Theory R: How Relationship Builds Trust

Wayne Alderson and Nancy Alderson McDonnell

From: Theory R Management (Thomas Nelson, 1994). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A human resource manager, new to her position, told me of a meeting with a group of employees in her plant. They were supposed to discuss the results of an opinion survey. She said, “I was so frustrated. I kept asking for input, but nobody would talk! They were like stones. Nobody would say anything!”

I asked, “Why do you suppose they were silent?”

She replied without much forethought, “I guess they don’t trust us.” Even as she gave her answer, she had her problem clearly defined.

Trust. Communication. Loyalty. Every executive want them in an organization because they are the keys to a healthy operation. Yet, in most cases, they are lacking or low.

Too many managers aren’t doing what is required to engender trust. They aren’t communicating with their employees. They aren’t doing what will build loyalty. And therefore, they have created no reason for their employees to respond to them in a trusting, openly communicative, loyal manner.

“What can you do to grow trust?” That question should be asked in virtually all corporations today. Programs won’t fix trust. Valuing others and building relationships will build trust. How can managers instill trust in their employees?

By first demonstrating acts of trust. Trust grows trust.


Build Trust by Extending Trust

As vice president of operations at the Pittron Steel Foundry, a division of Textron, back in the 1970’s, I was able to experience firsthand what can happen in a work environment when conscious choice, effort, and priority are given to shifting a management style from confrontation to reconciliation. A dramatic turnaround occurred that affected not only the bottom line but also the lives of the employees. The 64 percent increase in productivity improvement in a 21 month period were dramatic, but not as dramatic as seeing the impact on the families of employees. The new emphasis on trusting relationships at work also created and promoted trusting relationships in the home environment.

Pennsylvania””as many areas””was hit hard by our nation’s gasoline shortage in 1973. Within weeks, we became aware that a number of our Pittron Steel Foundry employees with excellent attendance records were having difficulty getting to work because they lacked access to fuel.

We had substantial gasoline reserves at the foundry, and I made a decision: “Beginning today, we’ll make free gasoline available to any employee who needs it to get to work.”

My palace guards fought the decision vehemently. The objections were voiced in the form of questions:

“Who will monitor this to make sure the gasoline is distributed fairly?” Answer: Nobody. We’ll distribute gasoline on an honor system. No one will keep track of who gets what. We won’t ask questions.

“How will we distribute the gasoline?” Answer: Workers will request what they need. We’ll give them what they request as long as our supply lasts.

“Why not sell them gasoline?” Answer: Absenteeism costs us more than gasoline. We’ll give it away.

“What if someone abuses the system?” Answer: We’ll deal with that if it arises.

The employees also questioned the new directive. One of them said, “If you think we’re going to pay one dollar a gallon for gasoline, you’re crazy.” They automatically assumed management was out take advantage of the employees. (The going rate for gasoline was 31 cents a gallon.) They could hardly believe that the gasoline was being made available free.

More than one manager said to me, “This is going to cost us a lot of money.” Looking back, we found the facts showed just the opposite. We spent far less on gasoline than we would have lost in production had our employees not been able to get to work.

The flow of gasoline was an amazing thing to watch. Some employees requested one gallon or two gallons or five gallons. A few requested a fill-up but then used that gasoline to travel to and from work for two weeks. The employees requested what they truly needed. A few of the workers were so low on gas they ran out before they reached the pumps and had to be pushed the final few yards.

The worst fear, however, did come to pass. Pittron ran out of gas. One of my colleagues came bursting in to my office one day with the news: “Are you the guy giving away free gasoline to your employees?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Look, I have 2,000 gallons of gas on hand. Do you want them?”

Those were sweet words. We replenished our supply, and by the time we needed gasoline again, the national shortage had eased to the point that free gas was no longer needed. In all, we gave away about 6,000 gallons. In their place emerged a corps of people with much higher morale.

What kind of message was sent to the employees?


Build Trust by Giving Opportunities to Vent

A manager should create opportunities in which employees can vent. We know of one manager of a 3M rock-crushing plant who has become very intentional about doing this. At least once a quarter, he schedules a time when he meets with each shift in the employees’ break room. He makes himself available for an informal discussion of problems, questions and ideas. For his part, he comes to he meeting with updated information about the status of the company.

