Can You Trust Your Boss's Boss?

Last Updated Jan 30, 2008 1:38 PM EST

The disconnect between front-line workers and management is one of the oldest stories in the business world. It has fueled strikes, hampered productivity and soured work environments for as long as there have been org charts.

But there is more to it than pay scale and the burden of responsibility. Zia Khan, principal at management consultancy Katzenbach Partners, says that his research has shown workers tend to trust their immediate manager, but distrust those further up the chain. Why is this?

"Upper management tends to equate trust with confidence," Khan says. But as he points out, it's really much more personal than that.

Sure, workers want to know that their bosses are competent, but they also want to see that the management vision reflects their experiences. For example, as Khan notes, T-Mobile asks all managers, director level and above (that's more than 400 managers), to spend a week working in a retail store.

"If a manager comes down to check out the day-to-day reality, then his goals will reflect that reality," Khan explains.

He also says he's worked with another manager who makes it a point to deliberately waste time when starting a project with a new team. The manager spends time simply getting to know his team and creating a shorthand for language. It's an investment of one of his most important resources, time, but it pays off by fostering an even more crucial resource: trust.

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Speaking of being able to trust management, I once had a boss in one of my first post-collegiate jobs whose paychecks sometimes bounced. You'd come in the next day to discuss and see a new mini-fridge being wheeled into his office. Upon hearing of the payroll shortfall, he'd whip a giant wad of bills out of his pocket and peel off several hundred to cover your check. Fittingly, he had named the company "On the Edge Inc." (now, not surprisingly out of business). Anyone had a more untrustworthy boss?