Communication and trust, what small business can learn from big business

Bob Chapman is the leader of a large manufacturing business in the US called Barry-Wehmiller. Even on it’s Google search page, it sets itself apart from others with “We're the kind of company at which you'd like your children to work”. Bob himself has been named in Inc. Magazine as Number 3 CEO in the world.

Yet some time ago, nearly overnight, the company lost 30% of its orders, which meant it couldn’t afford their staff. The Board discussed redundancies, but Bob refused. Instead, they created a furlough programme where every employee was required to take 4 weeks of unpaid holiday in the year, although this could be anytime they wanted, and not consecutively. The way Bob communicated this mattered. He backed up his company’s values and showed he cared: he said he’d rather everyone suffered a little, rather than anyone suffer a lot.

The upshot? In turbulent times, morale went up. And the company saved $20m.

Trust and Consequences

This is the story I heard from Simon Sinek on a TED Radio Hour podcast called Trust and Consequences. Sinek’s view is that when people feel safe and protected by leaders, the natural reaction is to trust and cooperate. It turns out that Barry Wehmiller employees went further to help – they started trading holiday with each other, so those who could afford it took more to help those who couldn’t.

 But trust isn’t an overnight win, it’s not necessarily simple to cultivate and nobody wants a negative issue like redundancies to prove the point. In fact, Sinek says there’s no formula or ‘7 Steps to develop trust’ scenario. Yet feeling safe and trust go hand in hand. And there are serious consequences for business - even the best-known companies – if there’s a lack of trust. It’s usually means there’s trouble.

 Your business and who you are as a person mingle to become one when it comes to trust. Being trusted impacts who will give you their time, energy and money, who feels safe with you, who buys from you and who can truly be themselves at work - to create, take risks, deliver and excel.

UK Leaders are increasingly trusted

There’s good news for businesses in the UK. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer. Leaders have had a 14% increase in trust in the last 2 years, being rated as extremely or very credible as spokespeople. The global survey shows too, that job number one for leaders is to build trust, one point above making sure products and services are of high quality.

So how can we build trust through our communications? Bob Chapman’s personal and business values were clear: he communicated that he cared, understood and empathised, that it was easy for no one.

He helped turn a negative to a positive, while empowering employees to help each other - and all other business stakeholders - in difficult times.

It could have been a very different scenario, seriously impacting individuals who left, as well as all the people who stay. Morale, effort, care, productivity, results can plummet. It can be human nature for people to start fighting for number one unless they’re given a good reason to go against that, to be encouraged to think and act differently. And that scene needs to be set with leadership and communications.

Leadership and Communications are the key

So if there is no magic formula to gain trust, there are ways you can build trust when you communicate. As a leader, understanding the impact of your actions – so basically being like Bob - and extending a position of safety can help others to follow, so that win-win opportunities are enabled.

You can’t go far wrong with ‘treat people the way you want to be treated’.  Going the extra mile to help others will help you go the distance with long-term and repeat customers, referrals, happier employees and positive social media feedback. Deliver on promises, always. It’s important, too, to stay true to yourself – people will see it a mile off if you’re not authentic.

Learn to truly listen

You’ll help yourself and those around you if you truly listen. This also means being available to people, without multi-tasking or getting distracted. It’s incredibly hard when things move at a million miles a minute, but try to create that habit. It can help make your responses so much more relevant to the people you talk to, as well as put yourself in a position to learn a thing or two.

Notice, too, what’s going on around you. Recognise - and acknowledge - good and interesting work to encourage people to do more of it.

Communicate in different ways

Reiterate important messages in different ways as there is so much noise around us that people may not hear the first time. Respect others – their time, skills, differences, what’s important to them. If others are delivering messages on your behalf, make sure they have the right knowledge to do it effectively; cascade information with care. Trust and safety can’t be turned on and off, they’re about consistency.

Filling the trust gap when trust has been minimised

Magic solutions? Not even close, but our world is confusing and rapidly changing. We’re entering a time when smartphones are able to watch our faces as we watch a video, understanding our emotions, so that a company’s selling processes can be tweaked on a societal level. Social media understands us better than a co-worker does in 10 likes, plus it can find psychological vulnerabilities in us to keep us scrolling and visiting their site.

Unsurprisingly, trust in social media has dropped, as has trust in the Government. This leaves, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, an opportunity for business to fill the gap where others are falling short.

It’s human nature to want to feel trust, to feel safe. In every relationship, from child to parent, sibling to sibling, partner to partner, friend to friend, colleague to colleague, you can see why relationships unravel when trust is an issue.

A few seconds in a poorly thought out tweet or a chat in the hallway can cost you dear, or they can be stepping stones to great things. So communicate, every single time – verbally or written, short or long, face to face or through others – with trust in mind.


Kay Phelps is the founder and director of communications business PRinHR, which works with organisations on building reputation and trust.

Kay Phelps