When Trust is Lost

When employees don’t trust managers to make good decisions or to behave with integrity, their motivation is seriously compromised. Their distrust and its attendant lack of engagement is a huge, unrecognized problem in most organizations. This issue has always mattered, but it matters now more than ever, because knowledge-based organizations are totally dependent on the commitment and ideas of their employees. (HBR 2003 issue)

During a discussion on different, and difficult options a mentor once said to me that losing trust is like losing your virginity; once gone you can’t get it back!

For many years I believed, and still do, that trust could be defined as being seen to do the things you said you would do. If that was entirely true then it would suggest trust can be regained through a change of behaviour.

Is it true that some people jeopardise trust temporarily as a result of making a mistake or an error of judgment; yet in time, through changed behaviours, people regain confidence and trust is restored? Or is that confidence a bandaid over an open wound? One day that trust will be lost again.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones from London Business School suggest trust and authenticity are inextricably linked. They apply the analogy of the camellian, which changes its colours to adapt to its environment, and to ensure its survival; yet beneath the changing skin colour, it remains a camellian. Authenticity isn’t just about being yourself; it is about being yourself, skillfully.

Schrage & Kets de Vries propose in their research that great places to work show a strong commitment from CEO and senior management (who walk the talk), a genuine belief that people are indispensable for the business, active communication among the entire organization, the perception of a unique culture and identity, a well-articulated vision, and values that are lived and experienced at all levels of the organization.

My belief that trust is being seen to do the things you said you do may be true, it may also be too simplistic. Research would suggest trust is multi faceted and multi level. It may be more than just behaviour, it may be embedded in the DNA of the individual, informed by past experiences and prior learning, it may be a permanent characteristic rather than something transitory or temporary. This would suggest it is almost impossible for any manager or leader to engender complete trust in themselves all of the time.

The decisions we take, the mistakes we make, the actions we engage in, these all inform the perceptions of others. Some may be more forgiving than others, some may take a simplistic perspective, while others may be more analytical or insightful, or be more willing to trust again. For some, how they percieve someone as being trustful may be informed by how they have been treated, or hurt. Some may not be able to get past the evidence of behaviour regardless of what others may do.

As a manager what can you do to retain the trust of others? Firstly be accepting that you cannot be right all the time and be prepared to admit when you make a mistake. If you do lose the trust of someone, be concerned, be reflective, however don’t lose confidence in yourself. Yes you may have to apologise for something, you may have to make a decision to change how you behave, yet at the same time there are lots of other people that still trust you. Focus on not losing anyone else and you just might bring the person you let down back into the fold. If you cannot, then let it be.

What if you have lost trust in someone on your team? People can change when given an opportunity and they are nurtured. If your distrust is so high, and you cannot move that person on, or you choose to not provide a second chance, remember the camellion, be prepared to adapt, to ensure survival, while never taking anything for granted.

John Coxon has worked with managers in the nonprofit sector since 2002, helping them be the best that they want to be. You can work with John anytime by emailing john@johncoxon.com.au


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