Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 16;   April 19, 2006: The High Cost of Low Trust: I

The High Cost of Low Trust: I

by

We usually think of Trust as one of those soft qualities that we would all like our organizational cultures to have. Yet, truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust really costs. Here are some of the ways we pay for low trust.
Acrobatics requires trust

George sat very still, withholding comment on what Trish had just said. She sipped her coffee and waited patiently for the idea to sink in. Trish knew that he would have difficulty accepting that the people in his organization didn't trust each other, and that they didn't trust him. And she knew that he wouldn't run away from the truth. So she waited.

George now sipped his coffee. He set the cup down, laced his fingers together, looked at his hands for a while, and sighed. Then he turned to Trish.

"I think I understand," he began. "People CC me on so many emails because they're trying to write a 'transcript' of their activities, so nobody can attack them later for not doing the job. Right?"

"Almost," said Trish. "Some expect you to defend them later, on the basis of the 'transcript.'"

"Right," said George, wincing because he'd forgotten that part.

Trish continued, "And some believe that since you saw the messages, you're now responsible, too, if they've made some bad calls."

"Right." George winced again. "And it doesn't matter that I get so many messages that I can't read them?"

"Right," said Trish. "It's a cultural problem. It's about Trust. But it's the same in International. It's no different in my patch."

Low-trust cultures have
lower productivity,
more defective products,
more rework and
more toxic politics
Trish and George are dealing with a common problem — a low-trust organizational culture. On the surface, things look OK, but the consequences of low trust include toxic politics, low productivity, lost sales, defective products, and still lower levels of trust.

Addressing the problem begins with understanding how people cope.

Preemptive defense
The preemptive defense, or "CYA," entails creating explanations or excuses intended to defuse any possible later attack from a colleague. Usually it takes a verbal form — a statement, a memo, or an email message — and serves no productive purpose.
The costs of preemptive defenses include not only the effort required to create them, but also the time and effort required to read or hear them. In meetings, the preemptive defense can be very expensive, wasting time for all who attend.
Preemptive attack
The preemptive attack is intended to head off perceived threats from those we distrust. By limiting their ability to harm, we hope to defend against whatever we fear.
This tactic leads to lower productivity for both the attacked and the attacker, and sometimes for bystanders, in two ways. Through the distraction and harm it causes, it interferes with getting work done. And attacks can actually disable those attacked, limiting their ability to exercise influence, even for legitimate purposes.

These are just two coping strategies for low-trust environments. We'll look at some more coping strategies next time. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: The High Cost of Low Trust: II  Next Issue

For more about Trust, see "Creating Trust," Point Lookout for January 21, 2009, "TINOs: Teams in Name Only," Point Lookout for March 19, 2008, and "Express Your Appreciation and Trust," Point Lookout for January 16, 2002.

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