• Dr. Zarmina Penner

Trust Issues and How to Fix Them

Trust in organizations remains challenging even today. I am intrigued. Why?

Trust saves time, raises spirits and performance, so it certainly deserves some thought.

To be discerning in people seems relevant when it comes to trust. How do I know and decide when to trust and when not to trust?

Following this thought, I came upon Janine Driver, an expert in body language with a very entertaining teaching style. She propagates in her work of the past two decades that reading people should be everybody's second language (ESL). She says that words are essential in communication, but not enough. While words can be misleading, the body always tells the truth.

I agree.

In her book ("You can't lie to me"), I stumbled across a passage that made me sit up. She writes: "People who don't trust don't develop the skills to tell whether someone is lying or not - because they assume everyone is." 

Is that right? "People who don't trust, assume everyone is lying?"

She continues:  "The cost is, of course, never having any authentic or satisfying relationships. If no one can be trusted, how can you truly bond with someone? ... Research has shown that, in contrast to conventional wisdom, people who score higher on measures of trust,

  • Not only spot lies more quickly but are also better at general assessments of others, 

  • make better hiring decisions, and focus on the essential details that hint at other people's trustworthiness. 

  • They follow up on their suspicions, but they assume most people are innocent until proven guilty. 

She adds: "And here's the ultimate irony: people who lack trust in others are more willing to hire liars and less likely to be aware that they are liars. People who show little trust in others suffer tremendous costs, especially in fewer genuine connections with others."

Now, this is interesting: "People who lack trust in others are more willing to hire liars and less likely to be aware that they are liars."

From that, I conclude that being trusting up front is good; what a relief and surprise to hear.

Trusting is a promising strategy to start with; however, you do need to have strong discernment skills. The solution is not to accept the lack of trustworthiness as the norm and control more, but to establish the highest trust level possible whenever you can. 

To spin the thought further: Even if we can't change an organization's culture at once, we can vaccinate the organization with as many high-trusting teams as possible. Ideally, of course, the senior leadership team operates at the highest in trust. Trust can then cascade down naturally.

Thinking back to my own experiences with trust, one of my early mentors came to mind who taught me a lot about leadership, quality of meetings, and coaching. Once a month, we would have 1,5 hours of quality time one-on-one to assess my performance. He would smile at me with sad eyes when I mentioned something I had messed up, and he would say: "Not to worry, I am capable of suffering.", meaning it is OK to fail and he can take it. He would also congratulate us profusely when my team and I hit our goals and milestones. He was our advocate in the company; kept our backs protected. We trusted him a lot.

The same mentor was utterly different when he was with his peers and conducted management plenaries. Despite beaming faces, there was a feeling of doom and gloom in the air—their mistrust towards us was palpable. We were judged and pitched against each other, sometimes even shamed. Feeling drained, guilty, and disconnected, any sense of cooperation I had towards my counterparts went down the drain. Any creative ideas I might have had for client projects died an early death. I dreaded those meetings. Was I the only one? Since we kept our distance, I never found out. 

Now, why would someone I knew was a great mentor and very capable of trust, morph into his exact opposite self when he was with his peers?  

I don't know. I can only assume the following:

1) Peers' mistrust: The number of senior managers in the organization that was generally distrustful and distant was high. He was in the minority.

2) Peers' lack of emotional capacity: He was definitely in touch with his feelings and intuition; the majority of his peers, however, didn't accept such "softness." He had to succumb to the hard-liners.

3) Past experience: Being trusting had backfired before. I had heard the stories. It takes only one person to tilt the delicate equilibrium to a negative. Holding back trust towards all is then a protective measure.

4) Theorie-driven: This particular organization was proud to follow the latest shrewd theories about managing people. In their minds, they were following the best guidelines of the times, potentially ignoring their best judgment.

5) The governance system: The performance management system, it seemed, was made for people who could not be trusted. We, as managers, had to answer lots of questions.

6) The rhetoric trap: Senior management admired good rhetoric. If a peer team leader was entertaining and witty, his team's actual business results were tweaked slightly on the slides to suit the image. No joke. We all knew it and said nothing to keep up appearances respectfully.

