7 Ways Companies Unintentionally Sabotage Employee Engagement

5 min read
Apr 21, 2016

7 Ways Companies Unintentionally Sabotage Employee Engagement by TINYpulseNothing ruins a company culture from the inside out like a lack of trust.

When employees mistrust their employers — and there’s evidence to show many of them do — it leads to high turnover and disengagement. But what about the reverse?

Trust is a two-way street. In fact, employers who pursue policies that are based on mistrust or fear not only lose goodwill in the process but also employee trust.

Consider the example of Chicago-based WaterSaver Faucet. This company installed swipe card systems on its bathrooms in an effort to curb what it saw as wasted time. Employees were apparently taking long trips to the bathroom outside of allotted breaks, and the company suspected this was because workers were using the time to be on their phones.

The issue, though, wasn’t about bathroom breaks or phone usage, writes Nan Russell, who blogs about trust for Psychology Today.

“It’s about trust, or in this case, the lack of it. If you can't trust people who work for you to have responsible bathroom use, why are they working for you?”

Trusting your employees isn’t just about giving them the benefit of the doubt, although that’s important too. It’s about empowering them by giving them control over their work lives and introducing policies that recognize the importance of that autonomy. It’s also about committing to trust as one of your organizational values, then using it to create a culture of transparency and communication.

Here are seven examples of things many companies do out of fear, when they should be trusting their employees.


Obsess Over Productivity Metrics

Measuring productivity is helpful because it provides insight into what’s working and what isn’t within your organization. It also sets expectations for your employees. But when numbers become the end goal, they become the problem. Obsessing over monthly, weekly, or daily metrics reveals an underlying fear that you don’t trust your employees enough to be productive without quantifying that productivity. It also misses the big picture, which is what employees are actually producing rather than how much or how fast.

Start by trusting employees to get the job done, then reward the creativity they show rather than just measuring them against the artificial numbers you have set.


Frown Upon Workplace Socialization

We’ve all worked with that guy who spends half his day chatting up people in the break room, but don’t let one bad apple determine your policy for everyone else. It’s easy to fear a slippery slope scenario in which workplace productivity takes a nosedive because employees are too busy talking to each other about personal matters.

To some extent, this fear is misplaced. Research shows that friendships in the workplace help teams be more productive and that peers make a positive impact on their coworkers. Resist the urge to stifle socialization and trust your employees to find a balance. One way to show this trust is by designing gathering places in your office layout and encouraging employees to use those communal spaces.


Ban Remote Work

Employees and employers tend to disagree on the benefits of remote work. Cornerstone’s 2014 State of the Workplace Report found that 65% of those surveyed wanted flexible working schedules and remote work opportunities, yet only one in five companies offer this. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made waves when she ended the company’s work-from-home policy in an effort to promote in-person collaboration.

Still, if you’re banning employees from telecommuting because you fear they’ll be less productive at home, consider a trial period where you test it out. This shows you trust employees and also lets them shoulder the responsibility for making remote work a success.


Institute Too Many Workplace Rules

A workplace without rules is anarchy, but if your rule book starts looking like the IRS code, you might want to reassess. If your rules are designed to prevent employees from doing things that most reasonable adults wouldn’t actually do at work, you’re assuming the worst of the people you hired and on whom your company depends. That’s fear, plain and simple. You’re better off setting guidelines and trusting that employees aren’t going to do the stupid things you think they are.


Don’t Give Employees a Voice

Open communication might be one of your company values, but if your employees are afraid of speaking up, that indicates a larger problem. Their fear likely stems from yours. It’s easy to see employee criticism as the seeds of a revolution, so a natural response is to squash any negative feedback, fearing that this will spread throughout the company.

But employees are an organization’s greatest resource, and giving them avenues to voice their opinions lets them feel there’s more at stake. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and Penn State professor James Detert recommend that,

“anything an organization can do to prevent the widespread belief that voice is unsafe or not worth your time is likely to increase the upward communication flow.”


Withhold Negative Information

Has your stock taken a nosedive in recent months? Are layoffs in the works? Will health benefits cost more in the coming year? Don’t put a positive spin on these negative events for fear that telling your employees will cause panic. Instead, trust that your employees can handle the information.

When people are nervous about their future, they don’t just need reassurances — they need to understand why it’s happening. Management expert Robert Sutton tells McKinsey Quarterly that bosses need to realize that,

“human beings need to know why things happen. They need some sort of explanation.”


Monitor Internet Activity

In the age of social media and ever-connected employees, Internet activity is a tricky beast to tackle. Monitoring for online risks and mitigating harm is something all organizations should do. But if you’re tracking employees’ emails, social media sites, or browser history, you’re heading into Big Brother territory.

The fear is that employees are using valuable work time doing nothing but watching YouTube videos of kittens. However, surveillance is a drastic response. Instead, make employees responsible for their own usage. Matt Straz, the CEO of Namely, suggests using a browser app that allows employees to limit their own usage of time-wasting websites. You could also have them sign a good faith technology pledge.

We talk a lot about employee trust and its relationship to workplace satisfaction, but employer trust is equally important. Consider the findings from a 2008 Canadian study of retail stores. Researchers found that when employees felt trusted, they were more likely to meet their managers expectations and perform better in terms of sales and customer service. One of the authors of the study noted that it’s how that trust is communicated by managers that was particularly important in determining whether employees felt trusted.

Communicate trust to your employees by initiating policies based on that trust rather than fearing that they’ll break it. Making trust one of your cornerstone organizational values will go a long way in opening up communication, improving employee morale, and creating a more loyal workforce.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2015 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness. 



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