To build trust with employees, be consistent


“I got an urgent email from my manager at 4:30 a.m., asking me to make some small changes in a report I’d written for a client. Not only was it early in the morning, I was on my way to the airport for a family vacation. Any of my colleagues could have made the changes. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says Sasha, a manager in a multinational IT services consultancy. She had spent most of the previous month working 14-hour days as her team rushed to evaluate the client’s IT system and future needs. “Meanwhile, the firm’s leaders were stressing the importance of well-being and urging everyone to take time off to recharge. They were saying one thing and doing another. Clearly, I couldn’t trust them.”

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Many business leaders are devotees of the power of culture. Two-thirds of board and C-suite participants in PwC’s 2021 Global Culture Survey say culture is more important to performance than strategy or operating model. But Sasha’s story highlights a major obstacle to tapping its potency: many employees simply don’t trust their leaders. The reason is inconsistency, which manifests itself in two ways. First, some leaders, like Sasha’s, don’t act authentically—their behavior is at odds with the cultural message they’re sending. Second, in many organizations, the purported culture doesn’t match employees’ experiences.

Both problems could be contributing to a looming talent retention crisis. After “sheltering in job” during the pandemic, people are now quitting their jobs in enormous numbers. Four million workers resigned in the US in April 2021, the highest level in 20 years, and another 3.9 million resigned in June 2021. A global Microsoft study found that 41% of workers are considering quitting their job or changing their profession this year.

PwC’s research suggests that leaders are right to prioritize culture in the face of this challenge and many others. Respondents in PwC’s survey who said their organizations have a distinctive culture were more likely to report good outcomes during the first year of the pandemic (see graphic below). But for culture to create a competitive advantage and help leaders build trust with their employees, leaders’ aspirations about it and employees’ experiences with it need to align.

Data from PwC’s recent survey show that companies with a more distinctive culture have a better business outcomes. Such companies were more likely than their counterparts without a distinctive culture to see an increase in revenue (48%), employee satisfaction (80%), and customer satisfaction (89%).In PwC’s survey, 79% of C-suite and board respondents agreed or strongly agreed that what they say about their culture aligns with the way people act every day in their organization—but only 58% of frontline workers said the same. The contrast is particularly stark with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion: 64% of C-suite and board respondents said that their organization encourages discussion of sensitive and uncomfortable topics, but only 51% of frontline workers agreed. And 71% of C-suite and board members said their organization embraces flexibility and accommodates people with different needs, but only 54% of frontline workers said so.

How can leaders close these gaps? With a clear-eyed understanding of the impact of leadership authenticity and cultural cohesion and an action plan for activating their culture, they’ll be well on their way.

The value of authentic leadership
When New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, got onto Facebook Live at the beginning of the pandemic—from her home, after putting her daughter to bed, and in a well-worn sweatshirt—to explain to citizens the importance of imposing a national lockdown, she was sending a clear message: “We’re all in the same boat.” The changes she was telling her constituents they’d have to make were ones she would also have to live with.
A lot of leaders seem to think they also walk the talk on culture. PwC’s survey shows that 73% of senior management think they do. But only 46% of the rest of the workforce agree. We’ve seen firsthand that this mismatch damages trust. And without trust, it can be difficult to motivate people, bring about change, and encourage the desired behaviors.

One of our team members at the Katzenbach Center, a former US soldier, tells a story that accentuates the importance of leadership authenticity. In the armed forces, which rely on the ranks obeying their leaders’ instructions without question, Army leaders routinely make sure they eat only after their troops have been fed, to give a clear signal that the troops’ welfare is their top priority. But on one occasion when our colleague was a first lieutenant in the 25th Infantry Division, his entire unit was locked down because a piece of equipment was missing. “The lockdown went on all day and into the evening, and instead of hot food, we were given MRE [meal ready-to-eat] rations. But then some of the soldiers saw the commander’s wife sneaking him Burger King. After that, he was completely ineffective as a leader because no one in the unit respected him.”

Organizational coherence is critical
Consistency and cultural coherence also matter in terms of the actions of the organization as an entity. The US retail giant Target, which has long touted its commitment to employee training and development, recently announced a program to pay 100% of college tuition for any of its 340,000 full-time and part-time US-based workers pursuing business-related majors at certain colleges. The program is one of the most high-profile examples of a company taking concrete action to reinforce what it says about its culture and values.

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Organizational culture: It’s time to take action
Although few companies can afford a program as extensive as Target’s, consistency on any scale matters. Take, for example, a financial-services company that prided itself on its culture of meritocracy, which was based on a transparent performance management process. “We all knew where we stood and exactly what we needed to do to get on. We were always told that our annual performance review, and whatever happened as a result of it, should never come as a surprise to us,” said Paul, who joined the organization in his 20s and progressed steadily over the following decade.

The cultural wheels came off when an economic downturn made layoffs necessary and management failed to communicate what was coming. “Four people in my department were laid off,” Paul told us. “Three months earlier, we had all been told we were doing the right things, and then [the four individuals] were suddenly told to go because their performance wasn’t up to scratch. Morale took a nosedive after that, and it never really recovered.”

In our work, we’ve seen many similar examples of inconsistency and the mistrust it breeds. A company that wanted to improve collaboration across silos continued to align metrics and rewards to individuals meeting personal financial targets. A product team was told to focus on quality, even though KPIs were built around time to ship. To overcome such inconsistency, leaders should examine all of the formal and informal building blocks of their cultural DNA at every touch point across the employee experience.


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