Though successful in business, time-consuming people issues were regularly on the senior team's agenda. Work processes were painfully slow due to checks and double checks of any outgoing client-related material. Talented people left periodically to open up their businesses. "Trusted" insiders conned the company in small and big ways many times over the years. My mentor would tell me the tales with sad eyes. He always got his way in the end, but at what cost? Today, this business does not exist as such anymore.

What can we learn from this? 

Firstly, we can't assume everybody is lying and not trustworthy, as Janine Driver says. Mistrust towards people is not the rule; it is an exception.

Secondly, we can't delegate the discernment of people's trustworthiness to a performance appraisal or any other system for that matter. It is a leadership task. 

Thirdly, we all, especially as leaders, have to learn everybody's second language (ESL in short, i.e., body language) and educate ourselves about motives and behavior. We have to discern between people.

So, what are the firmest footholds for building and using a trust?

Here is what I recommend and have seen working: 

  1. Become aware of a lack of trust. Learn from the best to discern people (Janine Driver, Chris Voss, Paul Ekman, Steven Covey, and many more). Hire better. Recognize early signs of bad behavior and correct.

  2. Pump up your level of trust in others. (If it's a problem, then work on your level of self-trust first.) Take to listen to your team. Learn how to facilitate and coach. 

  3. Set up a governance system that anticipates that for no good reason or ill motive, people will forget to inform others, lose their drive and interest, miss details, and deadlines. It's human. Have everyone commit to the system. Let the system remind them of critical aspects of the work. Each business will need a bespoke system with a strategic agenda, goals and KPIs, meetings, minutes, dashboards, feedback loops, and to-do lists. 

  4. Have the system deliver you with new data every one or two weeks. Read the feedback, make sense, and adjust the flow through the system accordingly. Be hard on the data. Stay soft with the people. 

  5. Keep up the flow of goodwill, understanding, and positivity towards people. Signal your trust and be generous with it. It may require some courage if your peers push back, but it's worth it. If you are in the minority, though, it might be an uphill battle.

In short, courageous, discerning, and trusting leaders are sure to reap the benefits of trust. Luckily, times have changed, and we are generally more open to discussing intangibles, so it shouldn't be a big problem to address organizational trust issues head-on.

I just wish my mentor had known this. He was, in essence, a great leader.

  • Dr. Zarmina Penner

Preparing for Uncertain Times

We are all looking into a future that seems uncertain and unpredictable. Luckily though, we have all we need to know to meet the challenge and more, right at our fingertips.

Recently, I was reminded of a piece of work from 2008 that had looked at the future of management in 2018. The report sounds much less abstract today and may be relevant for leaders searching for inspiration, hence this post.

In 2007 / 2008, we studied the future of management (Management Futures, The World in 2018). The report was commissioned by the Chartered Management Institute (UK), who has the mandate to inspire member organizations and their leaders. The method chosen for the study was FMG's The Eltville Model. It was around the time of the last financial crisis, which made it challenging to focus on the future ahead, rather than on the urgent matters of the time. We have come full circle.

In the study, we looked at probable, alternate, and surprising futures in 2018 and beyond. I remember us discussing the possibility of a virus affecting the world; however, we ranked cybercrime higher than natural causes like pandemics. Little did we know.

In terms of a probable future, key findings for managing organizations in 2018 were:

  • Business models and structures will change in nature. There will be a polarisation from global corporates to virtual-community-based enterprises.

  • To succeed, organizations will need technology that can capture and analyze implicit and tacit knowledge and share knowledge with customers and partners.

  • The working population will be more diverse. Changing expectations of work and the impact of new technologies will require managers and leaders to develop a new range of skills that focus on emotional intelligence, judgment, and the ability to stimulate creative thinking to improve productivity.

  • Personal responsibilities will increase, and so will people's individual needs. Attending to these needs will inevitably lead to blurring boundaries between work and life as people try to cope with numerous urgent demands. Work-life integration will, therefore, supersede work-life balance.

In 2008, we envisioned companies of the future to have a relatively small core team that ran the company. All other human resources are practically self-sufficient and diverse professional "satellites", pulled in as required for as long as needed. 

