Why Trust Breaks Down

In this post I would like to go over the implications of low trust environments and some of the reasons why trust breaks down between people. Without a foundation of trust between people, any ideas that you may have will just come crumbling down.

Implications of Low Trust Environments

Below are some of the consequences that may start manifesting when there mistrust between people and teams. These can be very important identifiers, or warning signs, that should be taken note of!

  • Hidden Agendas
  • Political Games
  • Interpersonal/Interdepartmental Rivalry
  • Bad mouthing people behind their backs, but sweet-talking to them to their face

One thing that I picked up from Jim Collins' book Good To Great is that a side effect of low trust environments leads to a lot of red tape and bureaucracy in companies. The reason being, that people are brought on board whom aren't disciplined enough to be trusted. As a result, rules and regulations are then put into place to regulate these people and with the passage of time these rules grow and grow to the point where it becomes a hindrance to the employees. At the end of the day, low trust in companies, and teams, has a huge tax associated with it and creates a toxic culture for everyone.

Reasons Why Trust Break Down

When trust is broken it can be built back up again by acknowledging your faults and correcting them going forward. It may take some time for mindsets to change, but in the end perseverance will win. So lets get going and see some of the reasons why trust breaks down:

  1. Failure to deliver on promises
    Not doing what you say you would do

  2. Hidden expectations about what will be achieved
    You tell you delegates you want something done, but you have a hidden agenda

  3. Talking negatively outside meetings
    The meeting after the meeting, where people actually speak their minds. In order to mitigate this, you should explain to them that it is not part of your culture and that they need to speak their mind in the meeting, as we are working as a team

  4. Cliques and groups
    You have subgroups in your team which rarely interact with each other

  5. Lack of communication
    As a leader, you should rather over-communicate than not communicate. If you don't tell your story, people will create their own, which often isn't true

  6. Not raising problems, but collecting injustices
    This is when people don't address the issues head on and as soon as possible, but instead keep a "black book" of previous issues to use against you at a later date

If you look at your teams, what issues do you see? It is important to remember that you aren't born being trustworthy. Instead, it is a concious decision you need to make and it is up to you to be trustworthy!

How We Trust

When meeting people for the first time, you will find that people take one of two approaches to trusting people:

  • Trust everyone, until they prove themselves to be untrustworthy
  • Don't trust anyone, until they prove themselves trustworthy

You will find that what approach you take will often depend on your past experiences. For example, you may trust everyone that is knowledgeable and smart, whereas another person may trust people that are warm and caring. Often you will also find people judge if someone is trustworthy just because they are with a certain group of people, which you may or may not like, without even interacting with them.

Commitments Leaders Can Make To Their Teams

There are three ways leaders can respond to our teams regarding trust:

  1. When there is a gap between what I expect and what I experience I will fill it with trust
    It is important to remember that trust is a choice, so you need to place this trust with your team and not be suspicious of them, unless their history tells you otherwise

  2. When I catch someone filling the gap with suspicion, I will defend you
    This is when loyalty comes into play. It is important to remember that trust is often broken when loyalty is broken. A nice rule of thumb here is, treat your team members like you would like them to treat the other people in the team, customers etc.

  3. If I see something that erodes my trust, I will come to you directly and not "via,via"
    You need to talk to the person directly about any issues rather than talking with other people first.

Commitments Team Members Can Make To Build Trust

In the same way that leaders can make commitments to build and increase trust, so can the team members. Below are some of the things that they can do:

  1. I commit to do what I say I will do & when I don't I will tell you
    You can't always fulfil your promises 100% of the time as there are always external factors beyond your control. I find this to be particularly true in the software development industry where I often see people come to team leads at the last minute to let them know that they wont be able to complete their task. You don't want to be in the situation where you are constantly being asked "How far are you?". Some companies have even implemented an "Ask Once" policy, whereby you ask the person to do something and you trust that it will be done or you will be notified, without following up.

  2. I commit not to over promise and under deliver
    You often find this happens a lot to people that are not assertive or they just say "Yes" to your requests to make you happy. In the end, the items are never completed and often it would be better to say that they can either complete the task by a certain date or only do so much in the period. In this way realistic expectations are set.

  3. If you inform me about the gaps I have created, I will acknowledge it
    In doing this, you will create a culture or ownership and responsibility by saying that if I succeed or "drop the ball", I will be accountable for it. Leaders need to represent this in themselves as well, as if they don't do it, neither will the team.

Many people believe that trust is one of the many reasons that makes a great leader. The reciprocal nature of trust means that often when I share and trust you, the people will do the same to you. Trust breeds trust! In saying that it is important that actions speak louder than words and you can't just say to your team, "Trust me!", but rather you need to prove to them that they can trust you. If trust has eroded, rebuilding it can be a long process, but in the end it will definitely be worth it.

So that wraps up this post. I hope you enjoyed it and if you have any comments or suggestions I would really love to hear them below.

Until next time...keep learning!

Mauro Da Silva

Learning everyday about software development, leadership & self improvement

South Africa