is not just about speaking the truth but also about understanding the person you are speaking with and meaning what you say. Carefully choosing your words and speaking with intention is crucial when addressing conflict and corrections.

Conflict is inevitable in human relationships, and your approach can significantly impact employee relations and retention. Faking sincerity and giving half-truths can harm trust and make others lose faith in your words and actions. For example, you have an employee who has been underperforming and causing conflict on the team. There is talk of budget cuts, and while no decisions have been made yet, you choose to use this as the reason for moving this employee into another position.

While blaming the budget makes the conversation more manageable for you, that employee will go into the new environment, creating the same conflicts as before because you robbed them of the opportunity to grow by avoiding the actual problem. Your conversation was insincere, and even if the person in the room didn’t realize it, all the other employees who have been dealing with this employee know you were insincere. It is essential to be clear and transparent with your expectations and provide authentic connections and opportunities to learn and grow. Avoiding the actual problem and blaming external factors like budget cuts can create a false sense of sincerity and harm the growth and development of employees. It is essential to say what needs to be said in a sincere and helpful way to maintain trust.

Finally, the last and most challenging aspect of building trust is time. You can work diligently to make truthful decisions and interact honestly as a leader. You can also apologize when you make mistakes and practice transparency with your staff. You can focus on ensuring your reliability in decision-making and change processes by maintaining a clear vision and purpose. You can even request quality feedback and seek to understand the needs of your employees while being sincere in your interactions and when handling conflict. However, with all these great approaches and strategies, building trust takes time. Building trust requires repetition and consistency. Small actions, repeated consistently, can dramatically change the culture of any organization. The question is whether the change will be for the better or worse. Time proves everything. If you wish to increase employee commitment to your organization, as leaders, we should focus on building a culture that emphasizes and prioritizes TRUST. Truthfulness, reliability, understanding, sincerity, and time are the action steps required for success.

Dana Rosen is assistant director of transportation services – student safety and support – at Cypress Fairbanks ISD in Harris County, Texas.

Leave a Reply