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Leadership Challenge: Building Trust Short-Term

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Creating Trust Among Worker Who Will Soon Be Gone

More than 40 percent of workers in the U.S. have “contingent” jobs, according to government statistics.  They work part time, they are hired through temp agencies, they are contract employees, or they are freelancers and self-employed workers who find customers for their goods or services. That means growing numbers of people don’t have what have been traditionally considered secure jobs where they might stay and rise in the hierarchy. 

Are long-term careers in traditional jobs going the way of typewriters and floppy disks?

U.S. Department of Labor figures, reported in a Forbes magazine story by Elaine Pofeldt, show that the number of part time workers, who made up 16.2 percent of the workforce in 2010, had increased 36 percent over the preceding five years.  Independent contract workers, who stay on the job or the duration of a project, rose to 18 percent of the workforce in 2014, up from 12 percent five years earlier.  The number of temporary jobs reached an all time high of 2.9 million last year, accounting for 2.4 percent of all private sector jobs. Among the 17 percent of workers who have unstable schedules are on-call workers who have to be on or near their employers’ premises so they can show up to work only for the hours they are needed.    

According to government and private studies, contingency workers have lower pay, less access to private health insurance, greater reliance on food stamps and other public benefits, less job stability and more erratic hours.  Forbes reports 28.5 percent of contingency workers who are agency temps, on call employees and company contract workers were laid off last year. Job duration is all categories is dropping. Government figures say the average time on the job for a 55-year-old is 10 years, and it’s three years for a 25 year old. 

What happens to friendships, team work, collaboration and trust in work environments where people have uncertain schedules or don’t expect to stay very long?  Surveys have shown decades of sharp declines in the number of people who have close friends at work.   Some theorists think social media contributes to that trend. Why bother with new friends when you have such easy access to old ones?   John Spencer, a U.S. Army Major and West Point instructor who led troops in Afghanistan observed in a New York Times essay that immediately after the traumas of battle soldiers told their stories to friends on FaceBook rather than talking to each other.  Changes in hiring practices are also influential.    

Adam Grant, a Wharton professor of management, wrote in the Times that people invest less in their workplace relationships when they expect them to be short term. Professor Grant and Major Spencer in separate essays each observed more transactional relationships among today’s workers and solders than had been the case in earlier decades.  They noticed that conversations among colleagues were civil and functional but not convivial and analytical.      

How can leaders encourage more trusting and collaborative relationships in environment that are becoming less stable and less lasting?  A LaborTemps blog suggests managers “treat contingent workers as they would like to be treated.” The writer urges leaders to make initial gestures that show they trust workers, and build relationships by frequent and honest communication.  Major Spencer advises against trying to curtail social media use. Instead, he suggests scheduling debriefing sessions to replace the interpretive conversations that used to happen informally. A FastCompany story by Lydia Dishman stresses that leaders need to be systems thinkers who can adapt to rapidly changing work ecosystems and can take a take a holistic view of evolving organizational roles and needs.

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