• Dr. Zarmina Penner

Trust Issues and How to Fix Them

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.

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