Low-trust environments are filled with hidden agendas, a lot of political games, interpersonal conflict, interdepartmental rivalries, and people bad-mouthing each other behind their backs while sweet-talking them to their faces. With low trust, you get a lot of rules and regulations that take the place of human judgment and creativity; you also see profound disempowerment. People will not be on the same page about what’s important.
— Stephen Covey
Being thrust into a leadership position at work has been an eye-opening experience to say the least. It makes crystal clear a whole host of issues that need to be solved. Being a problem-solver at heart, I’m searching for a root cause for all the problems that I see. One can see the symptoms all around, poor understanding, poor coordination, lack of communication, hidden agendas, ineffective vision, and intellectually vacuous goals… I’ve come more and more to the view that all of these things, evident as the day is long are simply symptomatic of a core problem. The core problem is a lack of trust so broad and deep that it rots everything it touches.
Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
― Robert F. Kennedy
What is the basis of the lack of trust and how can it be cured or at the very least ameliorated? Are we simply fated to live in a World where the trust in our fellow man is intrinsically low?
Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.
— Henry Ford
First, it is beneficial to understand what is at stake. With trust firmly in hand people are unleashed, and new efficiencies are possible. The trust and faith in each other causes people to work better, faster and more effectively. Second-guessing is short-circuited. The capability to achieve big things is harnessed, and lofty goals can be achieved. Communication is easy and lubricated. Without trust and faith the impacts are completely opposite and harm the capacity for excellence, progress and achievement. Whole books are written on the virtues of trust (Stephen Covey’s Speed of Trust comes to mind). Trust is a game changer, and a great enabler. It is very clear that trust is coming we are in short supply of and its harming society as a whole. Its fingerprints at work leave deep bruises and make anyone focused on progress frustrated.
Distrust is like a vicious fire that keeps going and going, even put out, it will reignite itself, devouring the good with the bad, and still feeding on empty.
― Anthony Liccione
The causes of low trust are numerous and deeply engrained in the structure of society today. For example the pervasive greed and seeming profit motive in almost all things undermines any view that people are generous. A general opening ante in any interaction is the feeling that someone is trying to gain advantage by whatever means necessary. The Internet has undermined authority-making information (and disinformation) so ubiquitous that we’ve lost the ability to sift fact from fiction. Almost every institution in society is under attack from legitimacy. All interests are viewed with suspicion and corruption seemingly abounds. We’ve never had a greater capacity to communicate with one another, yet we understand less than ever.
I’ll touch more on the greed and corruption because I think they are real and corrosive in the extreme. The issue that the basic assumption of greed and corruption is wider than its actuality and causes a lot of needless oversight and bureaucracy that lays waste to efficiency. Of course greed is a very real thing and manifests itself in our corporate culture and even celebrated by the very people who are hurt the most. The rise of Donald Trump as a viable Politician is amble evidence of just how incredibly screwed up everything has gotten. How a mildly wealthy, greedy, reality show character could ever be considered as a viable President is the clearest sign of a very sick culture. It is masking a very real problem of a society that celebrates the rich while those rich systematically prey on the whole of society leeches. They claim to be helping society even while they damage our future to feed their hunger. The deeper physic wound is the feeling that everyone is so motivated leading to the broad-based lack of trust of your fellow man.
So where do I see this in work? The first thing is the incredibly short leash we are kept on and the pervasive micromanagement. We here words like “accountability” and “management assurance”, but its really “we don’t trust you at all”. Every single activity is burdened by oversight that acts to question and second-guess every decision and even the motivations behind them. Rather than everyone knowing what the larger aims, objective and goals and assuming that there is a broad based approach to solution, people assume that folks are out to waste and defraud. We impose huge costs in time; money and effort to assure that we don’t waste a dime or hour doing anything except what you are assigned to do. All of this oversight comes at a huge cost, and the expense of the oversight is actually the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The micromanagement is so deep that it kneecaps any and all ability to be agile and adaptive in how work is done. Plans have to be followed to a tee even when it is evident that the plans didn’t really match the reality that develops upon meeting the problem.
Suspicion ruins the atmosphere of trust in a team and makes it ineffective
― Sunday Adelaja
The micromanagement has even deeper impacts on the ability to combine, collaborate and envision broader perspectives. People’s work is closely scrutinized, planned and defined. Rather than engage in deep, broad perspectives in the nature of the work, people are encouraged if not implored to focus on the specific assignments to the exclusion of all else. I’ve seen such narrowness producing deeply pathological effects such as people seeing different projects they personally work on as being executed by a different people and incapable of expressing or articulating connections between the projects even when they are obvious. These impacts are crushing the level of quality in both the direct execution of the work and the development of people in the sense of having a deep, sustained career that builds toward personal growth.
