Low Trust can Grow Anywhere

25 Warning Signs You Have a Low-Trust Organization: Part 1 of 5

Low-trust organizations are petri dishes for low growth, profitability, and ultimately survival. Yet the signals are easy to ignore.

The canaries in the low-trust coal mine fall into five groups: we’ll devote one blog post to each of:

  • Employees (today’s post)
  • Teams
  • Leadership
  • Products and Services
  • Clients and Customers

Employee Warning Signs of a Low-Trust Organization

Look around your offices. Do you see the following five signs? Then you might be a member of a low-trust organization.

1. The copy room bulletin board has those round smiley cartoon figures laughing and rolling on the floor saying, “You want it WHEN?!”

    • Humor is revealing. This particular cartoon pokes fun at the internal customer. Allegedly. When is it a good idea to make jokes about the customer?
    • What it really indicates is insecurity on the part of the copy room staff. What it really says is, “Please don’t blame me, I feel un-validated around here. And besides, all I want is to follow simple rules that I don’t have to think about, why are you making my life so miserable with all your requests?”
    • And when you see those cartoons, it isn’t just about the copy room. They’re a canary in the company mine. It means you’ve got insecure employees reporting to people who can’t give clear feedback, and a culture of entitlement. Good luck trying to get things done around that place.

2. People email others on the same floor way more than they talk to each other.

    • Sure, email provides an invaluable record of communication. And yes, it’s efficient. And no, I’m not going to say you have to be more empathetic and caring in all your relationships – that’s your call.
    • But email is for transactions. An organization that kids itself that it can reduce all decisions to transactions is an organization that can’t tell forests from trees.
    • Interactions that are overweighted into transactions become poor at executing  strategies (despite their attention to detail), because strategies require frequent strategic-level thinking.
    • A culture that over-celebrates impersonal transactions is likely to be non-innovative, because innovation thrives on the trust that allows people to challenge each others’ ideas.

3. Blame stalks the halls.

    • One of the worst sayings is, “No one ever got fired for hiring [IBM, McKinsey, etc].” It may not be bad for IBM or McKinsey, but it means that business decisions are being made by employees based on personal risk-aversion, rather than on the organizational good. That makes for some very bad decisions.
    • Behind blame lies fear. Employees driven by fear will never properly value risk. They will avoid people and decisions based on their personal fears; this avoidance increases inefficiencies and lowers innovation. Ironically, it ultimately also raises risk.
    • Blame is captivity, as Phil McGee says. When blame reigns, you can’t tell who’s responsible. When you’ve got no responsibility, accountability is meaningless. Blame leads to ineffectiveness; and that means you can’t make decisions, respond to markets, or do positive things.

4. People talk about each other.

    • People talking frequently about each other suggests gossip, which usually means talking behind people’s backs. This signals an inability to confront real issues. This means politics replaces truth telling.
    • Ask someone where they work in an organization. At a great company, it might be “in bubble memory technology.” Or, “in the semiconductor division, in R&D.” In a low-trust organization, the answer will be, “In Robinson’s group.”
    • The cult of leadership is just another cult. Steve Jobs may have been revered (or not), but he knew the desired obsession was not about personality, but the business. Celebrate, but don’t idolize.

5. People complain.

    • Complaining is wrong because it is wishing, not doing. If you didn’t win the lottery, you’ve no business complaining if you didn’t buy a ticket.
    • And if you bought a ticket and are complaining about the odds, you don’t understand the lottery.
    • If you bought a ticket, understand the odds, and are still complaining, you have no sense of your obligation in this organization, which is to do something about it. Go make a better lottery.
    • Complainers suck out the air in the room. They are self-oriented, they drag down productivity, and slow results. If you don’t get rid of them, it’s probably because you’re fearful (see #3, above).

These employee behaviors are warning signals of low trust in an organization. Low trust threatens your economics, innovation, speed to market, cost position, overhead structure, employee turnover, and customer indifference or worse – and a whole lot more.

For some ideas on how to improve trust, see Three Strategies to Improve Business’s Trust.

In the next post we’ll explore Five Warning Signs in Teams that suggest a low-trust organization.

5 replies
  1. Bob Whipple
    Bob Whipple says:

    Good post Charlie.  I have one to add, but you will undoubtedly cover this aspect in one of your future posts anyway.  When I work with an organization, if people are not complaining at all, it usually means they are simply afraid to speak up. They know it is not safe to do it.

    In your point #5, there is a counterpoint. When the environment is too quiet, I know the trust is severely compromised. A certain level of complaint is human nature. No complaints is not always indicative of a healthy situation.

    Reply
  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    This is so true of many organisations where the need to focus on the real business issues have been subsumed to the desire to play politics with everything. I can rememember working in an office where we subsequently were audited as being the place where mutual trust had become the lowest of all the company’s offices. People were emailing the guy in the next cubicle because you might be asked about who said what to whom next week. A save yourself before being blamed strategy. You have to ask some basic questions about whether it is such a toxic environment, should you seek another employer. That is what I did and later the company shut down. So it was fortunate I left before being made redundant. Sometimes lack of trust is so bad it is threatening to your career and your personal integrity.

    Reply
  3. Sandy Styer
    Sandy Styer says:

    Bob:

    You have a great point about  an organization where it’s too quiet because people are afraid to even complain.  Often we see organizations where trust is poor, but at the low-grade fever level.  The lack of trust saps energy over time and drains vitality from the organization, but it isn’t felt acutely until there is a crisis, like the company’s going out of business.

    Chris:

    So glad you got out of there!  And for everyone who is responsible for the health of the company or organization, it pays to make sure the organization isn’t toxic, or suffering from low-trust fever.

    Reply

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