Trust is a Funny Thing

The little ways that trust is lost

Trust is a funny thing because it’s not tangible and yet its absence is obvious.

When we don’t trust people, institutions or situations, we are not allowed to bring our best selves. We may avoid situations entirely. We may hesitate, hedge, obfuscate or even feel that we have to lie. Those same behaviors are directed at us when we’re not trusted.

I’ve written about how, taking a cue from Stephen M. R. Covey, we should be generous yet sensible with giving trust. Trust is an obvious component of personal relationships. In business, it’s often discussed in terms of the customer. Both settings are important.

However, what about all the little ways inside organizations that trust can be diminished -- and what if we aren’t even aware of this problem?

Employees losing trust in leaders

There are a million little ways you can discourage your employees. Not holding up your end of the bargain is one of them, including (especially?) on the little details. Most of us won’t outright betray a colleague, but what if we promise to write back and don’t, or put in a good word and forget, or make unrealistic projections and career promises that we can’t possibly deliver? What if we say we’re trying to help everyone on the team but consistently favor a few?

Will these people tell you? Maybe, if they have a comfortable and safe setting in which to give honest, constructive feedback. But if you’re squandering trust with individuals, you already have an environment in which going against the grain is difficult.

Don’t underestimate, either, the power of slights to build up over time. Think of a personal relationship where a small incident causes one partner to explode with “You never listen to me!” Remember that we all process events differently. What may be nothing to one person may be a deep wound for another.

What to do? You’ll need to ask tough questions – not of them, but to them about yourself. You’ll need to listen. If you decide to take action, you’d better follow through. That’s the only way they’ll see a path toward trusting you fully.

The official culture and the real culture

We all know people who love their work, their colleagues and customers, but then we discover they’ve left that job. When you ask, “Why aren’t you still there?” that’s when the other side is revealed.

Maybe they had autonomy in work they loved, and maybe the frontline culture was stellar. At the leadership level, however, there was disorganization, or a cutthroat culture, or a lack of appreciation. These employees were so closely bonded because it was the only way to survive the chaos above.

There are no easy answers here, either. But, whether looking informally or through formal measures such as employee surveys, beware confusing the results (a frontline culture of teamwork!) with the cause (the frontline bands together because it doesn’t trust the executives).

Employees losing trust in the organization’s prospects

We see much the same here. Maybe leaders talk a big game but don’t provide the resources to succeed. Maybe favorites are treated differently (or can break the rules). Maybe internal candidates are ignored in favor of outsiders when it comes to advancement. Maybe it’s simply that the company’s suffering from a tough market.

Trust here can be lost even when the company Is trying its best. For instance, a round of layoffs, no matter how necessary or humanely conducted, can cause employees to question everything they thought they knew.

What to do? Even in a small organization, a CEO can’t do the work alone. He or she needs to enlist the management team to help in a united and ongoing way. Like the above examples, you’ll need to be honest. You’ll need to welcome and listen to criticism. And you may need to apologize while pointing toward a path forward.

These are only a few ways in which trust can be lost. You’ll notice it is easier to wreck trust than to rebuild it. The first step is to be aware, inquisitive and humble. Good intent isn’t sufficient, but it’s essential to being a leader who can be trusted, especially after a rough patch.