Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What Are You Growing: Trust or Distrust?

The no trust problem of dysfunctional work cultures

A recent article described WaterSaver Faucet Company's decision to install a swipe card system that monitors employees' bathroom visits outside of scheduled lunch and break times. At this Chicago company, employees must limit extra bathroom times to six minutes a day or face disciplinary warnings. The reason? The company believes, according to its CEO, that "employees may be spending time on their phones in the bathrooms."

However, this decision isn't about bathroom time – it's about trust, or in this case, the lack of it. If you can't trust people who work for you to have responsible bathroom use, why are they working for you?

But whether it's bathroom monitoring or blocked internet access, watchful cameras or GPS tracking, monitoring software or spy-on-staff apps, the unspoken truth or at least its perception, is that there are a lot of bosses out there who don't trust employees to be responsible adults.

These approaches deliver the opposite of what leaders want. As research at the University of Zurich confirmed – trust begets trust and distrust increases untrustworthy behaviors. Yet, many leaders and organizations get it backwards, designing politics and procedures for the 10 percent who misbehave, instead of the 90 percent of professional, committed staff who don't.

Those seeds of distrust grow distrust weeds that morph into culture vines where monitoring the time someone spends in the bathroom is viewed as more important, than creating a culture where shared accountability is the norm. These are dysfunctional work cultures.

1. Do you have a policy manual for employees, but it doesn't apply to management? I'm not talking about different perks, but different rules. Is it a look-the-other-way approach if managers don't follow policy, but cause for disciplinary actions when employees don't? Those "us" versus "them" approaches create distrust.

2. Do you trust management, but not staff, to use internet access professionally, so certain employee levels receives access since "they" can be trusted? That, of course, implies to others they're not to be trusted.

3. Do you encourage people to "use their own good judgment" in solving customer issues, or must they seek approval for every action, with increasing bureaucracy that stifles their initiative? Whatever gets rewarded gets done, so consider that if you're not getting the actions you'd like, what behaviors are being rewarding.

4. Who gets promoted – someone operating with trust, thoughtful transparency, and behavioral integrity, or those who say one thing and do the other or use dark side politics to "win" no matter what it takes? People notice and follow suit.

5. Do you believe people generally want to do a good job, and will, given the right environment? Or, are you a leader who thinks most people need to be controlled, threatened and pushed in order to get results? Whichever it is, acting in accordance with your expectations enables those expectations to come true.

The reality is we contribute to many of the problems we face at work. As a leader, if you plant seeds of distrust, you get distrust; operate with trust and you'll grow trust.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. But there are dozens of things you can do today to enable trust and engagement in your work group, grow trust where you work, or start to transform a distrusting dysfunctional environment to a thriving one. Here are a few ways to start:

You'll find more trust building approaches in Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture That Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation (Career Press, 2014).