Innovation:
how to build a “bond of trust” with employees

Feb 26th, 2020

In the current economic climate, all businesses are aware that they need to reinvent themselves. The word “innovation” is on everyone’s lips, and attends every meeting. Businesses must have new strategies, formulate new products and services, simplify their organisation and processes, and so on.

Fifteen years ago, innovation was typically the domain of the Research & Development, Quality, and Marketing Departments. Nowadays, innovation has become mainly a collaborative, cross-functional concern, relevant to all the stakeholders of any company. But does management properly understand all the features that are inherent to this collaborative aspect?

It is true to say we hear much less about managerial innovation. Yet it would be a big mistake to under-estimate the prodigious force produced by people all working together towards a common goal. To avoid this particular trap requires just one thing, namely a bond of trust, which, once created, must not be broken. How many employees have, for example, entered an innovation challenge, and then been left completely in the dark about what their ideas were used for, or whether they were used at all? Under such circumstances, how can management gain their trust and involvement the next time they ask for ideas?

A bond of trust includes the word ‘trust’

Trust is the basic foundation on which human societies are built. Without trust, there is no exchange, and people cannot work together. This is even more true in an environment that is perpetually “disrupted” by uncertainty and, come to that, by transformation projects. This need for trust is found everywhere, whether that trust is placed in economic and political stakeholders, brands or even executives and managers. It is also found in the search for meaning increasingly seen in all employees, who now need to understand the impact of their daily work on company strategy, and to know that this work, and their employer more broadly, is aligned with their deeply-held values. This is the factor on which employee engagement now depends. Trust therefore works both ways. It needs to operate top-down if the business wants to also benefit from a bottom-up effect.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck explains the importance of having the “right mindset” to adopt a stance of collective development, a key success factor for businesses. A mindset is said to be open when it allows everyone to learn and make progress by valuing attitudes and the effort supplied. The results of such encouragement are beneficial to both parties, as employees feel valued and are more willing to take risks, which then becomes a source of learning for them.

In contrast, a closed mindset describes a situation where more value is placed on aptitude and job-related characteristics. Employees will prefer to feel comfortable, in positions where they can succeed, and will be less inclined to be challenged or to take risks. The fear of being challenged brings about a risk of stagnation, which itself poses a hazard to the development of the business, which needs to innovate and renew.

In a period of perpetual transformation, trust is therefore vital. Transparency is needed to deal with reality, along with imagination and a culture based on collective action. A bond of trust will offer a working environment focused more on collaboration than competition. The bond of trust will thus make it possible to lay the crucial foundations within the company by valuing other people’s knowledge through shared project experiences, eliminating individualistic behaviour at the same time, and aligning itself over the long term with the company's strategic view. It must not be overlooked that employees must also have trust in this strategic view if they are to get involved in an increasingly uncertain world where the change equation can sometimes become fairly complex.

Could the bond of employment become a bond of trust?

The first step towards establishing trust within an organisation is therefore to establish a frame of reference between the business and its workers. Obviously, the contract of employment springs to mind first, establishing the terms under which the parties work together, the context, the rules, working time, the protection given to employees, etc. But what of the collaboration aspect, the relationship binding the parties in a tacit pact to work together? Should employees not commit to working for the good of the company’s overall performance, while the company promises to offer employees fulfilling work that develops their skills? Is that not the crux of the whole relationship?

Despite the goodwill shown, things really changed inside companies? If change is to come, human resources departments have to play a new role to ensure that trust is fully integrated into managerial practices, because a bond of trust is reciprocal: if employees are to become more involved and express innovative ideas to help the company, they must have the time to do so and their investment has to be recognised.

A business needs its employees to innovate, and employees need a worry-free working environment to fulfil their roles. Innovation, so crucial to performance, therefore can only fully occur in a conducive environment. Where there is trust, ideas can emerge, and sometimes where they would be least expected! So, what if the employment contract were to become a commitment contract, thereby encouraging greater creativity in employees?

How to establish a climate of trust in a business

To establish a climate of trust within a business, it must first of all be genuinely viewed as a value creation device. A business invests in trust so that trust becomes a driver of individual and collective performance. On the other hand, there is no benefit to the business in promising the moon on a stick, such as a job for life or regular promotion up the corporate ladder. Employees now prefer transparency and the ring of truth. Their preference is for fulfilling and worthwhile work, not a job for life.

The key to achieving that is to make working together a way to build trust. Members of Generation Y have a strong need to belong, for example. They will only follow a manager’s lead if that manager consistently embodies the values of the business. They also expect to be given enough time to think about innovative projects, whether related to their own role or otherwise. Lastly, they use shorter timeframes, and anticipate two- or three-year plans to change jobs, not spending twenty years on a career path.

While managers may not have the luxury, in their tight schedules, of listening to their employees every day to detect any weak signals, they can give employees a way to express themselves, using a participative innovation platform, the precise procedure for which can be determined with management (the right to make mistakes, assurance that ideas will be heard and responses given, etc.). Take care, however, as too many businesses consider technology solutions to be the icing on any given cake, and executives merely repeat that “you cannot put the cart before the horse”. This may be true, but hampering employees’ efforts by giving them unsuitable resources for too long results in wasted energy and time, which is never beneficial.

A tool with no procedure is useless; a procedure with no tools soon becomes complicated and laborious! A properly resourced collaborative innovation strategy based on a bond of trust established between all stakeholders is always the ideal combination.

To take your innovation projects further and develop an innovation culture within your organisation, download our guide: