Understanding Trust Issues

by Anne Yurasek on January 21, 2010

214233924_8ed81fa52f(2) I received an interesting question from one of our clients who has had to lay people off, not once, but twice, in the last year.  She shared with me her feeling that she had somehow undermined her employees'  trust in her and she wondered how to restore it.   I also received a call from a Board member of a different organization wondering about an effective way to deal with the fact the trust between some Board members and the Executive Director appeared to be eroding.   So I have been thinking a lot about trust and what exactly that means.  I've worked on this issue before and recently have revisited some reading on the subject and thought I would share my conclusions.

In diagnosing trust issues,  it is helpful, I think, to think about how trust is expressed in workplace situations.  In our Board survey, we ask about three kinds of trust that we think are important for the both the ED and Board leadership to show evidence of:  (1)trust related to competence:  do others perceive leadership as able, knowledgeable, possessing the skills to do the job that they have been given?  (2) contractual trust:  when an organization leader, either Board or staff, agrees to do something, do they actually do it?  And do they do it with fidelity, fully and completely?  And,  (3) communication trust:  first, does leadership tell the truth and, second, does leadership disclose information appropriately to the right people at the right time?   Failure in any of these areas can undermine trust.

In order to "fix" trust issues, I think you have to explore the source of the distrust. An Executive who has had to lay off staff may be dealing with employee questions about whether, if that ED was better at her job, those layoffs could have been prevented.  That may mean they haven't been privy to the environmental pressures the organization is facing.  Or, staff may feel that the ED did not communicate appropriately about the layoffs, such as failing to inform middle managers and supervisors in sufficient detail so they could adjust and support remaining employees?    If trust is eroding between an ED and Board members, over what kind of incidents is that happening?  Is this an issue of perceived competence, failure to keep a promise, or missed or inappropriate communication?  Once we understand why trust has eroded, it becomes possible to craft an intervention.   Be forewarned, the intervention will almost always involve intensive listening and clear and truthful communication. 

I don't think it is helpful to look upon trust as there, or not there.  A lot can go wrong as we try to manage organizations in these difficult circumstances.  As difficult choices are made, trust levels may fall.  The critical skill is diagnosing when trust begins to erode and intensifying efforts to shore up trust before it completely disappears.   A former mentor of mine explained that people in authority have "a reservoir of good will" and when they act in ways that erode trust, that reservoir of good will drops.   It can be replenished.  If we fail to do this, then we revert to the old adage:  "Trust gone, game over." 

How have you experienced trust issues in your organization? What type? What kinds of interventions have been most successful?  

Photo Credit:  Joe Nangle

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