Trust in the workplace is traced back to the leader creating a safe atmosphere where people can express themselves and be known.
Last week I received an email from one of our client’s key team leaders. She wanted me to know that she was thinking of quitting because the work environment had become so toxic. The CEO knew he had team issues because key employees, like the one above, were stressed and performance was dropping. Excellent employees were forgetting to complete tasks and, frankly, were failing miserably. Word simply spread throughout the team that one of the leaders was no longer safe; one of the leaders changed the atmosphere from a place of self-expression and being known, to an atmosphere of dread. Employees shut down and gritted their teeth. Alone, one leader hi-jacked trust; he became the enemy.
When this recently hired executive arrived, he exuded a helpful demeanor and professionalism. But no one knew what to make of his sudden outbursts and overt displays of anger when his iPad wouldn’t work or a printer wouldn’t print. Under frustration, he would crack. The team avoided him not knowing when his unpredictable outburts would occur. The employee who emailed me had been the uncomfortable object of his wrath and dreaded coming to work from that time, she admitted.
In the years I’ve been coaching and mentoring CEO’s I’ve seen amazing demonstrations of trust and the impact the highest-level ranking leader can make. Trust in the workplace is traced back to the leader creating a safe atmosphere where people can express themselves and be known. We scheduled a team-building workshop for this particular CEO and his executive team. Our afternoon started with a team game that predictably surfaced certain attitudes and behaviors among the members. This team struggled to complete the game as angry and mean directives surfaced. Eventually, other team members shut down; we watched the tension build right before our eyes. Then something amazing happened. It occurred to the CEO during the game that the biggest problem facing his team was a lack of safety and ownership and, by extension, a pervasive sense of distrust. So the CEO said, “We aren’t having success here and I think it is my fault. I’m the worst at this game. Why don’t I trade places with someone so we can see if that helps?” When he owned what the entire team was experiencing, even though he wasn’t the source of the tension, we saw his team transform.
We watched as people immediately began to relax and communicate. The angry offender softened and took some responsibility for his actions. Overall communication improved for the team, even to the point of problem solving, successfully completing the game. That humble and positive move by the CEO created safety. An amazing team dialogue and training time led to confession and apologies among the members. Early the next afternoon, I received an email from the employee who threatened to quit her job. “I’ve just had one of the best days at work, ever,” she wrote. “I am highly encouraged!” Where does an organization really begin in developing trust? Does safety make a difference in building trust?
It is foundational.
I Googled the topic of trust in business and found a plethora of articles and postings. My search yielded at least 20 titles in Amazon for business or relationship books on trust. I am led to believe that trust must be a hot topic. The Wall Street scandal caused by Bernie Madoff has not helped, nor has the broad financial crisis caused by those taking advantage of the trust we once had in the banking and financial institutions. Old school business practices were once rooted in “your word is your bond” and employment for life. Now employees know that everything is temporary while job security is as flimsy as the next economic downturn.
Are we as a society less trusting today than 30 or 50 years ago? I don’t find any evidence there’s been an erosion of trust. But I still ask myself, “has cynicism replaced trust in the workplace and the fabric of our social culture?” The divorce rate might be an indicator that our society lacks sufficient trust to heal our own marriages and persevere through inevitable tough times. Without sufficient safety to develop trust we quit, or worse, stay and give up. In workshops I’ve led and research I’ve conducted it is easy to see that each of us comes into the workplace with a carnival of experiences with trust. People who have abuse in their past struggle with trust and others who don’t have that experience cannot understand the reluctance and caution others have in being trusting. Developing greater levels of trust seems mysterious to most and sheer willpower is not strong enough to permeate the work culture if trust is missing.
Here are the facts I know about trust:
● We each have had trust broken at one time or another
● Broken trust is unique, therefore, building trust requires dialogue
● Trust is fragile and takes effort, even practice, to maintain
● Trust is organic, meaning it can grow over time if nurtured
● Trust cannot exist if we don’t see ourselves clearly and make adjustments
● The highest ranking leader has the greatest influence in creating safe spaces so trust can grow
Trust is dependent on safety. What is needed so you can be more trusting? Or what is needed so you could feel safe, allowing for more transparency?