August 1st, 2017

Sometimes distrust between people or groups in the workplace is obvious: blatant interpersonal conflicts, people refusing to work with each other, open acknowledgment that trust is low. But often distrust is hidden. It lurks behind a veneer of polite, friendly interactions that mask what I’ve come to call a culture of secret distrust.

Secret distrust can afflict teams, people in different departments or divisions, and even entire companies. The distrust stays hidden because no one will openly acknowledge that trust is an issue. If you ask any team member within earshot of another they will assure you they do trust each other. Unless you know what to look for, hidden distrust can go on creating a huge hidden cost indefinitely in the form of lost time, money, and energy. It can demoralize good employees, stifle innovation, create unnecessary stress, and still go mostly unnoticed.

When hidden distrust is part of the culture of a team or company it affects everything. The good news is, if you know it’s there you can do something about it. To help you determine if your team is hobbled by hidden distrust here are seven symptoms to look for:

  1. No conflict or controversy. Team members fear conflict because they don’t trust each other or even themselves to keep their focus on ideas. Instead they are afraid conflict will become personal. As a result they don’t openly question or challenge each other’s ideas or opinions and fail to address issues they need to deal with if there is any sign of conflict. What they will do is complain to each other or the boss privately. They may also use political maneuvering to get what they want. The ability to engage in the kind of creative conflict that yields great results requires strong trust. If it’s absent those conversations don’t happen. Nor do the great results everyone wants.
  2. No accountability. It is a sure sign of distrust when someone on the team does something, or fails to do something, that hurts the team and no one calls them on it. For example, the team is waiting for input from one member who repeatedly fails to produce it, but no one on the team addresses the problem directly. Accountability conversations among team members requires trust. No trust, no accountability. Which also kills results.
  3. Few decisions, little action, no results. There may be lots of discussion but the team seldom comes to a decision on anything. Coming to a decision as a team requires that they’ve really worked through the issues and addressed everyone’s concerns. This, in turn requires trust. Without trust, no decisions. Not much ever gets done and results are delayed at best.
  4. Decisions made without the team. Sometimes it can appear the team is making decisions and taking action, but a closer look will reveal that they are not really made by the team. The team meets, issues are brought up and talked about but no decisions are made. The team adjourns and then team members with different interests and agendas lobby a single decision-maker one-on-one after the team meeting. Unfortunately, when decisions are in made this way the decision-maker rarely hears from everyone and the value of the team is diminished or lost completely.
  5. Over-attended meetings. When everyone and their grandmother troops from one meeting to the next, it’s likely distrust is at work. Everyone wants to be there because none of them trusts others to be fully honest, paint an accurate picture, completely understand or fairly represent issues, or even that they care about achieving the team’s mission. It requires strong trust to leave important decisions to others. The benefit, of course, is that people are deployed much more efficiently and effectively when they’re not all involved in every discussion and decision.
  6. Excessive oversight. Having one or two additional pairs of eyes on things is important, especially the eyes of people whose work is affected. But when everyone on the team wants approval on even small decisions it’s a pretty good indication team members don’t trust each other. This, in turn, slows everything down. When trust is high each team member is trusted to do what he/she does well and work gets done effectively and efficiently.
  7. People withhold critical information. When team members don’t trust each other a common behavior is to control information that is important to the team. Information is power that people can use to protect themselves against others they don’t trust so they keep everything close to the vest. Teams that trust share information freely with each other so that everyone has what they need to do their part in achieving the team’s goals.

If you recognize two or more of these symptoms it is highly likely your team is being sabotaged by secret distrust. Okay, you say, I do see that my team (or department, or company) may be hobbled by secret distrust. So what can I do about it?

Building trust starts with being honest about what is happening. If people don’t trust each other someone has to name it before any change can begin. This is not an easy or comfortable thing for any individual to do. For starters others may not willing look at it even if you do call it out to the team – culture is resistant to change.

What you can do is begin by identifying other people who can help start the necessary trust building conversation. Those people can include other team members who recognize the team needs to work on trust; the team’s sponsor if he/she can see the problem; other influential leaders in your organization who understand what needs to be done; finally, your company’s HR can often recommend internal or external resources for this. But the bottom line is if no one does anything and the status quo reigns your team and company will continue to suffer from a culture of secret distrust.