I am a new manager in a department that has a long history of being very guarded, political and untrusting. Much of this was due to the style of the previous manager.
In the time I’ve been here I’ve attempted to be more involving, open with information, and trustworthy in all I’ve done. When I attempt to draw people out they resist—telling me they are uncomfortable taking a risk. Some in the department have read Crucial Conversations, and I know they would appreciate that kind of environment. They just don’t seem to believe it’s possible.
How do you start over again when mistrust is so deeply ingrained?
Searching for a Clean Slate
Dear Clean Slate,
I love getting questions like this. I love it because your very question is evidence of your own ideals. You aspire to be a good leader. You aspire to create a nourishing environment. And there’s no one I’d rather help.
My premise in answering your question is that creating rampant mistrust isn’t a one-person job.
Now, I think it’s entirely possible that heinously evil leaders can sow fear and mistrust between themselves and their employees. I also believe a bad leader can behave in ways that foster mistrust between others. But for the mistrust between others to take root, those others must collude in the process. In other words, they must make choices to respond to the miserable leader’s actions in a way that is untrustworthy as well.
If what I’m suggesting here is true, then you should be aware that while the previous manager is gone, much of the problem remains—not just in the form of residual mistrust, but in the form of residual behaviors.
So that’s the problem we need to solve—not just a history, but a culture of mistrust. Your challenge is to influence not just the memories but the behavior of some of the people in your team.
Here are some suggestions I hope will help.
- Engage opinion leaders. One of the best ways to promote change in an organization is to spend disproportionate time with opinion leaders. These are the people who are most respected by others in your team. Find out who they are, listen to them, ask for their help, and try to establish mutual purpose with them in building trust in your organization. Find one who can serve as a coach to you and let you know when you’re doing things that might erode trust.
- Listen a lot. The foundation principle of crucial conversations is that when we’re stuck, it’s because we’re not holding the right conversation in the right way. If “mistrust” is where you’re stuck, start by talking about that. Create safe, small groups where you can listen to people about the culture of your team. Involve an opinion leader or two in this process. Ask if they would be willing to conduct the interviews with you. In the interviews, ask open-ended questions: “If you could change anything here what would it be?” As people begin to discuss problems related to mistrust, ask them about the causes. Ask questions not just about what others do, but also about how those you’re interviewing respond to these provocations. Then conclude by letting them know how important it is to you to improve in this area.
- Teach. Once you and your opinion leader colleagues have come to understand both the history of the mistrust and the behaviors that perpetuate it, go into a teaching mode. Share your findings with people. Do it in a way that acknowledges both the contributions of the previous leader—or your own contributions if you’ve made missteps—and the response of the people on the team. This will be a very crucial conversation—so be sure to use your best skills to make it safe. Don’t present this information on your own; ask for an opinion leader or two to present it with you. Don’t present the information in a way that looks self-serving (positioning you as the white knight and the previous manager as the villain). Humanize the previous manager without justifying bad behavior. Acknowledge that his or her motives might not be well understood.
- Commit. Try to end these teaching discussions with commitments. Ask people to help you generate a list of ground rules that they believe will help rebuild trust. The ground rules should deal both with how they will behave in the future as well as how you’ll behave as the manager. End the discussion by committing personally and unilaterally to the ground rules. Invite them to do the same.
- Continue teaching and talking. Finally, schedule follow-up sessions where you’ll ask for feedback about the ground rules. Ask for feedback (anonymously or personally) about how you’re doing. Ask people to rate how they believe they and the team are doing at their ground rules. Keep the air clear by ensuring crucial conversations like these are held regularly. Teach people how to hold crucial conversations about mistrust to avoid it festering in the future. One of the best ways you can inoculate against mistrust in the future will be to help people build their crucial conversations skills. We would urge you to become certified to train the course yourself. There is nothing more powerful than a leader who teaches positive skills like these in creating rapid and sustainable change.
You have my very best wishes in your vital quest. Trust truly is the force that moves the world. Anything you do that contributes will certainly change the world for the better.