Building a Community of Trust in the Workplace

Originally written and posted on

Editor’s Note: Patrice Tanaka, Founder & Chief Joy Officer, Joyful Planet LLC  gave this speech at PRAXIS8 on Friday, Sept. 27, 2019 in Goa, India.  PRAXIS8 is the largest PR Conference in India.  This year it was held In Goa, India.

About Patrice Tanaka: After an award-winning PR & Marketing career and co-founding three agencies, Patrice Tanaka started Joyful Planet, working with individuals and organizations to discover and actively live their purpose and unleash greater success, fulfillment and joy in their personal lives, in their workplaces and in their communities. Life and organizational purpose are the subjects of Patrice’s best-selling books, Beat the Curve and Performance360. Patrice has been honored by PRWeek (Hall of Fame inductee), PRSA Foundation (Paladin Award), PRSA (“Paul M. Lund Award for Public Service”), among others. Reach Patrice via LinkedInTwitterFacebook and Instagram.

Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman Public Relations, once paid me a great compliment by saying “you started it all by focusing on creating an employee-friendly workplace, which forced other agencies to follow suit.”

Yes, Richard.  Guilty as charged!

In 1990, when I co-founded my first PR agency, PT&Co., I instinctively tried to create a “workplace community” because, selfishly, it’s where I knew I’d feel most comfortable.  And I knew others would, too.

The importance of “community” for me is rooted in growing up in Hawaii, an island chain in the Pacific Ocean.  When you live on a rock in the middle of a big ocean you quickly learn that everyone is critical to the success and survival of that community.  And you must all work together.

As much as I sometimes hated living in a “close” community like Hawaii where everyone knows everyone’s business, when I finally fled to the welcome anonymity of New York City in my early 20’s I found myself unconsciously trying to create “community” in this giant metropolis.

I was far from Hawaii, my home, and didn’t really have a “community” in New York City so I needed my workplace to be that community.

My success in co-founding three award-winning, PR agencies – all known as “best places to work” in the PR industry – was really based on the idea of creating a workplace community where employees could feel comfortable and “trusting” enough to bring their “whole self” to work.

I didn’t want our employees experiencing that sick feeling in their gut on Sunday night, knowing they had to come to work on Monday morning.

I wanted the transition from Sunday to Monday to be as easy and effortless as possible.  And I wanted our employees to feel excited about coming to the office, seeing their friends, doing great work and having a fulfilling experience.

This is why at PT&Co. we instituted policies and practices like flex time, casual dress every day, telecommuting, paid maternity leave – and later parental bonding leave for new fathers and mothers, time off to attend to parenting needs, every other Friday off during the summer, “Margaritas on the Fiesta Deck” every Thursday at 5 p.m.

We also designed a light, airy open office designed to accommodate the needs of the “whole person” complete with a living room, an eat-in kitchen/dining room, and a meditation room (for meditating, taking a nap, time out on a stressful day or a lactation room for new moms).

Many other PR agencies in the U.S. have followed suit over the past 30 years and I am happy and proud to have contributed to the trend in the PR industry of “employee-friendly” workplaces.

Building a Community of Trust in the Workplace

Foundational to any successful business, I believe, is building a “community of trust” in the workplace. Trust is what makes doing business possible, easy or easier and a pleasure!

You cannot build a successful, high-performing workplace without trust.

One of the things we did early on to build trust at PT&Co. was when the Recession of 1990-91 wiped out half of our new agency’s revenues within six months after our founding.

Instead of laying off half our employees we all took a pay cut to reduce our staff costs by half and we all focused on rebuilding the lost revenues.  We focused so hard on rebuilding our business that between January 1991 and December 1991 we grew 100% and were right back up to the billings level we were when we first started the agency 18 months earlier.

By not resorting to staff layoffs, which many other companies did to weather the storm of the recession, we laid a strong foundation from which to build the agency.

Within eight years of co-founding PT&Co., we were recognized as the “#1Most Creative PR Agency in the U.S.” and, at the same time, the “#2 Best Workplace” among all PR agencies.  Two years later, we were ranked “#1 in Quality Reputation” among all New York City PR agencies and #3 nationally.

What helped us to accomplish this was the “community of trust” we created at PT&Co.

