employee mistrust

We’ve got a big leadership “opportunity.” Cynicism and trust are falling. According to the General Social Survey, the belief that “most people can be trusted” has dropped from 45% to 30% in the last five decades. It’s a global issue. This year, the annual Edelman Trust Barometer found that nearly 60% of people in 27 countries said their default is to distrust others.

Wikipedia defines cynicism as “an attitude characterized by a general distrust of the motives of ‘others’. A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment.”

Like sailors on the high seas, organizational leaders can’t control the storm, but they can navigate through it. In last month’s Harvard Business Review, Stanford University associate professor, Jamil Zaki, article “Don’t Let Cynicism Undermine Your Workplace,” outlines the magnitude of the challenge by citing those trust studies. He writes, “countless organizations have been overrun by cynicism — a belief that other people are selfish, greedy, and dishonest.” He cites research showing cynicism “predicts a slew of negative outcomes at work including poor performance, burnout, turnover, and cheating.” He warns that cynicism spreads rapidly, and once this destructive contagion takes hold, it breeds gossip and backstabbing. This leads to “behavior that brings out the worst in their colleagues, causing the cynics’ suspicion and mistrust to become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

At the other end of the cynicism and trust spectrum…over twenty years of research by Great Places to Work found that “employees who trust their managers give their best work freely, and that extra effort goes directly to the company’s bottom line. Managers who trust their employees allow innovative ideas to bubble up from all levels of the company…together people working in high trust environments deliver far more value.” Russell Investment Group tracked the annualized stock returns of those high-trust cultures claiming: “Those companies performed more than three times better than the general market.”

Cynical People Often Follow their Leaders

During a retreat with the leadership team of a large healthcare organization, we were running behind schedule so, I said we’d move fairly quickly through the section on responsibility our choices.  Fortunately, an astute participant piped up with, “Jim, I think we need to talk about our ‘blaming and disclaiming’ culture. We routinely blame everyone else for our problems and give up trying to solve them. We blame the unions, the physicians, our board, payers, the patients and their families, other agencies, the government, and so on. We’re disempowering ourselves and failing to provide leadership to our organization.”

He was right. We then had a very productive discussion about how leaders need to shift from wallowing and following to leading. The team agreed to stop groaning and start growing their leadership.

Shifting organizational behaviors and culture is an inside-out job. Leaders need to start by looking at their own behavior. Are leaders on the pessimistic end of the range wearing their C.R.A.P. glasses? Is what they’re saying aligned with what they’re doing on the commitment continuum? Declaring “assume good intent,” “look on the bright side,” or beseeching others to “trust me” is like trying to blow the storm away. Empty words intensify cynicism.

Joe Folkman’s new book, The Trifecta of Trust: The Proven Formula for Building and Restoring Trust, cuts to the heart of this foundational leadership issue. Joe went deep into Zenger Folkman’s 360 database of over 1.5 million ratings of over one hundred thousand leaders to define the key elements of trust. He found, “while there could be hundreds of behaviors that impact trust, just three can account for the vast difference in the impact of individuals with high levels of trust and those who are not trusted at all. These are the core behaviors that create and reinforce trust from others:

  • displaying expertise and the good judgment that comes with it,
  • demonstrating consistency, and
  • building relationships.

These three pillars support the foundation of trust, regardless of culture, industry, race, or gender.” See my review of this book and key points here and quotes to note here.

In a Globe & Mail column Bridging the Credibility Gap, I described how leaders widen that gap and how to bridge it:

How Managers Widen the Credibility Gap

  • Looking outside, instead of within — for ideas, expertise, and advice
  • Not serving the servers
  • “Blame storming”
  • Confusing information and communication
  • Open doors and closed minds
  • Avoiding feedback about themselves

How to Bridge the Credibility Gap

  • Listen up
  • Reach across the great divide
  • Get their input
  • Run two-way meetings
  • Stop trying to “motivate”
  • Be approachable
  • Be radical

Are you widening or bridging your creditability gap? How do you know?

In his article on not letting cynicism undermine your workplace, Jamil Zaki concludes, “Trust is only one component of anticynical leadership. Leaders should also examine structural factors in their workplace: Are your corporate values mere window dressing, or do you deliver on them in concrete ways? Are wages, bonuses, and benefits fairly and transparently determined? If those conditions are not met, no amount of kind conversation will defeat cynicism.”

The adage “we judge ourselves by our intentions while everyone else judges us by our actions” is especially central to building credibility and trust. Leaders looking to increase trust levels often confuse their inward view of their own character or intentions with the behaviors others are seeing. Nobody can see into our heart to read our true intentions…instead, they judge our honesty, integrity, trustworthiness — and our intentions — on our actions. Trust me.

Further Reading