Keep moving in the direction of trust

Leanne came to work on time. She showed up to meetings. Did her work. Met deadlines. She left work on time, not a minute early. Leanne was dependable. Predictable. She didn’t create trouble. Leanne kept her ideas to herself. Then she quit.

Have you worked with someone like Leanne? A person who keeps his or her creativity, questions, mistakes, or dissatisfaction to themselves. A person who would have shared his or her great ideas if only leadership had created a culture of trust. Have you been Leanne? Or even worse, have you been the leader who failed to build trust?

Trust only happens when we believe the people we work with are reliable, good, dependable, and caring. When we have trust we can be vulnerable, and we feel safe to take risks; these are important to both a person’s and an organization’s success. Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak shares this perspective on trust in his Harvard Business Review article “The Neuroscience of Trust”,

“Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues , and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.”

The benefits of high trust are quite attractive, aren’t they? Then why do so many leaders fail to build trust? Trust in the workplace shouldn’t be negotiable. In fact, if leaders want to retain employees and inspire them do their best work, trust is non-negotiable. Trust = Results.

I worked on a team with an extremely high level of trust between team members. As a result, some really cool things happened: open disagreement and discussion needed to solve tough problems and make hard decisions, difficult conversations to navigate personality and work style differences, equitable workload, genuine celebration of each other’s successes, love and pride in our work, and the highest KPIs in the organization. To this day, it is the best team I have been part of.

Although our team was highly successful, there was an underlying problem of trust—trust in our leadership was non-existent. Within five years of a new president, every single person on our team left. Some took early retirement, some people were eliminated under the guise of restructuring, some found better organizational cultures, and some … just quit. It was devastating to see a great department torn apart piece by piece. The culture was toxic, and in the years that followed trust was essentially dead. The result was mutiny almost across the entire organization.

With time, I have gained an objective perspective of what went wrong.

  1. Leaders failed to include all stakeholders. Decisions were thrust upon employees without input from them. Leadership only included stakeholders outside of the organization but did nothing—I repeat nothing to gather perspectives, opinions, or ideas from internal stakeholders.
  2. Leaders failed to provide answers. Employees were left wondering why decisions were made. When we searched for answers, there were none. The culture was a “do your work and keep your mouth shut” kind of culture. “Don’t question authority. If you do, there are consequences.” The confusion and distrust began to impact customer relationships too.
  3. Leaders failed to help people move through change. Leadership was further along the change curve than anyone else. Senior leadership was months ahead of our team. They were already in the integration phase while many of us were in the shock phase. Leadership wasn’t willing to wait for anyone to catch up. Those of us who didn’t immediately accept decisions without question found themselves in an unwinnable tug-o-war with leadership.
  4. Leaders failed to cultivate psychological safety. The environment was punitive. There were consequences for asking questions and sharing ideas and perspectives different from those of the leaders. Consequences were as subtle as being ignored in a meeting and as severe as being fired. The fallout was an organization that was filled with apathetic and anxious employees.

Almost a decade later, I wanted to shed light on what went wrong all those years ago, and I wanted to understand what I could do to prevent it from happening in the organizations I serve. So, I surveyed over 800 working professionals and asked, “What makes you trust someone and want to work with or for them?” These are some of the things I learned and use today to help leaders build trust in their organizations.

  • We trust people who make the effort to show genuine appreciation.
  • We trust people who know when not to take themselves too seriously.
  • We trust people who do more asking and less telling.
  • We trust people who openly admit their mistakes and don’t shame others for theirs.
  • We trust people who know they don’t have all the answers.
  • We trust people who are kind and generous.
  • We trust people who inspire others to be better.

But just because you have trust, doesn’t mean that it can’t be destroyed. I see it happen when a bad leader is hired, an employee is promoted and not given the training needed to be successful, or a toxic employee is allowed to run wild without consequence.

13 ways leaders destroy trust

  • Serve their own needs before they serve the needs of their employees
  • Believe trust in leadership is owed not earned
  • Expect or demand trust without giving it
  • Isolate themselves from their team
  • Fail to follow-through
  • Act dishonestly
  • Avoid conflict
  • Break promises
  • Focus on compliance
  • Assume trust already exists
  • Fail to be transparent
  • Possess low emotional intelligence
  • Have a lack of awareness or refusal to hone gravitational pull (what I call G Factor)

How to Build Trust

It is easy to say that if you do the opposite of destroying trust, you will build it, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Trust takes time. People are complex. We never know how someone’s past can color the lens with which they see what you do and hear what you say.

Remember that best team I was part of? It didn’t start out with a high-level of trust. In fact, when I became the newest member of the team, no one trusted me. Was it because I did something to ruin trust? No, not at all. Previous to me joining the team, they had weathered a pretty difficult storm. A person on the team whom they trusted and confided in, turned on them. Without getting into the ugly details, let’s just say that a hostile work environment lawsuit was filed by one team member against the rest of the team. Shortly before my arrival, that team member who filed the lawsuit left the organization, and the lawsuit was later dismissed.

There were aspects of my personality that were similar to this coworker — similar enough to trigger distrust. Plus, we started at the beginning of Bruce Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development: we were in the forming stage which commonly brings about uncertainty, anxiety, and lack of connection. With a little work, we moved into the storming stage where power struggles and distrust were expectedly alive. You know how this story ends (you read it earlier) … we built the trust we needed to be a high-performing team and spent several years in the performing stage where synergy and morale were high. Here is how we did it.

  • Truth – being brave enough to be honest about feelings, mistakes, concerns.
  • Respect – validating each person’s experience and giving one another permission to disagree
  • Understanding – seeking underlying reasons for actions and words
  • Sincerity – grounding everything in a genuine desire to help our team be successful by helping each other be successful
  • Time – remembering that trust takes time to build

Every team is different. It may take more patience, staunch persistence, courage, vulnerability, more frequent communication, better communication, forgiveness, boundary setting, and boundary enforcing. Take small steps. Keep moving in the direction of trust. Don’t give up. You will get there.

And if there is a Leanne on your team, talk to her.

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