Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Culture of Distrust

Image courtesy of Pixabay
What does a culture of distrust look like?

I've written a lot about trust in my blog over the last several years, much of it devoted to how it relates to the customer experience and customer relationships; there have been a few posts about trust and the employee experience, as well. But I think it's time to punctuate this latter thought.

We talk and write about a culture of trust and its impact on employee engagement and, as a result, on the customer experience. But what about a culture of distrust? It's certainly not something someone brags about, but it exists. It's completely opposite of a trust culture. And it's quite toxic.

How do we get there? Very easily and very quickly, unfortunately. Especially when the wrong leadership is in place. Have you ever had an executive or an executive team that just sucked the life out of your employees, out of your culture? This is absolutely, 110% a leadership issue. Are employees smart enough to realize when the culture has turned sour, when executives no longer trust them to do the job they were hired to do? I think so. And I think they're smart enough to leave, knowing there's nothing they can do about it. Remember, employees don't leave companies; they leave (bad) managers. Or bad executives.

Why is this a big deal? Well, you know all the talk about employee engagement, or more likely, disengagement? It's important because trust is a precursor to loyalty and engagement. Without trust, there can be no engagement.

What does an organization with a culture of distrust look like? What are some of the things happening behind closed doors?
  • There is a serious lack of trust. This is obvious, but it needs to be stated. 
  • Another given is that solid, trusted leadership is a myth in such cultures. Trust is a two-way street. It must be earned. Actions and behaviors must reflect the desire to earn that trust.
  • At the same time, there is a lack of integrity among leaders.
  • Executives and managers micromanage employees. They don't trust them to produce anything worthy of "shipping," as Seth Godin would say, so everything must have executive sign-off before it is distributed, even internally.
  • As a result, employees are paranoid.
  • Clearly, employees are not empowered to do anything.
  • Employees are monitored. Everything they do is tracked. Timesheets are not just for project profitability but for tracking and monitoring. Computers are tapped into to make sure they only do what they're "supposed to be doing."
  • Lack of clarity. Employees don't know what it is that they are "supposed to be doing." Or why.
  • Closely tied to that is no vision or, if there is one, it is not communicated.
  • There is a general lack of communication.
  • If there is communication, it is not open and candid, nor is there any transparency.
  • There is a lack of praise and recognition.
  • Contributions are not acknowledged or celebrated.
  • Office politics are rampant.
  • Lawyers and legalese prevail. 
  • As do policies, processes, and scripts. O my. Rather than providing guidelines to work within, employees are constantly reminded to adhere to the script.
  • Employees waste a lot of time complaining to each other about how bad things are.
  • Mistakes are viewed as failure, rather than learning opportunities, and often end in termination.
  • Employees aren't asked for feedback about the employee experience or about anything else.
 The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people. -Woodrow Wilson

What are some of the outcomes of such a culture?
  • Employees are not happy.
  • Employees are disengaged.
  • Productivity declines.
  • Employees quit.
  • Employees don't recommend others to work for the company.
  • Employees spread the (bad) word.
  • The company reputation is smeared.
  • The company is not able to hire good/the right people.
  • The customer experience suffers.
  • The business suffers.
Have you ever worked in a company where you felt like employees were not to be trusted? How did that make you feel? What did you do?

Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. -Friedrich Nietzsche


  1. Annette, I improve business processes for a living and have spent my career working for large multinationals.

    I've come to the conclusion that process improvement is really easy. The issue however is why do we design such god awful bureaucracies in the first place? And that, I am convinced is due to lack of trust and a blame culture.


    1. That's a good and fair question, James. I also believe leadership is the problem; more specifically, having the right leaders. I think we can overcome the god awful design if we have the right leaders in place, those who know how to sidestep it and make things better.

    2. Hi Annette,
      I think you are right that it starts with leadership but it has to be leadership that has the courage to start trusting and to keep trusting even when faced with disappointment and distrust.

      It seems to me that the only thing that trumps distrust is trust and leadership has to be the first to show up, try to earn trust and to keep showing up. Too often, it is the 'keep showing up' where many fail.


    3. Agreed, Adrian. Your comment reminded me of the saying, people leave managers/leaders, not companies. Think what leadership and relationships built on trust would do for employee engagement and, ultimately, for the company.

  2. I've recently moved on from a culture of distrust. It wasn't always that way. Gradually, gradually, trust in the employees eroded. Micromanagement techniques appeared. Firewalls on the computers. Scripts. Self-service technology to reduce dependence on unreliable humans. Employee feedback fell into black holes.

    Meanwhile, head office spent fortunes on 'Culture' workshops for the employees in an attempt to 'fix' engagement problems. It was laughable. I watched and learned, and ended up a passionate customer experience advocate.

    1. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common scenario. Glad there was a good outcome for you, though.

  3. I personally feel like most middle managers at large and small companies want to develop good relationships with their subordinates. However, many managers in larger corporations are unable to change the culture of distrust developing around them because they are also restricted, micromanaged and essentially held up by outdated policies and regulations coming from the top down that make it hard for them to develop true trust within their teams. How can this be changed? What sort of organizational structure would enable larger companies to move more fluidly?

    1. It seems like workshops and other forced attempts at culture shifts don't work or happen too late. So I am curious if anyone has experienced something different that actually helped :)

    2. I agree. Forced attempts don't work. It feels like outside intervention is required to get out of the same quagmire companies are stuck in. My gut says that if you bring in leaders that people can respect and admire (and vice versa), that would be a solid start in the right direction.

    3. My experience says you're right about middle managers. Oftentimes, they are restricted and micromanaged themselves, and all they can do is pass that down to their staff. It becomes a vicious never-ending cycle. I think new leadership - especially at the very top - is a solution. Not always viable, but I think it's the ultimate solution.

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