In the overall execution of work another aspect of the current environment can be characterized as the proprietary attitude. Information hiding and lack of communication seem to be a growing problem even as the capacity for transmitting information grows. Various legal, or political concerns seem to outweigh the needs for efficiency, progress and transparency. Today people seem to know much less than they used to instead of more. People are narrower and more tactical in their work rather than broader and strategic. We are encouraged to simply mind our own business rather than seek a broader attitude. The thing that really suffers in all of this is the opportunity to make progress for a better future.
Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t waste energy trying to cover up failure. Learn from your failures and go on to the next challenge. It’s ok to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing.
— H. Stanley Judd
Milestones and reporting is an epitome of bad management and revolves completely around a lack of trust. Instead of being a tool for managing effort and lubricating the communication these tools are used to dumb down work, and assure low quality, low impact work as the standard of delivery. The reporting has to have marketing value instead of information and truth-value. It is used to sell the program and assure the image of achievement rather than provide an accurate picture of the status. Problems, challenges and issues tend to be soft-pedaled and deep sixed rather than discussed openly and deeply. Project planning in milestone are anchors against progress instead of aspirational goals. There is significant structure in the attitude toward goals that drives quality and progress away from objectives. This drive is the inability to accept failure as a necessary and positive aspect of the conduct of any work that is aggressive and progressive. Instead we are encouraged to always succeed and this encouragement means goals are defined to low and trivially achievable.
I’ve written before about preponderance of bullshit as a means of communicating work. Instead of honest and clear communication of information, we see communication of things that are constructed with the purpose of deceiving rewarded. Part of the issue is the inability for the system to accept failure, accept unexpected results as contributing to bullshit. Another matter that contributes to the amount of bullshit is the lack of expertise in the value system. True experts are not trusted, or simply viewed as having a hidden agenda. Notions of nuance that color almost anything an expert might tell you are simply not trusted. Instead we favor a simple and well-crafted narrative over the truth. It is much easier to craft fiction into a compelling message than a nuanced truth. Once this path is taken it is a quick trip to complete bullshit.
How do we fix any of this?
The simplest thing to do is value the truth, value excellence and cease rewarding the sort of trust-busting actions enumerated above. Instead of allowing slip-shod work to be reported as excellence we need to make strong value judgments about the quality of work, reward excellence, and punish incompetence. The truth and fact needs to be valued above lies and spin. Bad information needs to be identified as such and eradicated without mercy. Many greedy self-interested parties are strongly inclined to seed doubt and push lies and spin. The battle is for the nature of society. Do we want to live in a World of distrust and cynicism or one of truth and faith in one another? The balance today is firmly stuck at distrust and cynicism. The issue of excellence is rather pregnant. Today everyone is an expert, and no one is an expert with the general notion of expertise being highly suspected. The impact of such a milieu is absolutely damaging to the structure of society and the prospects for progress. We need to seed, reward and nurture excellence across society instead of doubting and demonizing it.
Of course deep within this value system is the concept of failure. Failure achieved while trying to do excellent good things must cease to be punished. Today failure is equivocated with fraud and is punished even when the objectives were good and laudable. This breeds all the bad things that are corroding society. Failure is absolutely essential for learning and the development of expertise. To be an expert is to have failed, and failed in the right way. If we want to progress societally, one needs to allow, even encourage failure. We have to stop the attempts to create a fail-safe system because fail-safe quickly becomes do nothing.
What do you do with a mistake: recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.
— Dean Smith
Ultimately we need to conscientiously drive for trust as a virtue in how we approach each other. A big part of trust is the need for truth in our communication. The sort of lying, spinning and bullshit in communication does nothing but undermine trust, and empower low quality work. We need to empower excellence through our actions rather than simply declare things to be excellent by definition and fiat. Failure is a necessary element in achievement and expertise. It must be encouraged. We should promote progress and quality as a necessary outcome across the broadest spectrum of work. Everything discussed above needs to be based in a definitive reality and have actual basis in facts instead of simply bullshitting about it, or it only having “truthiness”. Not being able to see the evidence of reality in claims of excellence and quality simply amplifies the problems with trust, and risks devolving into a viscous cycle dragging us down instead of a virtuous cycle that lifts us up.
If you are afraid of failure you don’t deserve to be successful!
— Charles Barkley
There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.
― Paulo Coelho