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Cultivating a Culture of Trust

Fostering belonging and engagement among employees relies on humility, gratitude, honesty, and compassion finds Ernest W. Marshall Jr., EVP and CHRO at Eaton.

Whether embarking on a business transformation or adapting to workforce changes, HR leaders play an important role in elevating organizational culture and shaping the employee experience. Given that a positive employee experience has numerous benefits to engagement, retention, and well-being, fostering a culture of trust within an organization can help keep employees satisfied, productive, and loyal.   

For many HR leaders, trust is the cornerstone of organizational success, says Ernest W. Marshall Jr., executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Eaton. Cultivating a culture of trust relies on four key elements: humility, gratitude, honesty, and compassion. These, when embedded into an organization’s core values, are important trust-builders, he says.   

While these things may support organizational success, they are primarily important during times of change. Marshall says that when organizations face challenges within their industry or market, these four foundational elements will enable the organization to tackle any issue or problem that arises.  

However, in work—just as in all other relationships—trust is hard to build and harder to sustain, Marshall says.  

“Trust is big work,” Marshall says. “To say that we’re going to build this culture of trust, that’s a pretty big ask. Trust is about caring for people. So, if you’re going to build a culture of trust, it’s the basics that we tend to forget about. We have to get back to the basics where we have genuine care for each other.” 

When it comes to having difficult discussions with employees about layoffs or other major changes, Marshall emphasizes that it’s important to speak honestly, transparently, and start by explaining why the change is happening.  

“I’m always an advocate for helping people understand the why and make sure everyone is clear on that,” he says. “Be transparent. And then on the backend, we should do everything we can during the process. When you have to lay people off, it’s important to be as compassionate and as energetic as you are when you hire someone.”   

Marshall explains that how leaders treat laid off employees—and how they help them understand why they are being laid off—is important when operating in a culture of trust.  

For HR leaders looking to cultivate a culture of trust within their own organizations, Marshall says that helping people understand the foundational tenets of trust is critical. But as employees retire or leave and others are hired to replace them, HR leaders cannot assume that the culture they’ve worked to establish will exist indefinitely.  

“As new people come in, they have to experience your culture for themselves,” Marshall says. “Your culture is the operating system of the company, just like your Android or iOS. You need to update it when they tell you to. The same goes for your culture. You want to try to preserve it, so you need to update it.”  

There are several key things HR leaders should consider when working to foster a culture of trust, according to Marshall.  

  • Ensure that the baseline of trust is established. First, leaders should determine whether the tenets of their culture are still relevant. “That’s why I always go to this baseline of honesty, care, trust, empathy, those kinds of things. The baseline should always be the same,” he says.  
  • Educate the workforce. Even as employees exit and enter the company, it’s important to make sure that the workforce understands business values and knows what their organization stands for. When leaders can keep that repetition of values in the organization, Marshall says, it starts to stick.  
  • Engage with employee feedback. Descriptive, in-depth feedback is vital to understanding the needs of the workforce and connecting with employees to improve their experience. HR leaders should be sure to act on that feedback to support their trust-based culture. 

“We get thousands of responses and so we try to categorize them into themes and then take those themes and build those into our priorities for the year, all the way to the highest level,” he says. “When we get those themes, we start to think about how we communicate them back to the workforce to show them that they’ve been heard and explore the outcomes that have happened as a result of their insights.”  

Employees on the production floor all the way up to senior leadership have different workplace needs. As a result, it’s important for HR leaders to address those specific needs and utilize the feedback to make changes that improve the overall employee experience. 

One example of Eaton’s culture of trust in practice is its Livewire events, Marshall says. These “state of the business” town halls allow leaders to speak about their employees in the areas where the company’s electrical products are being made, he says.  

The events showcase the company’s top talent and how their work is connected to the organization’s mission. A recent Livewire event opened with a video of employees showcasing their personal artistic talents, and Marshall recalls attendees being shocked to discover their colleagues’ skills outside of their work.  

During the event, leaders visited sites where products are made, explaining what they are and why they matter, Marshall says. He explains that he moderated a conversation with the organization’s senior leadership where they discussed collaboration, setting high standards, and cultivating relationships with colleagues.  

“We were bringing a message all the way down in the organization, showing what we do, and around all of that, showcasing the skills of our people,” Marshall says. “That builds culture. Because now what we’ve done is we’ve taken a company that has 100,000 employees and shrunk it down to make the people feel like they’re sitting in the living room with people they care about and showing all the great work they’re doing. We have to continue to do things like that.”  

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