America Has A Toxic Trust Problem. It Just Might Be Curable.

Trust was a big issue in this year’s U.S. presidential election.

Putting aside the policy disputes and character recriminations, most Americans agreed on something: neither candidate impressed them as particularly trustworthy.

“Totally corrupt.”
“Can’t be trusted with the nuclear codes.”
“Two-faced.”
“A four-Pinocchio liar.”

Insults punctuate every national election, but the question of trustworthiness — whom do I trust to protect my interests—dominated the national conversation like no other presidential contest in recent memory.

Perhaps trustworthiness was so central because the campaign itself (and one candidate’s in particular) challenged the values and norms of civility many Americans assumed were shared by all fellow citizens. Still, despite signs of something amiss, Americans tuned into election night results coverage relatively confident that the majority viewed the world the same way they did.

The evening came and went. And with it went the illusion that, with all our differences, we still share some common core of ideals.

Not only was the electorate divided (she won the popular vote, he won the electoral college), but half the country thought the other had gone insane. The freshly exposed fault line between Americans suggested that perhaps our worldviews weren’t merely different, but incompatible. And the badly frayed strands of civic trust that had barely bound us together on November 8th were now broken.

The absence of trust is a problem for any organization

Let’s step back from the election for a moment, and focus on what happens in organizations where the bonds of trust have broken down. The signs are unmistakable: infighting between departments is rampant. Blame and animosity replace constructive dialogue. Collaboration is virtually nonexistent. Company performance slides. We’ve all worked in places like this at some point: they’re miserable, they leak talent, and sooner or later, they implode. High-trust organizations, on the other hand, enjoy greater innovation, collaboration, productivity, and employee well-being. They thrive.

What is it that causes trust to erode in organizations in the first place? In his seminal work on the topic, Stephen M. R. Covey traces the roots of mistrust back to doubts about others’ intent (engineering doesn’t care if we miss our sales targets); capability (sales isn’t qualified to sell our software); integrity (those guys will say anything to cover their _sses); and track record (the boss’s new strategy was a huge failure). Once those beliefs take hold, trust evaporates.

Very large, globally-distributed companies are particularly susceptible to trust issues. When the engineering team sits in Denver, sales operates from New York, and management lives in London, meaningful interaction is expensive and rare. You can’t possibly understand the worldview of someone whose shoes you seldom see, much less walk in. Familiarity and shared experience are the necessary conditions for trust to grow.

Which makes the problem in the U.S. particularly vexing, given how far apart we are…literally. Exit polls from the election revealed that the half of the population living in multicultural urban areas experiences one reality; those in comparatively homogeneous rural and exurban areas experience another. This geographic sorting is a global phenomenon.

So we asked ourselves: if the post-election U.S. were a client — just another highly-distributed system in which the factions had lost any semblance of respect and trust in one other — what advice would we give?

Cultivating trust

We came up with ten recommendations for any organization (or nation) hoping to rebuild a culture of trust:

Start with “I” not “they”. It’s a common refrain in dysfunctional organizations: senior executives grousing, “they [our employees] won’t change,” with staff crying back, “they need new leadership.” When organizations are in decline, it’s natural to fix the blame elsewhere and want the other guy to change. But trying to change someone else has a near-zero success rate. The better bet? Start with yourself: commit to new behaviors and actions that create the future you want to see.

Seek interaction. It’s normal to want to avoid people we disagree with. But no team conflict is solved by avoidance. You have to engage regularly, meaningfully, and over time. Repeated engagement is what creates opportunities for you to demonstrate your integrity and trustworthiness, and for the other side to demonstrate theirs. Remember: the goal is trust, not agreement.

Questions over answers. When engaging with someone who holds views that contradict your own, forget making policy points. Opt for questions instead: What’s important to you? What scares you? What kind of future do you want for your kids? How does this issue affect you personally? Then be willing to answer those questions yourself. Sharing our hopes and fears not only reveals our humanity, it lets us find common ground. 
 
When you find common ground with an adversary, make a big deal out of it.

Care about others’ outcomes. Do you trust someone you don’t believe has your best interests at heart? Neither does anyone else.

Travel. Venture beyond your comfort zone. Sit with people where they live, to see the world from their perspective.

Can’t afford to travel? Read books not meant for you.

Be decent. Respect begets respect. Embody the values you want to see in the world. If you see others failing to uphold these values, lovingly but firmly call them out. 
 
Default to trust. When you first meet someone whom you suspect might be from another “tribe,” endeavor to interact with the same warmth and openness you would share with a friend. When the first reaction people sense from you is suspicion or disdain, it breaks down the possibility for authentic dialogue and trust-building.
 
Focus on Purpose. Every organization needs a higher purpose to inspire and rally its people around. Take every opportunity to articulate, re-articulate, and personify those higher ideals, every day.

The only way forward

Societies function when the participants uphold the systems, processes, and institutions that underpin them, especially in times of heated disagreement. Once the participants stop believing in one other’s good faith, the threads holding us together unravel.

At The Ready, we have seen even the most toxic organizations re-establish connections and build trust using versions of the tactics above. We’re hopeful they might help bridge the political gulf between us as well.


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