We focused on and talked a lot about the importance of our workplace community, including when introducing the agency to prospective employees and clients.

Even the advertising we did for PT&Co. talked about the importance of our workplace community, including this print ad we ran in PR trade media entitled, “It’s All About Soul.”  In it we wrote:

“When we bought our agency back from Chiat/Day in 1990, America was at the beginning of a recession. Downsizing was the buzzword and corporate strategists focused lemming-like on cultivating organizations that were “lean and mean.”

If we had been content with copying surface strategies, we would have laid off some of the original employee-owners – the very people who defined the agency’s soul – and made life so lean and mean for the rest of us as to sap the very passion from our hearts.

Instead, while other agencies were hobbled creatively by layoffs and employee burnout, we were turning out award-winning work that prompted Inside PR magazine to name us the “#1 Hot Creative Shop” in the country.

We emerged from the recession stronger and better positioned than many of our leaner and meaner competitors to seize the opportunities of a reviving economy.”

Articulating a Business Purpose for PT&Co.

We also articulated a statement of “business purpose” for PT&Co. shortly after we started the agency as a way to communicate who we were, what mattered most to us and how we served others as a way to distinguish us from other PR agencies.  Back then we didn’t refer to it as a “business purpose,” but that’s what it was.  A succinct statement communicating how we planned to create value for all stakeholders – not just shareholders – and how we planned to serve the greater good.

Our statement of “business purpose” was: “PT&Co. is committed to creating Great Work, a Great Workplace and Great Communities that Work.”  By that we meant, healthy, sustainable communities within and beyond our workplace.

Articulating this statement of purpose and, importantly, “operationalizing” it is what focused and drove us in building the agency.

In co-founding PT&Co., our goal was to become known first and foremost for producing great work because it’s the reason that clients are attracted to an agency and remain at an agency.

We also wanted to be known as a great place to work, because in order to produce great work you need to attract and retain “top talent” to produce great work.

And, finally, we wanted to give employees and prospective employees a reason to work at PT&Co.  Our promise to them was:  Come to PT&Co. and help us to create great communities within and beyond our agency through the work we do for clients.

We knew that really talented people want to do work that is meaningful, and they want to make a difference in the world.

At PT&Co., we believed that businesses – including our PR agency – could be “a catalyst for positive social change.”

Hence our business purpose and tag line:  Great Work. Great Workplace. Great Communities that Work.

Actively living our agency’s “business purpose” helped us attract great clients like American Express, Avon, Charles Schwab & Co., Dyson, Godiva, Girl Scouts of the USA, I LOVE NY, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Target, Wines from Rioja (Spain), Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, among others.

Many of the campaigns we created focused on making an impact on important social and health issues, including domestic violence, girl and youth leadership development, literacy and financial literacy, breast health and drug abuse, among others.

We won nearly 200 awards for these campaigns, which is what earned PT&Co. recognition as the ”#1 Most Creative PR Agency” in the U.S.

Our “business purpose” – to create great work, a great workplace and great communities that work – was instrumental in creating all these things, including a “community of trust” at PT&Co.

Building Trust Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Building trust, as we all know, takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Building trust with employees is like building trust with a person.  You build trust over time by honoring your commitments, big and small, every day, day in and day out.

Honoring our commitment to create a great workplace at PT&Co. meant making decisions to do everything possible to create a great workplace AND to protect that great workplace.

This informed everything we did from creating a workplace that was employee-friendly to choosing the clients we represented.

We once fired our biggest client, a $2MM client, because they were abusive to our account team.  We knew that we couldn’t just re-assign the account to another team because the underlying problem of an abusive client would not change.

When we announced that we were resigning this client, a cheer went up throughout the office and it deepened the trust that employees already had in agency leadership.  They knew that we were “walking the talk” in our efforts to both create AND protect our workplace.

“Walking the talk” about our commitment to creating “great communities that work,” also necessitated that we sometimes turn down business.  Over the years, we turned down business from four major tobacco manufacturers because we couldn’t represent Big Tobacco and claim to be committed to creating healthy, sustainable communities.

Each time we demonstrated by our actions that agency leadership was committed to our stated “business purpose” – to create great work, a great workplace and great communities that work – it helped us build and strengthen the community of trust at PT&Co.

