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How Trust Impacts Culture in a Cross-Generational Workplace

The foundation of any relationship?


It makes sense then, that trust is also the key ingredient in developing successful relationships at work. And in a cross-generational workplace, we must know how trust is defined by different generations.

Why is Trust Often Hard to Maintain at Work?

Too often, the primary goal of an old-school company is to drive profits. Rather than focusing on fulfilling a purpose or accomplishing a common goal, the focus on financial gain becomes a barrier to developing trust.

In these cultures, the employees don’t feel a shared connection. They don’t see themselves growing with the employer; they no longer feel they want the same things. Most important, they don’t feel like they belong, which makes a mutually beneficial relationship – and trust – impossible.

In the generational hangouts we host at ARCOMPANY, we delve deeply into the Future of Work discussion. These weekly ethnographic sessions bring together a strong community of people across all generations. The unique chemistry among Boomers, GenXers and Millennials has resulted in very honest conversations on a variety of topics, including trust.

During those conversations, three elements have emerged as critical to building trust:

  • Automony
  • Communication
  • Transparency

Autonomy Is the Key

A company that trusts its people means it’s hiring the best to do their jobs; it means the management has the confidence in these employees to excel in their areas of expertise. But in dysfunctional organizations, this element of trust often is missing.

Instead, “managers” (as opposed to “leaders”) focus on compliance and conformity; they ask employees to prove their worth through audits, process and strict scheduling. They are threatened by the thought of employees forging their own paths and working outside conventional approaches.

Some of our GenXers, who have had both corporate and entrepreneurial experience, had this to say:

“The reason I am an entrepreneur is that I have a lot of interests, and I’m productive, and I don’t like being limited; I’m not interested in being managed.”

– Brian Carter, GenX, Entrepreneur Digital Strategy

This issue is becoming more prevalent as Gen Y and Gen Z, who appreciate flexible work schedules and remote contribution, dominate the workforce.

“The workday should be structured around volume and productivity, not just appearing at your desk… Allow employees to build their schedules around the work they need to execute as opposed to expectations set by others… ultimately, this encourages high levels of productivity”

– Ross Quintana, Gen X, Entrepreneur, Strategist

Joe, an older Millennial used to the start-up world and thinking outside-the box, says:

“Mico-f**king management. If that happens, then I’m out”

Joe Cardillo, Project Manager, GenY

Trusting employees enough to provide autonomy enables them to exert their initiative; they feel empowered to consider solutions outside “the way we’ve always done it.” Giving them the necessary slack to take ownership over a project – and inevitably perform beyond expectations – instills greater reciprocal trust.

Communication is Essential

Developing sustainable trust means being unafraid to have the tough conversations, including feedback from management:

“Tell us in real time if we’re doing something wrong. Otherwise, how are we expected to learn? Sure, there may be those of us [Millennials] who’ll be mad and maybe they’ll quit but they are probably not the ones you want on your team anyway.

When I have something serious to say, I go directly to the individual – face-to-face– because I need them to see my face, hear my voice and understand the implications and next steps.”

– Tiffany Daniels, GenY, Government and Community Relations

Some leaders, like Mila Araujo, a GenXer in the financial services industry, understand the importance of being in tune with employees. By listening to their unique needs and giving them the tools and resources to grow, she has managed to shift her department many times based on the strengths of its individual contributors.

Mila also feels creating a culture of empathy fosters strong communication. For her, this means developing programs to allow employees to look outside of their own immediate accountabilities and understand the responsibilities and others’ goals within the organization.

Boomers also largely agree communication is the overriding force in building a culture of trust. In our recent hangout on What Makes a Productive Happy Workplace, Boomers often echo these sentiments:

  • “Respect is given from the get-go (until it’s lost), while trust is earned.”
  • “Communication is enabled through respect. Constant communication begins to build the foundation for trust.”
  • Active listening is crucial.”
  • “Groupthink stymies creative solutions to challenges.”

Trust Comes from Transparent Leadership

When seeking trustworthy relationships with employers, all generations tend to pay attention to the leaders of the organization. What they say privately and publicly are scrutinized; hypocrisy is where trust goes to die.

“Within many corporate cultures, there is an unstated rule that tells employees to remain silent when spoken to, and to do your job. So when that company says they want progressive, out-of-the-box thinking and increased collaboration, we call ‘bullshit’ every time. Saying one thing and doing another is so foreign to us because we live in a transparent world.”

– John Graham, GenY, CEO Egofree Media

Steve, a Boomer who has worked in the social technology space, has experienced organizations where everyone is out for himself; this toxic environment has taken center stage over a cooperative environment. He feels this is the reason for lack of loyalty and high churn rates:

“We never taught respect for anybody else. We’re teaching if it’s not good for you, then run! …People need to feel a part of something.”

~Steve Dodd, Boomer, Social Sales

In our discussions, one other commonality consistently resurfaced: Boomers have seen largely authoritarian rule over the span of their careers; they agree that transparency has never really existed in their careers. Transparency wasn’t ever discussed; it was never a requirement.

Today, transparency is absolutely essential for all generations. An organization that is honest in its pursuits, owns its failures and allows its employees “in” provides a view into its own vulnerability. It gives employees a sense of responsibility and ownership in the outcome.

In the end, trust – in our personal and professional lives – must be fostered through autonomy, communication, and transparency.

When employees trust the organization – through autonomy, trust and communication – they are willing to invest their time achieving a common goal; they are inspired to contribute to the growth, and feel like they are truly part of something important.

How is your organization performing in those four areas?

How autonomous, communicative and transparent are your leaders?

As a leader, what are you doing, right now, to earn trust from those who follow you?




Hessie Jones, CEO at ArCompany, is a seasoned digital strategist having held management positions for top ad agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, ONE and Isobar Digital. ArCompany is a data intelligence company that analyzes digital conversation and behaviour to surface meaningful insights for business. Hessie also has extensive start-up experience with launch successes like Yahoo! Answers. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed! She is also an active writer for Huffington Post, Socialfish, Talent Culture and Steamfeed.

  • thurckM

    Great thoughts, trust, transparency and listening are indeed the magic word for a cross generational awareness of being part of something. Working not only cross generational but as well cross cultural makes it even more challenging and still these key words maintain as relevant. I deeply believe that whatever generation we belong to we have to keep up learning new trends, checking our behaviour and train ourselves in listening and learning from our failures. This i learn everyday from my grown up children. One is not perfect and needs to get a chance to learn to switch to new ways to do things. In many countries all over the world you hire people who might not be the best of the best but with high potentials to learn, these are the ones who require some Interface of adaptation at times, deserving as well being listened to and feel be trusted. Listening should be twofolded and honest, looking for the best work conditions which fit all.

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