The recommendation of the report to leaders was to focus on six organizational topics while preparing for the future. 

  1. Liveliness (Energize with belonging and purpose)

  2. Clarity (Be very clear and transparent)

  3. Flexibility (Accommodate for swift changes)

  4. Genuineness (Base decisions on values, the wisdom that comes from experience and common sense)

  5. Innovativeness (Nurture the natural creativity of all)

  6. Openness (Collaborate in a spirit of trust)

One thought that stayed with me all these years was this: Business structures will change, become more fluid, and dependent on a myriad of diverse, mobile, and self-sufficient professionals. 

Such complex change scenarios can feel overwhelming to think through, but if we spin the thought, where could we possibly start?

Let's start with the basics.

I often observe the tendency in organizations to feel overly responsible for their people. On the other hand, honoring commitments made upfront in the hiring process and beyond seems to take a backseat eroding trust and accountability in the workforce in general. 

Let me back up and define responsibility versus commitment:

1) Responsibility is a moral duty; we cannot hand it over to others at any time. We, each of us, are responsible for ourselves (happiness, satisfaction, motivation, health, growth, self-concept, and self-worth). Apart from underage children and pets in our care, we are responsible for no other person. In short, it is our job to make ourselves happy. Of course, others can cheer us on, give us words of encouragement, and show us the way, but the responsibility remains squarely where it belongs.

2) A commitment or obligation is a different matter. These are verbal or written promises we give to others (contractual mandates, agreements, saying yes to anything). We can terminate such obligations any time if we want. It is about keeping promises. A word is a word. It is best to keep this list short. It weighs heavy on us if we don't.

Why is this relevant in our case?

Because in organizations we first have to put responsibilities and commitments back into their rightful places before we change anything else.

In organizations, each person is stand-alone and an equal partner at eye-level. In organizations, each person is self-responsible. A self-sufficient professional "satellite" within a network of teams and reporting lines. In organizations, when we take responsibility for others, e.g., to motivate them and keep spirits up to have them engage more, we make a crucial mistake. We degrade people in the most profound sense. 

But if we leave the responsibility where it belongs, we not only win back time, energy, and resources; we respect our people in the most profound sense.

Thus, we can use the freed-up time to honor the commitments we have made at the beginning of the working relationship and afterward (contracts, agreements, having said yes to anything). This is where we need to improve.

Honoring commitments while handing responsibility back to where it belongs is a powerful tool for change. It builds trust and strengthens accountability.

With the same token, the now solely self-responsible employees can learn to be self-motivated and to keep commitments. All of them, verbal and written. They will know that committing means serious business. Accountability is now part of the fabric of the organization. And if not, their leaders will point them in the right direction and role-model expected behavior, while honoring commitments they themselves have made.

This one powerful tweak will resolve many current day headaches of non-committal behavior, like coming late or unprepared to meetings or not delivering on promises. You name it.

This one powerful tweak will also move you naturally towards a more lively, transparent, flexible, genuine, innovative, and open culture. And prepare you for the future, however way it may actually evolve.

  • Dr. Zarmina Penner

"Should I speak up when I feel strongly about a topic? I am not sure. It doesn't feel right." Each time the question is asked, my answer is the same: "Yes, but it depends on when and how." 

Let's break this issue down because, in general, it is good to speak up.

An issue (or conflict) is whatever keeps you pre-occupied in your mind and makes you feel powerless because you are unsure about what to do. In this case, it is about speaking up or not. Stuck in limbo is not a comfortable state of mind.

The generic solution to any issue is this: We have to figure out a way of getting our power back and take suitable intentional action. In this case, it is about the power of knowing when to say what and how.

I like to break down issues using a mental tool I have created, which I call: Stop-1-2-3. 

Stop means if the issue triggers you, don't shoot from the hip at whatever or whoever is triggering you. Stop. Come up with a socially acceptable neutral response beforehand or remain silent. Once we are pre-occupied and fixated on a problem, it tends to pop up everywhere. So the first step is to find an excellent way to respond to such triggers. Be prepared. When in doubt, do nothing.

Step 1 wants you to look at yourself and how you contribute to the problem. Step 2 wants you to analyze how your context contributes to it. And lastly, Step 3 wants you to look at the other person who might be triggering you. What are they thinking? 

