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How to win back employee trust if you’ve been too focused on the bottom line

Although most employees want the companies they work for to be profitable, having a supervisor who’s too focused on the bottom line can actually cut into profits. That’s because employees often distrust and dislike managers who they perceive to care only about profits and not an employee’s personal development or work-life balance, according to a new study by Baylor University.

“Ultimately, that leads to employees who are less likely to complete tasks at a high level and less likely to go above and beyond the call of duty,” said lead researcher Matthew Quade, Ph.D., assistant professor of management at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business.

Quade’s interest in this topic stems from his own experience working for a manager who was too focused on the bottom line. Quade worked for a big corporation that’s among the top 100 places to work, partially for its commitment to community service. Soon after Quade was hired, he asked his boss about taking time off to participate in a reading buddy program at the local elementary school and even offered to make up the missed time. Instead of supporting Quade’s request, his boss responded, “We don’t allow people in our department to do that,” without offering an explanation as to why. 

Quade was discouraged and eventually left that company. His reaction is not unique. If you don’t want your employees leaving in droves, here are five ways to win back their trust.

Find out what drives your employees.

“Don’t just assume all employees only care about profits,” Quade said. Ask them what they value: work/life balance, career development, or opportunities for advancement. “A good manager knows who they’re working with and knows how to bring out the strengths of each employee,” said executive coach Kathleen Landers, owner and director at Sequence Counseling and Consulting Services. Understanding what drives each employee takes time, attention, thoughtfulness, and the capacity to appreciate their diversity, she added.

Even if an employee is as focused on the bottom line as their manager is, Quade’s study found the employee would still prefer for their manager to focus on interpersonal aspects of the job—such as career development and work-life balance—in addition to driving profits.

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Apply the same policies across the board.

Managers need to be consistent about how they treat employees. “Make sure you’re holding people accountable and holding yourself to the same standard,” Quade said. Nothing is worse than a manager who focuses on the bottom line but isn’t a high-performer himself.

Act as a buffer.

Like a caring parent or teacher, a good manager creates a culture of learning, innovation, and collaboration. For instance, Landers said, a good teacher knows that she will be judged on her student’s test scores. But she doesn’t hound her students about their scores every day because that creates a culture of fear and generates negative energy. “No one works well with an adversary,” Landers said.

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Discuss profits as a shared goal, not the mission.

Most employees are happy to follow a shared mission that goes beyond building profits. Supervisors can bring up revenues as a shared goal, Landers said, but make sure you’re tying ways to grow profits to the company’s larger mission. “Employees want to know that what they do matters and how their contribution plays into the bigger picture of what the company is trying to achieve,” said Danielle Beauparlant Moser, an executive talent management consultant with Right Management–ManpowerGroup.

Treat your employees like humans.

Small gestures go a long way in gaining your employees’ respect—say thank you, smile at your employees, and engage them in conversation, Moser advises. “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your customers, which will take care of your business and grow your bottom line,” she said.

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