The Upcoming Engagement and Retention Crisis No One is Talking About

Posted in Employee Experience

Trust and confidence in leaders is dropping.

COVID-19 has thrown us all in the deep end. Many businesses are struggling to adapt and leaders – understandably preoccupied with rapid-fire decision-making – are on the cusp of losing the trust and confidence of their people.

Our recent research revealed the global pandemic has caused a major disconnect in between senior leadership teams and employees.

If that disconnect continues, it will erode long-term confidence and trust in the business’ leadership. That’s a big problem, because trust is a major driver not only of employee engagement but also of financial performance.

  • On average, the ten most trustworthy public companies have outperformed the S&P 500 by over 25% since inception (Trust Across America).

The trouble with a crisis is, it shines a spotlight on your organizational weaknesses. Exploits gaps and widens cracks.

And trust in company leadership had been a potential weak spot long before COVID-19. In 2018, 65% of global CEOs were concerned about declining trust in their business (this figure was a low 34% only a few years earlier in 2013). And E&Y found in 2016 that less than half of global employees trust their employer, boss or colleagues.


Are your people suffering a crisis of confidence?

In our research, we unsurprisingly found negative feelings are running high. When asked which one word best described their feelings, 33% of employees said they felt anxious. 20% said uncertain, 18% fearful, 10% overwhelmed and 6% vulnerable.

These emotions raise the stakes for senior leaders.

They present a huge opportunity – to mitigate anxiety and uncertainty; soothe fears; alleviate burdens and provide support – but they also present a huge threat. 

Where leaders are seen to ignore, gloss and railroad over anxieties. To be insensitive and unempathetic. To be unavailable and distant.

For employees to feel confident in company leadership, leaders must be available, transparent and accountable.

Or you get an environment of mistrust and secrecy, where leaders’ decisions – and even their intentions making those decisions – are doubted.

Suddenly, small errors are magnified into grave mistakes. Good intentions aren’t trusted. Perhaps employees start wondering whether leaders truly have their people’s best interests at heart.

Before long, maybe there’s mutiny in the ranks and people start considering roles elsewhere. And eventually, perhaps the seeds you sowed now become long-term engagement and retention crisis.

Read more: How to stop COVID-19 becoming an employee engagement crisis

And right now, many businesses seem to be succumbing to the threat, not seizing the opportunity. 

HR Magazine’s recent report found 59% of 11,000 respondents say employee confidence in decision-making has fallen during the pandemic. More worryingly, that’s an average decrease of nine percentage points since mid-March – showing trust is eroding fast.

That’s what a crisis of confidence looks like. And once you get there, it’s hard to claw your way back. We all know the old adage: trust’s hard to earn but easy to lose.

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How to build trust in senior leadership during COVID-19

Here are 6 tactics to increase employees’ trust in senior leaders, before momentum builds and a vote of no confidence becomes inevitable.

1 – Make sure senior leaders are in-sync

It’s impossible to communicate with consistency if leaders aren’t all on the same page. Filtering information through a large business can feel like Chinese Whispers anyway, but it’s a million times worse if nobody has the same message at the outset.

Senior leaders should be a single source of truth – which is hard normally and even harder during times like this.

Now we’re returning to some semblance of normality, it’s tempting to assume it’s back to business-as-usual. It isn’t. Increase the frequency of senior leadership meetings, to give the business a fighting chance at pinning down a consistent message.

2 – Educate managers to understand the bigger picture 

Managers are the conduit for information to flow from senior leadership to grassroots employees – or the bottleneck. Often that bottleneck happens because managers are stuck in the mindset of a promoted employee, rather than an aspiring leader.

Managers need to become fluent in the language of business pressures and priorities. Senior leaders must proactively educate managers, to help them understand the mechanics of business decision-making so they’re better equipped to represent the business to their team.

3 – Train managers for COVID-19 communication 

Right now, your managers are likely to be having a lot more difficult conversations than usual while everyone’s trying to navigate the extra pressures of working remotely.

It’s the perfect storm for poor communication. And because managers determine most employees’ experience of the business as a whole, every conversation that’s handled poorly reflects on the senior leadership team.

Which means, now’s a fantastic time to equip your managers with communication training, so they have consistent, transparent conversations that build, not erode, trust.


4 – Shift internal communications into overdrive

PwC say transparency is a major driver of trust, and means “you are open, honest, informative and share relevant information to all who may be interested or impacted”. In other words, a crucial part of transparency is regularly communicating what’s going on.

Regular communication doesn’t happen by chance; it happens by design. That is, it happens when you build the structures that allow information to flow through the business.

Structures like… an internal newsletter. Manager check-ins. Company-wide meetings. Up-to-date information hubs.

Increasing business transparency might be a priority, but nothing will happen without concrete tactics to communicate across the workforce.

5 – Create an approved messaging library 

Right now, poor availability is a major barrier to better communication. HR Magazine say 57% of companies reported a decrease in employees agreeing their leaders are available compared to March, for example. And when we surveyed 3,000 employees, many said their managers were too busy to find time to talk.

Managers and leaders are struggling to be present for their workforce because there aren’t enough hours in the day. But it’s crucial that communication doesn’t fall by the wayside.

Make it easier on your managers by creating a living document with approved internal messaging they can pull from. Think email templates and relevant resource links.

You’ll need to work fast and be nimble, to keep pace with change.

6 – Invite employees’ input

We’ve written before about the idea of inclusive decision-making, and how it can increase engagement. It’s also a great tactic to increase trust.

Actively invite feedback on company issues in your internal comms, in employee groups, through anonymous surveys. Where you can, invite ideas to solve knotty problems before final decisions have been made.

By proactively encouraging scrutiny into leadership decision-making and encouraging debate, you make decisions transparent. Plus you empower employees by involving them; you show you value their input and respect them.

Feeling empowered, valued and respected is essential to trust.

A crisis is bad news for many reasons, but the potential impact on your workforce (and subsequent impact on productivity, engagement and turnover) is one of the biggest threats. Protecting employee trust is fundamental to helping your business come through COVID-19 as unscathed as possible. 

Enboarder help businesses deliver employee experiences that move the needle for the business’ bottom line. Check out our Remote Work Experience platform here.

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