When Maria Harris started working in the late 1960s, office practices were very different, much more rigid and hierarchical, than today. But one thing that hasn't changed is the need for her to be able to trust and respect her boss.
“I have been lucky in that I have never had to work for anyone who I would call a boss in the strongest sense of the word. I've never felt that I was working for someone who bossed me or gave me orders. And if they had, I wouldn't have stayed,” says Harris, 48, an administrator with Slough-based telecoms networking firm Equant.
Trust is an emotive word and one that's been landing both Tony Blair at the Hutton inquiry and Iain Duncan Smith over “Betsygate” in a lot of trouble of late. But while our political leaders may be floundering when it comes to the T-word, our bosses, it appears, despite the Enrons and WorldComs of this world, still by and large retain our trust.
According to a survey of 2,000 workers by jobs’ website reed.co.uk, 61% of employees say they trust their own bosses more than politicians. Journalists do not get off lightly either, with 63% having greater faith in their workplace leaders than in the media.
Secretaries and PAs, 678 of whom were polled, have retained even more trust in the concept of leadership. Although 26% felt less trust in leaders generally than three years ago, they were far less disillusioned than the general workforce, where 32% had lost faith.
For Harris, effectively PA to the manager of an 18-strong team within the company, the fact that she feels able to trust her boss, Paul Foy, and the other members of her team makes her, she believes, more productive.
“Though my job may be lower down the ladder, I do have a sense of being involved in the team,” she explains. Small gestures, such as paying for a quarterly award out of his own pocket, all help to break down any “them and us” barriers, she suggests.
Trust and commitment are the two absolute and unchanging ingredients of effective management, stresses Steve Newhall, UK managing director of HR consultancy DDI. “The by-product for employers is having people in leadership positions that understand the importance of those things to leadership,” he says.
Being clear, fair and consistent, delivering on what you promise and communicating constantly are core skills for any manager, but are too often lacking. “Most managers are very poor at stating what they expect, what people should be delivering, and they are even less inclined to have those conversations when people are performing,” he suggests.
In an increasingly pressured working environment, it’s also all too easy for managers to become “too busy” to manage properly. A recent study by DDI warned that middle managers were reaching breaking point, with inadequate training, a lack of support, divided loyalties and being asked to implement projects they don't believe in undermining their ambition and leadership abilities.
Trust is a basic psychological bond. Once unravelled, as Blair in particular has been finding out over Iraq, it is extremely hard to restore, argues Dr Rowan Bradford of business psychologists Kaisen Consulting. “If trust is broken, people are going to feel violated and not want to engage with their working environment,” she says.
Where people do feel engaged they are going to have a more positive impact and there will be less absenteeism. “We have even seen examples where having better trust has improved stock loss. If you trust someone else, they are more likely to trust you in return,” she adds.
But using that goodwill to tap into someone’s potential is an area where many managers are still missing a trick, suggests the reed.co.uk survey. While more secretaries (57%) said they had experienced good leaders at work than bad (29%), many still complained that their own leader ship skills were being overlooked.
A total of 74% wished their leadership skills were called on more often, a higher response rate than among general workers, managers and even directors in the poll. And 35% also felt that their organisations focused on a high-flying “elite” rather than the wider workforce when it came to leadership development.
What firms need to recognise, argues Martin Fallon, director of Reed Employment, is that secretaries and PAs may not necessarily want to take the reins the whole time. But being trusted with responsibility from time to time will not go amiss, and may bring real benefits.
“The modern workplace is so fast-moving that everyone's leadership skills are needed at different times. Employers risk missing out on valuable talent and energy if they only focus on developing a tiny elite. Where organisations are able to foster leadership talent across the board, they raise not only productivity but motivation as well,” he says.
The story first appeared in the Guardian, October 27, 2003