THE COMING CRISIS OF TRUST

by Stephen Redden

As we pass the one-year mark since the beginning of the pandemic, there are so many shifts and changes that have happened in all our lives. Perhaps the biggest change in the area of our daily work is the shift to remote or flexible work (no, they are not the same thing). Working from home is certainly not new, but in the last year, even the most stalwart adherents to required in-office work have been forced to find ways to adapt. This has led many to proclaim that remote work is (mostly) here to stay, even after the pandemic has receded and we return to some form of what life was like before. While most business leaders are focused on the hard costs and benefits of remote work or flexible work, there is a cultural tension at work beneath the surface of every organization that threatens the long-term success of our new paradigms of decentralized work. The tension is whether we can choose to trust our employees and coworkers to deliver on their commitments or whether we choose to be suspicious.

Working from home is certainly not new, but in the last year, even the most stalwart adherents to required in-office work have been forced to find ways to adapt.

I had a manager who introduced me to this principle many years ago, and it’s stuck with me ever since. In any organization, regardless of industry, there will be times when an unexplainable “gap” emerges between what we expect to happen and what actually happens. In those moments we all have to choose whether we insert trust or suspicion in that gap. We’ve all been there. You’re working on a project, and your supervisor asks you for something that an employee or colleague was supposed to deliver. Or you’re giving a presentation to a client when you realize that there’s important information missing that you’re almost certain you asked a teammate to include. In that moment, something is missing. There’s a gap between your expectations and what happened. And you have to make a decision whether you fill the gap with trust or suspicion. When we choose to trust – to think the best and publicly affirm or defend our coworkers and employees – we foster trust. When we fail to think the best of our coworkers or employees and instead question or deride them publicly, we choose suspicion.

When we choose to trust – to think the best and publicly affirm or defend our coworkers and employees – we foster trust. When we fail to think the best of our coworkers or employees and instead question or deride them publicly, we choose suspicion.

Over time, what members of any organization choose (both through personal choices and the systems put in place) will determine whether a culture of trust or suspicion is cultivated within the organization. Fostering a culture of trust requires members of an organization to commit to choosing to trust one another and to be trustworthy. Which means when a gap appears between what we expect to happen and what actually happens, we will insert trust publicly, and then we will come to our coworker directly, privately to find out what happened. Public loyalty leads to private influence and over time, develops a culture of trust in the organization.

Early indications are that these new shifts to more people working from home are quietly eroding trust in organizations. This erosion of trust isn’t just between leaders and their employees; it’s happening among and between the employees of organizations. Fewer in-person interactions mean we have fewer opportunities to build relational trust and less opportunity to observe the trustworthy behaviors of our colleagues day to day. In this new environment of work, leaders and employees need to recognize that trust is bi-directional and reciprocal. The more we choose to trust and exhibit trustworthiness, the more trust grows in our organizations. Which has a myriad of benefits beyond facilitating a decentralized workforce. And without trust, we’ll all be looking back in a few months or years wondering why we ever thought decentralized work was a good idea when it was possible to return to in-office work.