As we know, trust, when broken is very difficult to repair – and sometimes impossible – so it’s important to carefully consider how every action the agency takes will either strengthen or weaken the often-fragile trust that employees have in their employers.

We once resigned another big client after helping them navigate a crisis only to realize that, if we continued to represent them beyond the crisis, it would mean that we were complicit in supporting, what to us and many Americans, was an “indefensible” position.

We resigned that client, knowing that the loss of revenues meant we were going to have to shut down one of our satellite offices where we had five people working full-time.

It was an agonizing decision when doing the right thing felt like the wrong thing to the five people who lost their jobs. We tried to handle this terrible situation in the best way possible by suggesting that the head of the office start her own PR agency, which was her dream.

To support her, we let her keep the clients she brought on, and paid the office lease and her salary for the next year so she could make a go of it.

I’m happy to report that her independent PR agency continues to operate to this day more than 20 years later.

Doing the Right Thing by Colleagues, Clients and Community

But, building a “community of trust” in the workplace isn’t just about grand gestures like resigning a toxic client, it’s about having the courage to do the right thing every day for colleagues, clients and the community-at-large.

It’s about not going along and saying “yes” just to make your client, colleague or boss happy and because it’s the path of least resistance.

It’s about having the courage to speak your truth and to give your honest assessment and best advice to colleagues and clients, alike, and inviting them to do the same.

Google’s “Project Aphrodite”

Several years ago, Google spent a lot of time and money on their “Project Aphrodite” to research the secret to high performing teams.  What they learned is that the best performing teams weren’t necessarily those with the smartest or most talented people rather these teams created something called, “Psychological Safety,” a shared belief held by members that the team is safe for inter-personal risk-taking.  It describes a team culture characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

If you’ve ever been part of that kind of team you know how liberating and exhilarating it is to speak freely, share personal feelings and experiences, offer up ideas that are sometimes not fully baked, build on one another’s ideas or propose a better idea instead AND feel safe doing these things.

I’m not saying that we always achieved this rarefied state of “Psychological Safety” at my agency, but we intuitively understood that if employees felt comfortable, trusted, invited to bring their whole selves to work and share their personal lives and experiences that it would produce freer thinking and a freer flow of creative ideas.

To the degree to which we can have messy, sad or hard conversations with colleagues we can enhance “psychological safety” in the workplace.

But, if we run and hide from having difficult conversations with colleagues it only adds to tension, stress and, ultimately, contributes to a lack of trust in the workplace.

One of the best things we ever did at PT&Co. was to hire an outside management consultant and coach, Barry Collodi, to work with senior leaders and staff so that we were all better able to engage productively in difficult conversations.

We learned how to have a difficult conversation without devastating a colleague.

One of the best compliments I’ve ever received from a colleague was: “Even better than being hired by Patrice is being fired by her.” This is only to say that we don’t have to devastate employees even when engaging in the most difficult conversations.

2019 Edelman Trust Barometer

Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer is focused on “Trust at Work” with 75% of respondents globally saying that “My employer is my most-trusted relationship.”  In the U.S., 80% of respondents say this and in India, 83% of respondents say this.

This is good news for employers, at least in relative terms, vis a vis the public’s trust in NGOs (57%), Business (56%), Government (48%) and Media (47%).

Top Five Communications Tropics to Increase Employer Trust

According to the Edelman study the top five communications topics that are most effective in increasing employer trust are:

  1. Societal Impact. The organization’s contributions for the betterment of society.
  2. Values. The organization’s values.
  3. The Future. The organization’s vision for the future.
  4. Purpose. The organization’s mission and purpose.
  5. Operational decisions, including decisions that may affect my job.

Edelman’s findings do track with my own experience in trying to build a “community of trust” in the workplace.

