We mustn’t let mistrust get the better of us

Lack of trust – within organisations and wider society – may be on the up, but there are strategies HR can put in place to help

I hate to sound alarmist, but have you noticed anything weird about what’s going on in the workplace? If you haven’t, that’s quite worrying, because it probably means others haven’t either. But something is creeping up on us and causing workplace malfunction, and if we don’t do something about it we could be in big trouble.

We are leaking an essential component of workplace collaboration and fulfilment; something that can take years to build and seconds to destroy – trust.

I first noticed it earlier this year, in the training room, during a quarterly leadership development programme. There is a storytelling component in which I ask people to share an example of something they found challenging as a teenager. This is usually a powerful moment, when people start to really open up about their vulnerabilities. It can get quite emotional, and trust levels afterwards are usually much higher.

Not this time. We had a series of stories about having to work hard to pass exams, applying for impossible-sounding job opportunities and succeeding – that kind of stuff. All very controlled, logical and safe.

At the end of the programme, when I asked people to tell the group about their mental journey over the three days we had spent together, instead of sharing insights into their own thinking and emotional state, they gave lists of actions and not much else. People didn’t seem ready to disclose, despite the time we had spent together.

This was not a one off. I am seeing it in various situations as I do my work – and of course now that I am on the lookout for it, I see it more often.

There is solid data to back up my experience. The Edelman Trust Barometer looks at responses from more than 30,000 people worldwide and examines trust levels more widely than just the workplace. The 2017 report concluded that trust in business, government, media and NGOs is “in crisis”. In the UK, trust is at an all-time low of 29 per cent.

“Trust is in an accelerating spiral of decline. Data from the closing days of 2016 and first week of the New Year shows an unparalleled plunge of 11 percentage points in a matter of weeks,” read the report. It added that, with the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lacked full belief that the overall system was working for them.

Recent news stories both in the UK (claims of sexual harassment by senior politicians) and the US (sexual harassment by film moguls and screen stars) appear to confirm what we all thought anyway: you can’t trust anyone.

Do we trust our CEOs? Edelman reveals that only 37 per cent of us think they are very or extremely credible. Do we trust that our jobs will not have been taken over by a robot in five years’ time? No.

If we can’t trust each other we can’t collaborate. And if we can’t do that we are doomed. As Stephen M R Covey says in his book The Speed of Trust: “As trust goes down, speed goes down and costs go up.” If that happens we become uncompetitive. And if that happens…

Is this inevitable, or can we do anything about it? To quote a certain ex-political leader: “Yes we can.” HR can put building trust at the top of its agenda. Easier said than done, but here are a few strategies you should try:

  1. Encourage managers to make relationship building with their team members a number one priority
  2. Develop a strong coaching culture (managers will need help in how to coach effectively)
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate: direction, priorities, values
  4. Get people face-to-face at every possible opportunity. When you get people to look into each other’s eyes, they start to connect and build human relationships

Whatever you do, don’t ignore this. This is a crisis, but not an obvious one. It’s much more dangerous because it is subtle and hard to identify.

Michael Brown is founder of training consultancy Real Learning, for a Change and co-founder of How Not 2 videos