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What employees want at work: Communication and trust

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When it comes to feeling supported at work, hearing from bosses regularly—about good news, bad news, and especially no news—is more valuable than just about anything else for workers. 

So finds a new report from the MIT Sloan Management Review. In the dark, pre-vaccine days between March and October 2020, researchers from Claremont Graduate University asked nearly 300 employees across industries what one thing their supervisor could do to help alleviate their uncertainty. While it’s a small sample size, their wide-ranging responses revealed the key actions managers should always aim to take, researchers Kristine Powers and Jessica Diaz wrote. 

Employees first want a steady stream of information about their job and the company. Then, they want “psychological and instrumental” support and clear, fast, accurate communication. They also want motivational or vulnerable leadership styles—but some employees say nothing their manager does at all would alleviate their uncertainty when things are especially grim.

The findings make sense, Janice Burns, chief people officer of software firm Degreed, tells Fortune. In uncertain times, both within a given industry and for the larger economy, different employees want different things from work and seek different kinds of support—but all of them want to be able to trust their managers. 

“Any relationship is based on trust, and communication is core to that,” Burns says. “Communication is even more core when you’re in the middle of chaos.”

During moments of uncertainty or tragedy, it’s incumbent upon leaders to present a sense of calm during moments of uncertainty, Burns says. She suggests focusing on the “Four C’s:” Clarity, even if it’s “I have nothing further to share, but as soon as conditions change, I’ll tell you;” consistency—Burns encourages leaders to maintain “a regular rhythm” of talks with team members; candor, which she calls being “compassionately honest;” and care. “We all need to feel cared for, and considered in the greater scheme of things,” she says. 

In practice, that care looks like being party to vital information. Nearly 2 in 5 (38%) of employees requested more information on specific pressing topics, like the likelihood of layoffs, bosses’ return-to-office plans, and evolving performance expectations.

Thirty-five percent of workers requested general support, like reassurance about their employment and empathy for their and their families’ health and safety. And just over a quarter (26%) cited specific communication characteristics, like frequency and consistency, which they said would help alleviate uncertainty. 

To that end, MIT suggests managers schedule regular information-sharing meetings or circulate emails, even when there is nothing new to share, just to reassure employees of the status quo. Predictability, they write, helps reduce uncertainty. 

That holds true in today’s economy, where leaders are increasingly becoming nervous over a looming recession and workers are becoming worried about being next in a line of layoffs

Burns didn’t just lean on the Four C’s during the pandemic, but also when the company initiated a round of layoffs. “We were very clear about what we were doing, why it was happening, and when it was over, so people knew we were being as candid as possible,” she says.

The effectiveness of any of these considerations is contingent on trust, which grows out of the confidence an employee has in their manager’s integrity, care, and capability. 

Maintaining trust helps workers cope with uncertainty during times when managers may not otherwise be able to provide it. As the MIT researchers concluded, “Much of [the] employee’s experience rests on the level of trust managers establish long before a crisis comes knocking.”

When leaders are open, honest, and accessible, their employee retention markedly improves, Burns says: “Trust is like a bank, either you deposit into it or you draw from it. Every interaction gives you an opportunity to give some kind of transaction. The more you build up, the more people feel they can rely on you.”

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