The tone of the meeting is relaxed. A key question asked at each meeting is, “How are we doing as a plant in conveying love, dignity, and respect to one another?” Two principles are embodied in this manager’s actions: 1) opportunities for venting emotions and communicating ideas are periodic and 2) opportunities for venting emotions and communicating are informal.

Without venting, an employee can become completely absorbed by thoughts and feelings and plays them over and over again mentally. The more mental rehearsal, the more the employee tends to move toward an entrenched, and more extreme, position about them. Ultimately, a worker’s complete and fixed preoccupation with thoughts and feelings will affect performance in the workplace.

Thoughts and feelings will ultimately be expressed””even if their expression isn’t encouraged or desired. In encouraging the venting of feelings and communication of ideas, a manager not only lowers the emotional temperature of the workplace but gains valuable information to make changes before employees reach the point of burnout or boil over.


Build Trust by Making Time for No-Agenda Listening

Dr. Sharell Mikesell, vice president for science and technology at Ownens-Corning Work Headquarters, sent a copy of a memo to us. One of his scientists, whom Sharell described to us as an “extremely talented and fundamental research scientist,” attended one of our seminars.

The scientist wrote:

I have always believed that my first supervisor at DuPont was the finest supervisor I have ever had (no offense to the other fourteen or so previous or present supervisors intended) because of the way he interacted with me and other chemists in his group. One of the most significant and symbolic things he did was to walk into our labs unannounced””and provided one had somehow indicated time was available, and one was inclined to have a conversation””he would sit down with his cup of coffee at the conference table separating the two desks in the lab, put his feet up on the table and ask, “What’s hot?”

What ensued could be a technical discussion of current research (what was boiling in the hood), “Did you see the article on”¦?” “What did you think of X’s seminar yesterday in Central Research?” or “Do you need any help to get Y to let you use his explosion proof hood to scale up the diazirene synthesis for the patent application verification?” I do not recall any conversation ever starting with “I think you should”¦” or “What is the status”¦?” It has only been in recent years that I realized how symbolic it was that conversations almost always took place on my turf and not in his office.

One of the greatest expressions of love that a person can make is to listen without an agenda, and to do so intently, with full attention and interest.

People need to tell others what they are doing, how they are feeling, and how they are responding to life’s circumstances””not only at the dinner table or in prayer but on the job. It’s a part of how employees see themselves as workers, and good managers will recognize that giving employees an opportunity to tell “what’s hot” is going to be far more valuable than it may appear on the surface.

A manager who takes time for no-agenda listening, whether in a hallway, over coffee in an employee’s office or on the plant floor, will discover numerous things about employees, and a good percentage of those things will relate to the employees’ lives away from work.


The Exception Doesn’t Necessarily Become the Rule

Very often traditional managers say, “I can’t do this for one person because then I’ll have set a precedent, and I’ll have to do it for everybody.” Chances are, you won’t. The opposite approach is to deal with a specific problem in a specific way.

A worker named Big Cooper walked into my open-door office at Pittron one day and said, “Mr. Wayne, I have a problem.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“I need an advance in pay.”

Cooper’s request the day after payday was clearly against company policy, and he knew it. I heard myself responding, however, “That’s not a problem. What’s the real problem?” Cooper went on to explain that his wife had left him and he needed an advance in pay and also a few days off to go to her where she was staying out of state and see if he could reconcile the relationship.

Cooper was a hard, mean man at that time. He had a severe absenteeism problem, and one more absence would have given the company sufficient reason to fire him. As far as my palace guards were concerned, Cooper was in the exact position they wanted him. They knew he was going to take the time off whether it was granted to him or not: therefore the company could fire him and not have any trouble if the dismissal resulted in a grievance. For a number of good reasons, I shouldn’t have even considered giving Cooper time off.

I chose to take a risk, however, in an attempt to help the man and possibly help save his marriage. I gave Cooper the time off and the amount of money he needed.

My managers were irate. They felt certain that I was setting into motion a policy that was going to bring the company to its knees. And they argued that if word got around that one employee received money the day after payday and was able to side step the absenteeism policy, everybody would soon be lined up to do the same.

Cooper was the only employee who ever came to my requesting such an advance. Furthermore, he and his wife, Mildred, were able to reconcile their differences. He returned to the workplace more eager than ever to do a good job. His loyalty toward the foundry increased 1,000 percent. He never made another request for an advance and his absenteeism stopped.