1. Societal Impact: Many of PT&Co.’s most award-winning campaigns addressed important social issues. One of these campaigns, “Love Is Not Abuse” for Liz Claiborne, a marketer and retailer of clothes for the working woman, addressed the issue of domestic violence.  We recommended that our client take on when our research in 1991 revealed that 90+% of American women believed this to be a problem AND that there was not one major, national company in the U.S. involved in this issue.  The goal of our campaign was to make it “safe” for other national marketers to take on domestic violence and to “reposition” the issue from a private, hidden family matter to a public health crisis in order to galvanize a systemic response to addressing the problem.PT&Co.’s “Love is Not Abuse” campaign for Liz Claiborne helped to reposition the issue of domestic violence in America and made it “safe” for other many national corporations to embrace what they considered to be an “ugly” issue, won our agency 50+ awards and was recognized by Paul Holmes of The Holmes Report as “One of the Top Five PR Campaigns of the Decade.”

We also created our own proprietary agency programs at PT&Co. to “give back” to the community, including our Valentine’s Day “Acts of Love & Kindness” celebration. Every year, we closed our office on Valentine’s Day and gave our employees the day off to engage in acts of love and kindness in whatever way they chose whether it meant visiting a sick friend or baking cookies for their child’s class or doing volunteer work.  Our goal with “Acts of Love & Kindness” was to expand the celebration of love on Valentine’s from “romantic love” to “brotherly love” or love of mankind.

Several years into conducting this annual program we offered “Acts of Love & Kindness” to PRSA-NY as a city-wide Valentine’s initiative that we spearheaded. At its height 60 PR agencies in NYC celebrated Valentine’s by participating in our “Acts of Love & Kindness” program.

2. Values: Our Core Values at PT&Co. were:

  1. Do the right thing
  2. Pursue the big idea relentlessly
  3. Execute near flawlessly to optimize results
  4. Always speak your truth, but in a kind and gentle way
  5. All for one and one for all

3. The Future: At every step of PT&Co.’s growth we had a plan for the future.  Early on our “business plan/mantra” was: “5 years. 50 employees. $5MM in fee income.”  I like to articulate goals as succinctly as possible so it’s easy to remember by ALL employees.  If you articulate your growth and development plans in a 50-page business plan, no one will ever remember it and, if they can’t easily remember it, it won’t focus and drive them to accomplish the agency’s goal.  Our business plan/mantra –”5 years. 50 employees. $5MM in fee income.” – helped PT&Co. to achieve that goal.  However, it took us 7 years to achieve it, but we finally did because every employee was well aware of, clear about and focused on this goal.Some years later, our goal was to build a $30MM PR agency and we achieved that goal by selling PT&Co. to Carter Ryley Thomas to create CRT/tanaka and then sold that agency after building it for eight years to Padilla Speer Beardsley to create Padilla/CRT, a $33MM PR & Marketing agency with 240 employee-owners.

4. The Purpose:

  1. Our Vision was to be a catalyst for positive social change in the PR industry and the community-at-large.
  2. Our Mission was to create breakthrough PR campaigns for clients to help them achieve their business and/or marketing objectives.
  3. Our Purpose was to: Create great work, a great workplace and great communities that work.

5. Operations: We “operationalized” our business purpose in every aspect of our agency from our workplace policies and practices, to our employee benefits, the design of our office, the types of clients we represented, the type of work we did for clients, the pro bono work we took on, and how we chose to grow the agency.One of the major reasons we sold CRT/tanaka to Padilla Speer Beardsley is that they were an ESOP – all of their employees were owners of the company.  We wanted to roll-up under Padilla’s ESOP structure to institutionalize and extend “ownership” to all CRT/tanaka employees.  By creating PadillaCRT, we formed the largest, employee-owned PR agency in the U.S. and the world.  This decision actually cost us money because other agencies were willing to pay more money to acquire us, but at the end of the day, institutionalizing and expanding employee ownership through Padilla’s ESOP structure was a hugely compelling part of the deal for us.

