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The ROI of Trust: The HR Benefits of High-Trust Organizations

As you set your advertising agency’s culture goals, it’s important to understand how the leader influences employees’ attitudes and enthusiasm for the work, serving clients and collaborating with the agency team. A big part of this influence is how highly the agency principals are esteemed for being trustworthy and ethical.

We read a recent study on how high trust in organizations benefits the organization.

Paul J. Zak, author of Trust Factor: The Science of High-Performance Companies, examined the relationship of successful workplace cultures and the neuroscience of positive workplace behaviors over nearly two decades to arrive at the findings. It turns out that trust in the people you work with increases production of oxytocin, a neurochemical associated with increased ability to understand the emotions of people we interact with; cause people in collaborative teams to work harder to achieve group goals; and even be self-sacrificing if it means the sacrifice will assist the group.

In high-trust organizations, Zak found that the resulting high levels of oxytocin essentially made work easier—i.e., less like work. People enjoyed their work and working with their teams more, and were generally more productive and innovative than people in lower trust organizations.

  • Comparing companies in the highest quartile of trust to those in the lowest quartile, high-trust companies’ employees had “106 percent more energy at work, were 76 percent more engaged on the job, and said they were 50 percent more productive.” 
  • In high-trust companies, job satisfaction was higher (by 56 percent), and employee turnover lower (one-half that of low-trust firms).
  • High trust resulted in a 70 percent improvement of employees’ alignment with their organization’s purpose; employees also took 13 percent fewer sick days. “Those fortunate enough to work in high-trust organizations were 29 percent more satisfied with their lives outside of work. Trust not only improves work, it improves life.”


Zak noted that improved trust translates into improved revenue; employees are more productive, and that means elevating trust in the organization has a measurable return on investment (ROI). He also found that trust can be improved at relatively little cost, while the return to the company quickly becomes substantial.

Zak’s work is hardly the only effort to identify how trust boosts employee engagement and performance. Forbes and Fortune annually team up to assess the Best Small and Medium Workplaces. One of the measures they explore is employee happiness. In recent findings, they reported that employees are happier if they feel they work for someone who is honest and ethical.

Low trust adds to ad agency challenges

Most people want to go to work every day with some degree of pride in what they do and whom they work for. Let’s face it: when you don’t respect the person who employs you, or your immediate supervisor, the workday is a brutal grind. The negativity can bleed into everything you do and say… even into how you feel about getting out of bed in the morning. And it certainly affects your work performance and productivity.

Now imagine that an ad agency employee feels this way… and you just assigned them to work on your biggest client account. 

That doesn’t sound like a very good scenario, does it? Today’s ad agencies face a lot of challenges already—increased competition, financial pressures from clients, a tough business environment, evaporating commissions and markups, rising costs of payroll and benefits, etc. This is all on top of our clients’ near-obsessive focus on data and measurement over ideas and human connection. Agencies should not also have to worry about disaffected employees damaging existing client relationships. These challenges make leader trust and strong ethical behavior essential tools in building an engaged team invested in agency success.

What can agency leaders do to grow employee trust?

Lead by example. The old saying, “actions speak louder than words,” exists for good reason. If you tell employees to act one way and do the opposite yourself, you undercut any desire to perform to your expectations. Treat people with respect. Be kind. Don’t lie. 

Stand up for agency values (which should be your values, too). Be fair. Go the extra mile to deliver the best work you can. Model the behaviors you want to see from employees, and they will begin to adopt those behaviors without having to be told.

Keep your promises. A leader who says he will “take care of that,” and then doesn’t… or says “I’ve got your back,” and then stabs you there, is not going to be trusted by the people who work for him. Always do what you say you will do.

Be an ethics champion. Remind people about the importance of ethics and having an ethical society. Share stories about tough decisions and why you made the ethical choice—which is not always the most profitable or most personally rewarding. “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something,” said ad industry legend Bill Bernbach. Reward employees’ principled behaviors with recognition and respect. Give a “good citizen” award when an employee does something principled and values-aligned. 

Keep your door open for ethics questions. Encourage employees to drop by to discuss ethical issues as they arise. Ask employees to share examples of times when they faced ethical challenges. Thoughtful discussion about ethical dilemmas can help employees carve away the less important detritus fogging up an important decision, and see through to the core matter.

Hire with ethics in mind. Include ethics questions in your interview scripts. Offer ethical situations and ask how they would respond, or ask them for examples of how they handled ethical issues at past jobs. That old-fashioned value, “character,” is important if you seek to build an ethical culture.

Seek work from ethical clients. Be known by the company you keep. Don’t taint your claim to the ethical high ground by working for unethical companies. Select companies whose values and ethical standards match your own, and pursue those accounts with passion and dedication. Build a client list you and your team can be proud to work for.

Ethical leadership offers benefits beyond trust and improved employee engagement. Your agency culture will be stronger; your team will bond; and individual employees will feel more empowered in trusting their own decisions. All of this positive energy feeds back into your business, and helps you serve clients, build relationships in the community, and attract prospects who want to work with your high-quality organization.

How do you develop ethical employees?

Researchers are discovering that unethical behaviors can escalate over time when they begin with small ethical lapses—rationalizing petty theft of office supplies, for instance, can lead to larger thefts and even to embezzlement. This happens because the slow slide down the slippery slope is overlooked, ignored or tolerated by leaders, permitting unethical behavior to become habitual. Call out small lapses when you spot them. Recognize small positive actions to boost the ethical vibe. This is called nudging.

Nudging tactics include making people accountable for their choices; including images of ethical or moral heroes in your work environment as subtle reminders of values; and even encouraging childhood activities (doodling, coloring, toys to fiddle with) that have been shown to help people recover a sense of moral purity associated with being a child.

One other key to ethical employees: ethical managers. Your managers directly influence employee behavior, and morale. Meet regularly with managers to talk about issues and how they handle them, and reiterate ethical practices. Again, judiciously apply nudges (recognition and correction). 

Finally, appoint a rotating ethics panel. They can be called on to adjudicate ethical issues as they arise, and will probably be more even-handed about applying agency standards if employees step away from desired behaviors. Like peer review panels on college campuses, your ethics panel can advise on matters small and large.

A Culture of Ethics and Trust

The American Advertising Federation (AAF) created a Principles and Practices of Advertising Ethics document that shares 8 basic ethical principles for the advertising and marketing industry. Principle 8 reminds us that we need to have cultures that invite employees to express ethical concerns about the work or work situations—in fact, we need to give employees permission to do so. Agency managers who say they welcome ethical discussions need to make it clear that employees who open such discussions will not be ignored or punished for doing so. Employees need to know they can trust managers and agency leaders to hear and respect their concerns, and that employees can speak without fear.

All of this comes back to brand values and purpose. Know your values and what principles you will hew to come hell or high water. Unite your people around a purpose and those values. These are like a flag you pledge yourself to daily, like reciting the pledge of allegiance in grade school. 

Open some discussions about ethics and trust in your agency. It may be interesting to learn how much (or little) trust employees have in leaders and the firm’s purpose. If you discover an imbalance between the organization you believe you are running, and how employees see it, gather some core staff and set some goals aimed at improving trust and clarifying your firm’s purpose. A small investment of time and effort could reward you all with a happier, more productive and more profitable agency.

Read also:

In Agency We Trust

How Do You Lead?

Client-Agency Relationships Demand Renewed Focus: Trust Building

Convincing Clients to Embrace Risk Is a Matter of Trust

In Client-Agency Relationships We Trust

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