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notes from JK

On trust at work

I’ve been thinking about trust at work. What it means, what it feels like and what role I might have in improving levels of trust. As Rachel Botsman points out on the excellent Your Undivided Attention podcast, the language we commonly use when discussing trust misleads us. We can’t really ‘earn trust’ but we do slowly build or repair trust through our repeated actions, if they are consistent with the promises we’ve made. Trust is intangible, and yet viscerally felt. Its presence, or absence, can leave an indelible aroma in a workplace that affects everything we do.

Personally I find it very hard, until it’s too late, to discern between someone who is merely playing the part of a high-trust leader and those who actually are high-trust leaders. For example if someone champions learning from honest failure as being important to how they lead, how will I know if this is spin or reality until failure happens? Does it become a disaster (gulp) or a gift to learn from (yay!)

I call those who are falsely spinning themselves as high-trust leaders ‘game-players’. These are the ones who find ways to avoid being held accountable for their failings, those who duck and weave to ensure someone else takes the blame or the extra workload. It can be hard to spot the game-players when first landing in an organisation, but they will be working hard to figure out who you are: Honest broker, another player of games or an easy target.

I find one of the most difficult choices I have to make in organisational life is deciding how to respond to the game-players. If already endemic, it can feel inevitable that we should join in the game-playing too. Or do we at least give the appearance of going along with them, to avoid becoming the target of their ire? Personally, and note I claim no particular insight nor wisdom other than 20+ years experience, I feel joining the games or even giving the appearance of doing so makes us complicit in a low-trust environment.

In making the choice to not become complicit we do become vulnerable, especially if those more senior than us are either wilfully blind to the games being played or unwilling to challenge the behaviours. By choosing openness, and a commitment to being truthful, we can build loyal teams who respect the path of integrity – which inherently builds trust in the work force – but we have painted a target on our own backs: We now represent an overt threat to those who have succeeded through their game-playing, which can only continue in the absence of openness and a lack of shared information.

I don’t have answers to this conundrum other than encouraging awareness of the risks, and urging reflection on our own values and experiences when trust and integrity feel scarce at work. How did we feel in low-trust environments? Do we want to persist that?

The answers to those self-reflections should help guide us on the right path, though perhaps not the easiest nor most profitable one. I believe openness, honesty and building common understanding are what lead to happy, healthy and productive teams.