In this post, we will explore how trust issues—especially among senior leaders—can greatly impact an organization (and why it is so hard to address these issues). We’ll conclude with some ideas on how to break the loop and see past the swirl.

When teams don't trust each other, and they don't want to have the hard conversations to rebuild that trust ("really work it out"), they tend to look for proxies:

  1. They debate surface-level things (like methodologies, practices, etc.)
  2. They look to processes or systems as a quick fix for the lack of trust.
  3. They make hollow concessions meant primarily to "put out the fire."
  4. They single out individuals to blame for the situation.

The proxying gets worse when people who distrust each other ALSO lack details about what's happening (or when the people who work for them lack trust or when things happen that routinely cause flare-ups and disagreements they have to deal with).

Leaders and managers in this situation are prone to maintaining a politicized (and cordial) stand-off with their peers. Instead of addressing the deeper issues, they too fall into the trap of quick fixes concessions. But they do so with even less information and command of the details, which invariably produces fragile agreements. Worse still, in some cases, they conveniently blame their reports and teams (which causes a trust rift with their groups).

This dynamic is precisely why a whole organization can be paralyzed by tensions and trust issues between a few key leaders. Yet, somehow, nothing substantive is done to address the issue.

The leaders are too distant from the pain caused by the rift, and there are too many convenient proxies (up and down the org) to channel and mute the actual issue and prevent information (reality) from flowing. Each week, the leaders meet and go through the motions with a smile, and yet, meanwhile, their respective groups and teams are simmering in distrust and playing their respective proxy games. When there's a flare-up, they double down on the proxies of debate, process, concessions, and finding "problem people."

It is a wicked loop, and the big challenge is that these cycles can persist for years and decades until people leave (and even then, the trust issues may be so ingrained that they outlive the original cause). Whole organizational structures and strategies get built based on the premise that these issues cannot be resolved and are "just the way things are."

How do you break the cycle?

  1. Labeling the proxies can go a long way. All too often, the proxies become the problem and give us a convenient way to ignore the underlying issue. Ask, "How much of what I see is a proxy for a deeper issue?" Catch yourself when you are looking to proxy a lack of trust. How do you reassess that part of your identity if you self-identify with one side of a debate, a quick-fix process, or singling out an individual?
  2. Flatten the information transfer problem; otherwise, talking about real circumstances and situations will be very difficult. Set up well-facilitated meetings with everyone involved.
  3. Try to understand that some uncomfortably high percentage of what you're observing is a byproduct of the wicked loop, not individuals being bad (or unskilled) people. The swirl is exhaust, and doesn't necessarily represent the true intent of the people involved.
  4. Ask yourself the hard questions: How am I part of the problem? What is the 20% truth in what other people are saying? Which gripes do I need to let go of to enable this to move forward? How have I been using proxies to avoid facing this problem?
  5. People underestimate how powerful it can be to take responsibility for past behaviors. In many cases, that is all people wanted to hear. They wanted to hear that leaders could accept responsibility for being part of the swirl.
  6. Don't underestimate the ritualistic shedding of past wrongs. Many cultures use rituals to shed bad mojo. In this case, it could be a meeting to air the dirty laundry, put it in a box, and burn the box.
  7. If you are a leader or manager, try to identify those meetings and interactions where you are talking about everything and nothing. You can usually tell this is happening when you immediately agree on some principles, but those principles are fairly distant from the actual problems people are experiencing. It's good to agree on something, but you might use that as a proxy for trust instead of digging into the deeper issues.
  8. The word 'trust' is very heavy. When we say someone doesn't trust another person, it makes it difficult to unwind that situation. Yes, we do deal with malicious psychopaths at some point at work, but most people are trying to get their work done and have different perspectives on how (and why) to get work done. Explore using the word 'tension' because, in many cases, that's what it is. There's a tension between different ways of seeing things, which tends to cause outputs and behaviors that encourage low trust.
  9. A team can figure out a way of working that meets almost all their needs but fails occasionally. In a low-trust environment, these failures are seen as a resurgence of the old issue. But realistically, these failures are rare and may get rarer. So try to highlight how often things are working and treat the anomalies as a quirk that has to be dealt with instead of a signal that things are falling apart.
  10. In addition to individuals discussing how they might have contributed to the situation, it can be doubly as powerful for the pair or group of leaders who had the trust issue or the tension to publicly discuss that in an open forum so people can observe people working through something. This is an extremely powerful model for how people closer to where the work is happening can resolve these differences.