In an age of cynicism and irony, Northwestern Mutual is a throwback to a more innocent time. The company is the antithesis of ‘cool.’ It has the kind of culture in which people embrace plain suits and sincere handshakes, take pride in wearing achievement ribbons, and kick off conferences with patriotic music. It’s the very portrait of wholesomeness and earnestness—the Boy Scout of the insurance and financial services industry. There’s no place for hipster lingo, inside jokes about customers, or snarky tweets.
Oh, and Northwestern Mutual has been in business for more than 157 years and is worth $25 billion in sales. It might not be hip to be square, but it’s very good for business.
Mocking irony, snarkiness, and cynicism are very much in vogue, but they are also toxic to your company’s culture. Once cynicism gets a foothold in your culture, it spreads— just like an ill-advised tweet or blog post. You need to proactively fight it.
Most of us can agree that cynicism is ugly. It trivializes the gravity of bad behavior and normalizes superior attitudes toward customers and, often, coworkers. It is my feeling that widespread cynicism is also a red flag that something is seriously awry in your company. And that ‘something’ centers on trust.
Trust underlies effective working relationships. It improves group effectiveness and performance. It underpins organizational credibility and resilience. All of these factors contribute to creating a sustainable competitive advantage, because trust attracts talent, strengthens partnerships and retains customers.
Know that trust has two dimensions
First, there’s the external trust between an organization and its customers: Will a company stand behind its products? If something goes wrong, will they do the right thing? The second dimension is the internal trust between employees, managers and top-level management. Do leaders keep their promises? Can employees speak up without censure? Do people have each other’s back (or stab them in it)? Generally, what’s true externally is also true internally.
When employees can trust leaders and each other, customers can trust employees. And vice versa, of course. Cynicism cannot be eradicated if trust doesn’t extend in all directions. But know that you need to start internally, with the employees on whose commitment and engagement your success depends. If they don’t feel that they can trust your company with their careers, you’re in trouble.
Get clear on what a culture of trust and earnestness looks like
No doubt your employees have (probably very strong) opinions on trust within your company and where they’d like to see improvements. Hold a company-wide summit where everyone can share those opinions, and include an anonymous component like a suggestion box or survey. Get everyone’s input, from the C-suite to the custodian. Your goal should be to pin down exactly how a culture of trust translates to leader and employee behaviors.
Then, get the “rules” in writing
Put the results of your trust summit in writing and ask all employees to sign this document. Some companies have even gone so far as to prohibit blind cc’ing in order to promote a culture of trust.
Of course you can’t simply outlaw cynicism or talking behind someone’s back. Trust can thrive only when employees are treated like the self-respecting adults that they are.
Creating an official ‘standards of behavior’ document helps crystallize the attitude you’re hoping to cultivate. Plus, people are just more likely to abide by an agreement if they’ve signed their name to it.
Let only “Boy Scouts” lead
(And Girl Scouts too, of course!) People will emulate leader behavior, whether it’s good or bad. It’s just human nature. Leaders who roll their eyes when a certain customer calls are giving permission for employees to be similarly disrespectful.
Complain about your boss in the break room and you can expect to overhear your own team making fun of you as you approach the water cooler.
Never lie or hide the truth
There are many things you’re thrilled to share with your employees. “Our customer satisfaction scores are 15 percent higher this year!” Or, “Our first quarter profits exceeded our goal!” Yet there are other things you might not be so eager to share, like, “We’re going to have to downsize,” or, “There aren’t going to be any raises this year…and by the way, we may have to reduce your benefits.” Tell them anyway.
Even when the news is bad, people should never feel they’re being kept in the dark. Transparency and trust must coexist.
Show employees that you care
When people don’t believe their leaders care about them, not just as workers but as human beings, of course trust can’t thrive. This means leaders must be “people persons” who stand up for their employees’ best interests and don’t mind showing (appropriate) affection. Aspire to predictability Unpredictability destroys trust. As a leader, your team should have total confidence that you’ll do what you say you will. They should have no doubt that you’ll keep your promises, act with integrity, and look out for their best interests.
Make it safe to speak up
When your employees make an honest mistake, can they admit it without being scolded and belittled? What about input and ideas? Can they share those things and expect to be taken seriously? Hopefully, the answers to both questions is “yes.” Everyone should feel confident that they can participate in meetings and projects, say what’s on their mind, be respected for their opinions and ideas, and admit mistakes.
Either trust rules your organization, or fear rules it—you have to choose. A fear-based culture kills employee curiosity. Fear saps performance, synergy, teamwork and morale. It makes people feel powerless—and if you have no power over your own work life, of course you’ll be cynical.
Celebrate grit and gumption
If you want employees to be worker bees—performing the tasks you designate, on a timeline you set—compensate them with paychecks only. But if you want your employees to be partners, you’ve got to reinforce them when they act like partners. In other words, take notice when they display passion and motivation (grit) and initiative and guts (gumption).
When employees do the things you want them to do, reward them. A simple thank-you can go a long way. So can public recognition at a meeting or through a company-wide email. And of course perks like ‘free’ vacation time or bonuses are always welcome.
Constantly drive home the “meaning” of the work people do
One of the best methods to increase trust is to identify your greater purpose, your “true north,” as I call it. Why do you exist? What meaningful value do you offer to employees, customers or society? A great purpose should be aspirational, not merely financial. It should create a common cause and promote a collective effort. It should answer all the tough questions of why: “Why commit?” “Why persist?” And, most importantly, “Why trust?” At Northwestern Mutual, employees with whom I’ve spoken say they aren’t driven by dollar signs. They truly feel that their life’s work is helping people. And, ironically, that’s why so many Northwestern field reps are the millionaires next door.
My point? Figure out what meaningful things your company provides customers, whether that’s peace of mind, easier lives, reliable support, or something else, and look for ways to convey that purpose at your company. It’s hard to be cynical about your work and your customers when you actually do believe in what you’re doing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Rich Karlgaard (www. richkarlgaard.com) is author of The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success. He is also the publisher of Forbes magazine, where he writes a column, Innovation Rules. He has been a regular panelist on television’s Forbes on FOX since the show’s inception in 2001. Karlgaard is also a serial entrepreneur, having co-founded Upside magazine, Garage Technology Partners, and Silicon Valley’s premier public business forum, the 7,500-member Churchill Club.