Why should employers focus so much time, attention and money on building a “community of trust” in the workplace?  Because building employee trust is what cements the “employer-employee partnership,” according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Employees Who Trust Their Employers

Employees who trust their employer engage more strongly in the following behaviors:

  • Advocacy (78 percent vs 39 percent who do not trust their employer)
  • Loyalty (74% vs. 36% who do not trust their employer)
  • Engagement (71% vs. 38 who do not trust their employer)
  • Commitment (83% vs. 52% who do not trust their employer)

And according to Paul Zak of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of Trust Factor:  The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies (2017), employees at high-trust companies report compared with employees at low-trust companies report:

  • 74% less stress
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 50% higher productivity
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 29% more satisfaction with their lives
  • 40% less burnout

Zak identified eight management behaviors that foster trust in the workplace, which can be measured and managed to improve performance.  They are:

Zak Identified Eight Management Behaviors that Foster Trust

  1. Recognize excellence. The neuroscience, he says, shows that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it’s tangible, unexpected, personal, and public. Zak says, public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence.
  2. Induce “challenge stress.” When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, that intensify people’s focus and strengthens social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently. But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point; vague or impossible goals, he says, cause people to give up before they even start.
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work. Once employees have been trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator, he says. Zak cited a 2014 Citigroup and LinkedIn survey, which found that nearly half of employees would give up a 20% raise for greater control over how they work.
  4. Enable job crafting. When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.  This results in highly productive colleagues who stay with the company year over year.  Some allow people to self-organize into work groups.
  5. Share information broadly. Only 40% of employees, Zak says, report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies, and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. “Openness,” he says, is the antidote. Organizations that share their “flight plans” with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why. Ongoing communication is key!  Zak cites a 2015 study of 2.5 million manager-led teams in 195 countries found that workforce engagement improved when supervisors had some form of daily communication with direct reports.
  6. Intentionally build relationships. Neuroscience experiments show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. And research by Gallup reveals that close work friendships boost employee satisfaction by 50% and people with a best friend at work are seven times more likely to engage fully in their work.
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth. High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer.
  8. Show vulnerability. Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. Zak’s research team found that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation.  Asking for help, he says, is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others. Zaks says the U.S. average for organizational trust is 70% (out of a possible 100%). Fully 47% of respondents worked in organizations where trust was below the average. Overall, he says, companies scored lowest on “recognizing excellence” and “sharing information” (67% and 68%, respectively).

Zak says that the average U.S. company could enhance trust by improving in these two areas—even if it didn’t improve in the other six.

Investing in Employee Trust

Net. Net.  Investing in employee trust is investing in your bottom-line.  According to Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer:

  • 78% of respondents globally say that how a company treats its employees is one of the best indicators of its level of trustworthiness.

Our agency was often hired by clients because of our reputation as an “employer of choice.”  Smart clients understand that if an agency is an “employer of choice” they will be able to attract the best and the brightest talent and, importantly, to retain them longer.  As we all know, there’s nothing more disruptive to a client-agency relationship than when valued team members leave.

It’s no coincidence that companies recognized as among the “Best Places to Work” enjoy higher productivity and performance than those who do not prioritize creating a great workplace culture and building a community of trust.  The company who does the assessment to determine the FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work uses a proprietary Trust Index Assessment to assess and rank these companies.

Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For”

People analytics firm, Great Place to Work, determines the list by conducting America’s largest ongoing annual workforce study, representing more than 4.3 million employees.
They said that a hypothetical portfolio of publicly traded companies on the FORTUNE 100 Best Companies to Work For list substantially outperformed the market overall with nearly three times market returns.

And employee turnover rates at these companies are also 50% lower than industry competitors.

Trust by employees and trust in companies is KEY to genuine prosperity.

Economists care about trust because it is closely connected to economic activity.  Its absence leads to lower wages, profits and employment, while its presence facilitates trade and encourages activity that adds economic value.

PRAXIS8:  Building Trust is at the Core of Public Relations

I totally agree with this year’s theme of PRAXIS8 that “Building trust is at the core of public relations.”

And by helping your agencies and companies to build trust, starting in your own workplaces, PR practitioners can help shape their organizations and the world.

In August 2011, I wrote a series of three posts for PRWeek.  One of them was entitled, “Community Building is part of PR’s Portfolio.”  I believe this to be even more true today.

In 2011 I wrote: “Today, we truly live in a global village where the actions of any one person or organization has the potential to positively or negatively affect lives around the world. As PR practitioners, our evolving role must include helping our organizations and clients understand and be mindful of the global community in which they operate.

“Moreover, we must serve as “community builders,” helping our organizations and clients not only create a marketplace for their goods and services but going beyond that to guide them in contributing as global citizens to the community in which we all live.”

Thank you very much!

Mahalo and Aloha!

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