Fostering Mutual Trust with Your Employees, Part 2

The cycle of distrust

In their book Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace, Dennis S. and Michelle L. Reina describe how distrust develops. They call it the “cycle of distrust,” defined as “a combination of negative assumptions and self-protective behavior [that occurs] in a self-reinforcing pattern that repeatedly traps both managers and employees.” Following is an example of how the pattern can occur:

1. Action observed. First, you notice a negative action. For example, you realize that one staff member is always late to the weekly staff meeting.

2. Assumption made. You make an assumption from the action, such as deciding that the staffer is indifferent, uncommitted and insubordinate.

3. Protective action taken. After the assumption, you take steps to protect yourself from future negative action. You send out a memo stating, “Tardiness at staff meetings will not be tolerated! ” The angry tone is a reflection of the anger you feel when you think about the staff member’s attitude.

4. Action observed by the staffer. The staff member notices your action. The tardy individual knows the memo was directed at him, and so does everyone else. He is embarrassed and humiliated.

5. Assumption made by the staffer. The staff member makes his own assumptions about you. The individual decides that you don’t value him as a human being, and you don’t care about the special circumstances that made him late. You are perceived as a controlling, thoughtless jerk on a power trip.

6. Staffer’s protective action. The staff member then takes action. He writes a memo, dripping with sarcasm, demanding to know exactly how many minutes late might be acceptable, and under what kind of a circumstance. He suggests “death of employee” and “hostage situation” as possibilities. He also decides to do exactly what you ask, but nothing additional. After all, you don’t care about him as a person, so he reasons, “Why should I knock myself out for that jerk?”

7. Reinforced assumptions made. Your assumption then seems validated. You, noting the staffer’s lack of initiative and general surly attitude, decide that you were right about him all along. Unfortunately, many of your employees, after reading their co-worker’s memo, decide he’s right about you, and wonder what they’re doing working for a jerk.

Once trust is betrayed, re-establishing it is like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube. Ironically, it can be the best staff members — the ones you feel are the most committed and have the desire to do their best work — who feel most betrayed when employers embarrass them, treat them badly or don’t do what they say they are going to do.

The vibrant economy has created a seller’s market when it comes to the services of quality people. Many employees see themselves as free agents who don’t really work for anyone but themselves. While many people may view this initiative, entrepreneurial spirit and desire for opportunity as positive, the downside is obvious to employers.

But some employers behave as if they are trying to prove the expression, “No good deed goes unpunished,” and then wonder why employees aren’t loyal or commited.

When there is a lack of trust in the workplace, employees can’t escape fast enough, and employers are left searching for trustworthy employees.

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