Let's say each time you are in a management meeting, you tend to speak up quite openly sharing your piece of mind, maybe about unfairness, inequality, lack of engagement and team spirit, or some "elephant in the room" that is apparent to you, but others seem to be ignoring.

Every time you feel the strongest impulse to speak up. You get emotional, and then words shoot out of your mouth. After an awkward pause, others look away, pretend they are busy, or just silently watch what happens. Each time the leader nods and smiles at you, but then quickly moves on to other topics. You sit there, feeling strange. What is happening? Why don't others speak up too? What is wrong with me?

Sound familiar?

Let's analyze:

1) You: Here are some potential reasons why you speak up:

  • You value truth, authenticity, trust, and openness. You want to be true to your values and be a role model. It's your personality.

  • You think the issue is not a big deal, and a neutral in-depth open discussion would do wonders. You want to help.

  • You tend to overshare, especially when stressed. You open your mouth and talk without gauging the level of trust in the room in that moment.

  • You tend to want to stand out from the crowd and maybe impress others by throwing yourself into the "lion's den" to demonstrate true bravery.

  • You like to talk and listen to yourself talk.

  • You are critical of the leader's management style and trying to prove your point or worth by competing for the leading role.

2) The Context

  • The organizational culture is, in this case, a contributor for sure. The top 5-10 people in organizations embody the culture. Which level of openness do they demonstrate consistently? How are they role-modeling for you to behave?

  • How are sensitive topics handled in general in the company? Are open discussions allowed only in one-on-ones?

  • Who are the heroes of this organization? Where they go-getters and whistle-blowers or those who say less and stay in line? Listen to the stories.

  • How sensitive and avoidant is the organization? Do people prefer to look away, when embarrassed or emotional?

3) The Other

  • Is the other person, the leader in this case, triggering you at all? Or are you projecting?

  • How do they deal with conflicts usually? 

  • What is their style of management? What do they value?

  • Could there be something behind the scenes that is creating stress and moving the leader to be avoidant not wanting to deal with more?

Be brutally honest to yourself.

So how do we get our power back and resolve this particular conflict?

Let's say you have good motives and are an open kind of person, not out to impress but to help, but you do tend to speak up much too often. For whatever reason, let's say your organization ranks low on openness, especially when it comes to controversial and emotional topics.

Learn to read the culture and follow the lead. As long as you are part of the organization, it's healthy to do so. Listening to your gut goes without saying. That is a pre-requisite of organizational life. If your gut instinct says speak, do so, but don't regret it. Rather than speaking up impulsively and regretting afterward, revert to doodling to distract yourself from your impulse. Rather than speaking up and regretting it later, prepare a one-pager concerning the issue after the meeting. Talk with the leader, one-on-one. Share your analysis and potential solutions. Then let it be. Now it's up to them. If they ask you to speak about it next time, then do so. Otherwise, you are done.

Being critical at the cost of others is not the way to go. Instead, work on yourself. Get to know and manage yourself and your impulses. Be professional—master the art of being a productive meeting participant. If you are genuinely passionate about the subject, try getting the mandate to address it formally. You being professional means speaking up but in a measured, intentional and unapologetic way. 

You being professional can also mean not speaking up at all.  After your analysis, you may realize that that is the best approach, especially in highly political environments where speaking up can mean career suicide. Political, organizational contexts don't value openness. Accept it, and don't bang your head against the wall. You won't be able to change the culture singlehandedly.

However, you still have the power to choose where you want to spend time in the long run. You are not in jail. Choose an organizational culture that is in harmony with your values.

Ideally, the best solution for you (regarding any issue) honors your best interest first. Especially those who tend to overgive, please make a mental note to take better care of yourselves. The best solution is also in harmony with the best interest of others, within the limits of your mandate. Unless you are the top leader, you are not the top leader. (But if you are the leader, adapt the culture to higher openness, if you want higher engagement rates in your organization.)

Peace of mind means that what you think, say, and do match up consistently, as a wise person once said. Nurturing your peace of mind is always beneficial. Speaking up is a part of that.


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