The Low Trust Environment
A recurring theme has come up in my conversations this month.
People express their frustrations about their jobs – the fights, the gossip, the terrible decision making.
What has struck me is that each time, the problem isn’t the problem.
It’s the overreactions to the problem that makes work miserable.
Small or innocent mistakes get blown out of proportion, which lead to overreactions.
When this next happens to you, ask yourself: if the problem happened in my workplace, how would we respond?
Generally, the answer for me is; we’d step back, ask questions and make a calm assessment.
That’s because we have a high trust environment.
We trust that our colleagues have the best intentions behind their actions.
If a comment or action could be interpreted in two ways, we assume they meant the one that’s least offensive.
A low trust environment is different.
Everyone is looking over their shoulder, worried that their colleagues are out to hurt or discredit them.
They are quick to assume malice – viewing any accident as a deliberate and personal attack.
One of my friends works in an office where he clocks on/off, and is paid by the minute.
As in, if he’s two minutes late then it’s deducted from his pay, and if he stays two minutes late then he gets paid additional overtime.
That would make sense if he was in a retail/hospitality business, but this is a corporate office as a full time employee.
What message does that send?
“We don’t trust that you’ll work a full day on your own, so we’ll measure it to the minute”
This makes for a sterile, transactional culture.
So nobody is willing to go the extra mile, unless they’re financially rewarded for doing so.
At ANZ we had a stacked ranking system.
Everyone is scored on a scale of 1-5.
· 1 was “Walking on water”
· 2 was very good
· 3 was fine
· 4 was in need of improvement
· 5 was “You’re fired”
Here’s the catch: it’s a comparative system, so a large number of people are guaranteed to be fired each year.
So if it’s not your colleagues…it’s going to be you.
How can you possibly build culture and trust when you need to outperform your peers to survive?
The answer is, ANZ didn’t.
Every decision was made on the basis of immediate self-preservation, and long term performance suffers because of it.
Low trust environments are full of passive aggression.
They’re also full of people who interpret ambiguous comments as passive aggression – which only escalates the problem.
What is the default assumption in your workplace:
That people will generally do their job, or that people are generally incompetent/vindictive?
What Creates Trust
In the book Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, Patrick Lencioni uses an example where a low-trust and high-trust environment exist in the same building: a hospital.
The medical specialists tend to bicker and fight.
They refuse to share knowledge or resources, and end up making things difficult for patients.
By contrast, the emergency ward has no such politics.
There is one clear priority – to keep people alive.
Everyone is on the same team, regardless of their title or department.
That common goal makes for a united group, focused on a singular task, with each member willing to go the extra mile to make things run smoothly.
That’s the problem with low-trust organisations, everyone is focused on their own goal.
Some goals are even mutually exclusive, and so not everyone can win.
Lencioni describes this as golf vs basketball.
In golf, a group walks around the same course at the same time, but everyone’s playing their own game.
It’s possible that you have a great round while the person next to you has a shocker.
Basketball is different - all players need to work together to get the win.
If you have a great game but your teammates don’t, you still end up losing.
To build a high trust environment, you need to intuitively know how everyone’s roles fit together to achieve a great result.
If everyone has different goals, they’ll be perceived to have different motives.
If you are always looking sideways at your colleagues, then they won’t feel like your teammates.
They’ll feel like your rivals.
If you’re reading this with a sinking feeling in your stomach, it might be time for a change.
First and foremost, the change might need to start with you.
If everyone you meet seems incompetent, malicious or untrustworthy, guess who is the common factor?
As they say: “If everywhere you go smells like shit, check your shoe”.
Secondly, if this sounds like your workplace, you’ll want to clarify if it’s a perception issue, or a personality issue.
A perception issue can be fixed by reframing – getting each person to visually articulate their aspirations, and demonstrating that everyone is after the same underlying result.
A personality issue stems from people being jerks, which might stem from selfishness, arrogance, or sexism.
Life is too short for spending 40+ hours a week watching your back.