25 Warning Signs You Have a Low-Trust Organization: Part 3 of 5

Low-trust organizations can be spotted in many ways.  This is third in a series of five. In this one, we explore warning signs from leadership. Previous and future posts address warning signs from:

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

Leadership Warning Signs of a Low-Trust Organization

Look at the leadership in your organization. Does it have some of the following characteristics? If you’re a leader yourself, think hard, you might be contributing to a low-trust organization. These issues all arise from leadership choices, after all.

1. The Cult of the Corner Office thrives.

  • Do you have corner offices that are not conference rooms? Do they come with extra appointments, more square footage, better desks? Are there criteria for who gets them? You may have an issue.
  • If you have sanctified real estate, the odds are you have other visible symbols of class status and rank. With one exception, class systems detract from trusted relationships in an organization.
  • The exception: you’re intentionally running a business that connects meritocracy and materialism. Some trading operations fit that description. But you’re not likely to confuse them with high trust environments anyway.

2. The highest performer is a values-offender.

  • Name the 2-3 smartest, highest-bonus, most successful persons in your organization.  Does at least one of them get there by thumbing his or her nose at your avowed corporate values? Then you have a problem.
  • Values mean nothing if they are not enforced. Very few values statements have exceptions clauses (“…unless you can make a really profitable sale..”). What part of “team player,” “integrity,” or “client-focused” do you think rhymes with not showing up at team events, obfuscation, or self-aggrandizing?
  • Nothing shoots holes in values statements like blatant hypocrisy.

3. Blame is an art form.

  • Blame is the opposite of responsibility. If leadership means anything, it means taking responsibility. If the first words out of leaders’ mouths in the face of difficulty are to blame the situation or another person, what you have is the absence of leadership.
  • Don’t confuse an explanation with an excuse. Explanations are important; they help us know what to do differently next time. They do not, however, let anyone off the hook. Leaders can’t be let off the hook; that’s part of the definition of leadership.
  • Blame and its twin “inability to confront” corrode trust. They both try to disconnect responsibility from the truth. Leaders don’t do that.

4. “Need to know” is your catchphrase – and you’re not in the military.

  • The military, and military contractors, legitimately operate on a “need to know” basis. Not too many others do. It’s an easy rationalization that leads to low trust.
  • If I say you don’t need to know something (outside the military), it means you can’t be trusted with the information. Maybe you’re incompetent, maybe you’re a blabbermouth, maybe you’ll misinterpret it; there can be many reasons for low trust. But they’re all low trust.
  • If I don’t understand or accept why I have no need to know, then I will resent you telling me. Resentment leads to all kinds of avenues, none of them good, and all of them low-trust at heart. Need-to-know erodes trust.
  • None of them above is any different because it’s a policy: a policy to withhold the truth systemically just means you have a systemic approach to withholding the truth. Now you have a whole organization that is untrusting.

5. The need to “have a positive outlook” trumps the need to tell the truth.

  • Many a leader has said, “We need to keep people’s morale up, make sure they hear this the right way, don’t let them get depressed.” That way lies trouble. Because the truth has a way of getting out.
    • Most people in most situations would prefer to hear the truth, to make up their own minds. They don’t trust people who assume they know better.  Remember Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men, yelling, “The truth! You can’t handle the truth!” Don’t be that guy.

In the next post, we’ll explore 5 ways in which products and services can indicate a low-trust organization.

4 replies
  1. Bob Whipple
    Bob Whipple says:

    Great list as always,  Charlie.  I would add a concept to the #3 bullet about the blame game. Low trust leaders have difficulty admitting mistakes.  They believe people will lose respect for them, when the exact opposite is more prevalent. In most cases, when a leader publicly admits a mistake, it is a significant trust building event.  This would not hold true for incredibly stupid mistakes or repeted errors, but for most unintended mistakes (like what other kind are there?) admitting the mistake, asking for forgiveness, and moving forward to prevent it happening again are wonderful trust deposits.

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    In Briatian we are chronic sufferers of one aspect of item4.  Nobody much knows who earns what.  Why should what you earn be such a secret unless you feel what’s being earned is not really deserved and will upset others.  Politically we are embroiled in this every day with Bankers and just about anyone who earns more than £100,000.  It’s not healthy.  If someone can create a profit of a million why shouldn’t he take a healthy share as a bonus.  If he or she can create a profit of a billion – perhaps its reasonable to pay £250 million as a bonus – but at least it should be transparent and open to a discussion and justification as to why it is paid.

    It would be impolite to enquire what my neighbour earns or boast about what I get – but in that case we are not in the same organisation and he’s neither customer nor supplier.  In that case, it’s bad manners.  But I feel there can be little trust in organisations that want to keep the very core of business life so secret – unless there something really bad about how they calculate and justfy pay rates.  And do you know what?  If you are not open, everyone believes the worse case scenario, or gossip, and feels unfairly treated, even when they are not.  There not much upside to being secretive about pay and bonuses.

  3. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Bob, great point about admitting mistakes. 

    People who don’t admit mistakes are in effect pretending they’re God.  People do admit them are admitting they’re not.  Since the rest of us all know the difference, the only people the first types are fooling is themselves.  And the second type, as you note, actually earn our trust by admitting it. 

    Chris, I couldn’t agree more. If you consider all the effort companies put into compensation confidentiality, and then compare it to the freedom of everyone knowing what everyone else makes: why would you ever design an organization built around secrecy?  

    And of  course the answer is, because most people have difficulty confronting difficult situations, aka the truths we don’t like. So we like to think if we build walls around it we can pretend no one notices. But truth is like water; it seeps into everything and finds its own level.  You may suffer from a more advanced form of that particular disease in Britain, but I assure you you don’t have a lock on it. It’s pretty much a human condition, but one from which we all have the power to dissent.  If we choose to do so. 


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