Employees who make a request that they know is against company policy are in desperate need or are attempting to manipulate management for their own purposes. A manager can usually tell the difference.

In the first place, people who attempt to manipulate the system are likely to make repeated requests that buck company policy. They aren’t likely to abuse the system once and then let the matter rest. In the second place, people who attempt to circumvent or manipulate company policy usually take great pride in the accomplishment (if successful). They tend to spread the news widely that they have succeeded in outfoxing or outmaneuvering management. A manager may be fooled once by such persons but rarely twice. Most employees know that too.

And what about employees who are desperate? The last thing on their minds is job performance. What would have happened if I had said no to Cooper when he requested an advance in pay and a few days off? I would have lost a worker who had years with the company, was well trained, and did good work. The company would have spent a lot more money in hiring and training his replacement than in giving him the advance.

Had the employee opted to stay at work, he certainly wouldn’t have been happy. He would have been emotionally away, consumed by his problem. He would no doubt have spent part of his energy on solving it rather than giving 100 percent to the work at hand. And, he would also have been resentful of the fact that he was forced to stay at work. That frustration certainly wouldn’t have had a positive impact on productivity, the quality of his work, or team morale.

People have individual needs. We need to deal with them as such.


Radical Demonstrations of Trust

We encourage managers to create opportunities for a fresh start.

One of the most dramatic examples of a manager doing this happened at a Fortune 500 plant. The head of the division declared an incinerator day for all personnel files. Employees were given their own personal files to peruse and the privilege of purging those files of any information that they didn’t want in them.

On the way out of the plant that day, workers were invited to burn the past by tossing any unwanted documents from their files into an incinerator that had been placed in the courtyard. All records about absenteeism were erased, and a new program of presenteeism, with rewards for good attendance records, was implemented.

The division head simultaneously announced that from that day forward, management would make a concerted effort to add positive information to personnel files so that a personnel folder would reflect a more complete profile of an individual’s performance.


Beware the Palace Guards

Palace guards are persons in management who choose to consciously insulate the top person from the heartbeat of the organization. They can be the administrators, managers, assistants, bureaucrats””people in power””who tend to insulate and isolate top-level administrators from the people who do the work. They operate as gatekeepers. It is generally to their political advantage to keep top-level administrators from mingling with employees and vice versa. Problems that might be solved within five minutes in a face-to-face conversation between the president of a company and a worker on the line can be tied up for months in round after round of meetings and memos.

The reason of course for having palace guards, of course, is primarily one of time. Top-level administrators don’t have the time that they might like to spend with each employee. Tradition also has its place. Employees have frequently been trained to be uncomfortable around top-level administrators. Thus, the bigger the organization, the larger the cadre of palace guards tends to be.

At Pittron, many of the symbolic actions I demonstrated resulted in my having direct contact with the frontline supervisors and the employees. Those managers who were palace guards weren’t comfortable with my non-conventional style, circumventing at times the organizational chart. I intuitively understood, however, that if the company was to succeed we had to reach the heart of the organization. I forged ahead and chose to walk among the people and to identify the needs of the rank-and-file employees and the frontline supervisors.

In the Old Testament of the Bible we find these words: “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezek. 22:30).

What does it mean to make a wall and stand in the gap? It means to be a bridge builder, a peacemaker, one who closes in the wall and breaches the break in it with one’s life.

Closing a gap costs something. It means putting your reputation on the line, being willing to take a risk to do what is right. There’s usually a price to pay, at least initially, in terms of time and effort. Closing a gap means being vulnerable to others. Closing a gap means being a peacemaker.

Those who will close the gaps, however, are true heroes. They are the ones who bring about reconciliation. And reconciliation flows from love, dignity and respect.

These are the ways to grow trust.

Adapted from Theory R Management (Thomas Nelson). Copyright 1994 by Wayne Alderson and Nancy Alderson McDonnell. Used by permission.

As vice president of operations at Pittron Steel Foundry, a division of Texaco in the early 1970s, Wayne Alderson steered the company from the brink of disaster by employing practical demonstrations of love, dignity and respect to his union workers. The principles Alderson employed became the foundation of his Value the Person Consultants, a firm devoted to teaching the importance of creating equality relationships in business environments. His clients include 3M, Heinz, Owings-Corning, Ford and others.