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HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: Destructive Mistrust

Source Manager's Journal: Destructive Mistrust

July 13, 2008 — The first two entries in this series dealt with uncertainty and ambiguity as sources of managerial distress and failure. Uncertainty and ambiguity typically contribute to mistrust. Mistrust is the most destructive force in any organization. Its negative effects are pervasive and extend well beyond the workplace. People in organizations with high levels of mistrust often hate their jobs and carry these feelings home with them every day.
Our heavy reliance on lawyers to cross every “t” and dot every “i” is just one sign of pervasive mistrust. When people trust one another, honest mistakes are acknowledged and get fixed. When they do not trust one another, there is no such thing as an honest mistake. Everything becomes a question of motive. Mistrustful organizations are backward looking and blaming. Trusting ones are forward looking and problem solving. Listen to any conversation in a group or organization where people do not trust each other. The conversation will invariably be about something in the past. That something will be negative, and the focus will be on a person or group rather than a problem to be solved.
Issues of trust are complicated in the Virgin Islands. As in much of the world, trust often seems limited to small groups that “I” belong to. And people tend to live by the rule: my group right or wrong. There are high levels of mistrust across racial groups and islands. Former Senator Bryan’s recent comments were just a dramatic example of statements and actions that simultaneously reflect an absence of trust and erode it.
The result is that it becomes more difficult for people to come together around a common set of goals. Professor Charles Hamilton of Columbia University once made a very important distinction between “indivisible” and “divisible” goods and goals. Indivisible ones are those that benefit all members of the community, e.g., good schools, an effective health care system and well maintained infrastructure. Divisible goods are those that only benefit a narrow group.
The distribution of divisible goods breeds mistrust and the powerful negative force known as a sense of relative deprivation. Everyone believes that someone else is getting something that “they” don’t deserve, and that I and my group are being shortchanged. There are too many divisible goods in the Virgin Islands, and there presence fosters mistrust and an inability of individuals and groups to be open with one another.
A player on a championship football team was asked what he thought was most responsible for the team’s success. He was a veteran player, who had also played on a number of losing teams. He said that the most important thing was knowing that the guy next to you was going to do his job, that everyone backed up their teammates when something went wrong, and that all of the players felt comfortable acknowledging mistakes and weaknesses. About as good a definition of trust and its benefits as we are likely to get. And we can also see how mistrust, the flip side, produces such negative outcomes.
Eliminating mistrust is a lot harder than getting rid of ambiguity. When we think of people who have lost our trust, it is difficult to come up with a list of those who have regained it. So rule number one should always be: Don’t do anything that compromises the trust of others. Building trust in and across organizations is a complex and long-term exercise in healthy relationship building. It starts with an honest assessment of where we are.
Trust and mistrust are norms. The starting point in dealing with them is to make them explicit and not deny that we have a problem. If there are high levels of mistrust, what are they? What happens because of them? What do we want to look different in the future? This is painstaking and uncomfortable work, but, when we consider the organizational consequences of mistrust, they are worth the price.
Next Week: Temptation
Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, a management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.

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July 13, 2008 -- The first two entries in this series dealt with uncertainty and ambiguity as sources of managerial distress and failure. Uncertainty and ambiguity typically contribute to mistrust. Mistrust is the most destructive force in any organization. Its negative effects are pervasive and extend well beyond the workplace. People in organizations with high levels of mistrust often hate their jobs and carry these feelings home with them every day.
Our heavy reliance on lawyers to cross every “t” and dot every “i” is just one sign of pervasive mistrust. When people trust one another, honest mistakes are acknowledged and get fixed. When they do not trust one another, there is no such thing as an honest mistake. Everything becomes a question of motive. Mistrustful organizations are backward looking and blaming. Trusting ones are forward looking and problem solving. Listen to any conversation in a group or organization where people do not trust each other. The conversation will invariably be about something in the past. That something will be negative, and the focus will be on a person or group rather than a problem to be solved.
Issues of trust are complicated in the Virgin Islands. As in much of the world, trust often seems limited to small groups that “I” belong to. And people tend to live by the rule: my group right or wrong. There are high levels of mistrust across racial groups and islands. Former Senator Bryan’s recent comments were just a dramatic example of statements and actions that simultaneously reflect an absence of trust and erode it.
The result is that it becomes more difficult for people to come together around a common set of goals. Professor Charles Hamilton of Columbia University once made a very important distinction between “indivisible” and “divisible” goods and goals. Indivisible ones are those that benefit all members of the community, e.g., good schools, an effective health care system and well maintained infrastructure. Divisible goods are those that only benefit a narrow group.
The distribution of divisible goods breeds mistrust and the powerful negative force known as a sense of relative deprivation. Everyone believes that someone else is getting something that “they” don’t deserve, and that I and my group are being shortchanged. There are too many divisible goods in the Virgin Islands, and there presence fosters mistrust and an inability of individuals and groups to be open with one another.
A player on a championship football team was asked what he thought was most responsible for the team’s success. He was a veteran player, who had also played on a number of losing teams. He said that the most important thing was knowing that the guy next to you was going to do his job, that everyone backed up their teammates when something went wrong, and that all of the players felt comfortable acknowledging mistakes and weaknesses. About as good a definition of trust and its benefits as we are likely to get. And we can also see how mistrust, the flip side, produces such negative outcomes.
Eliminating mistrust is a lot harder than getting rid of ambiguity. When we think of people who have lost our trust, it is difficult to come up with a list of those who have regained it. So rule number one should always be: Don’t do anything that compromises the trust of others. Building trust in and across organizations is a complex and long-term exercise in healthy relationship building. It starts with an honest assessment of where we are.
Trust and mistrust are norms. The starting point in dealing with them is to make them explicit and not deny that we have a problem. If there are high levels of mistrust, what are they? What happens because of them? What do we want to look different in the future? This is painstaking and uncomfortable work, but, when we consider the organizational consequences of mistrust, they are worth the price.
Next Week: Temptation
Editor's note: Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, a management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.