Restoring Trust in a Toxic Environment
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Several years ago, I made a career move that seemed great at first but very quickly turned into one of the most challenging professional experiences of my life. I found myself leading a manufacturing plant which had produced fairly decent results when I got there, but within a few months the house of cards began to crumble to the ground following the plant being acquired by more ambitious owners who were quickly increasing demand and complexity. The old style of management that had kept things together was no longer sufficient in the new environment. Soon, we were delivering the worst results in the company. The only thing worse than our results was our morale, which had been very unhealthy for quite some time, but undetectable to the naked eye.
Following a series of unsuccessful interventions, it was clear to me that the main issue was the absence of trust in leadership, collaboration among team members, and empowerment for the experts in the plant to do what they did best rather than take their orders from a central authority. We eventually went on to not only deliver the best results in the company, but to be recognized externally for our culture and industry benchmark results.
This post is intended to answer the question I get asked often when I tell this story and that is, “How did you go about restoring trust in a toxic environment like that?” I assure you, it felt like one step forward two steps back pretty much during our entire journey and I was always wondering if we were making any real progress.
Having the benefit of hindsight, I can now say that what ended up turning the tides to our favor were the small gestures that showed a few people at a time that leadership was serious about earning their trust, and expecting them to collaborate with their counterparts and peers. In the end we ended up with a team of empowered individuals who brought their best to work and could effectively work through their day-to-day challenges together.
I believe the declarations were important, but they would have gotten us nowhere if they hadn’t been backed with subtle signs showing people that we meant what we said. We established a two part vision for the plant. The first part was to be The Showcase of Excellence, meaning we would deliver extraordinary results, and the second was to become The Cradle of Prosperity, which meant that our workplace would become a source of inspiration for employees, rather than a source of frustration and agony.
Realizing that words were not going to erase the effects of years of behaviors that had gotten us to that point, I often reminded our teams that I didn’t expect them to trust what I said because I realized that whether I was a trustworthy person or not, I would say those things anyway. I asked them for one thing only and that was to put me to the test and give me a chance to prove, with my actions, that I deserved their trust.
I don’t want to pretend that I was this enlightened leader. Believe me, for a good part of our journey, I was secretly resentful of my bosses for not supporting my efforts to address the cultural issues. I blamed the employees for not trusting me after all I had done to earn their trust. I had most certainly contemplated leaving and putting all that mess behind me, but then there came a time when I realized I was responsible! I thought of all the people that I didn’t trust and how I attributed that to something they had done or not done to prove themselves not to be trustworthy, and I understood that the burden of proving myself trustworthy rested on my shoulders, not anyone else’s. That was a huge turning point.
I believe in any situation, no matter how toxic, the leader can initiate a shift in the level of trust by taking full responsibility, making declarations, and initiating a few visible changes that get people’s attention. Then putting the majority of his/her effort on looking for subtle ways in which he/she and other members of the leadership team can move the organization toward the tipping point where those who withhold trust are a vanishing minority. I don’t want to let others who are not in leadership roles off the hook as we all share the responsibility to do what we can wherever we are, but I do want to underscore the crucial role of the leader.
A few of the subtle signals that I can think of that made a difference for us were as follows: (Stories are true but names have been changed)
- Johnny who was responsible for maintaining all utilities equipment was only authorized to sign off something like $250 worth of purchase orders, which meant he needed my approval for 95% of the items he ordered. So I told him all he had to do was to tell me to sign a P.O. up to my level of authorization, which was thousands of dollars and I would do it without any explanation. I was still accountable, but I demonstrated trust in his capability and judgment. He initially had a tough time with that, but eventually embraced his new level of stewardship and told me how much he appreciated that many years later.
- Ted was a solid employee who had developed an attendance problem and found himself one step away from termination in our progressive discipline system. One day, while we were discussing why he was late again, I discovered that he and his wife had separated and he was trying to figure out how to deal with a significant marital issue. I coached him on how to deal with the situation and gave him the rest of the day off with pay and no punitive action to go home and start the process of reconciliation. I am happy to report that Ted was able to restore his marriage and his performance, and he couldn’t believe we didn’t just fire him.
- We installed TV’s in the cafeterias with 500+ channels in spite of all the advice I got from people who were sure that people on night shift would just lounge around in the cafeteria and watch TV. I believed we had to extend trust to earn trust and it worked out just fine.
- To prove that we were truly interested in nurturing the whole person, my wife and I routinely facilitated and taught financial planning classes, wellness classes, and held 1-1 coaching sessions for employees and their family members who were struggling with their finances, relationships, or physical health.
I don’t tell you this to brag about what I did. I genuinely felt that it was my responsibility as a servant leader to do these things. My point is that no matter how tough your situation is, you can find opportunities to restore trust if you have a genuine interest to do so and you are willing to hang in there.
I am also often asked at what point I knew we had restored trust, and truth is that I never got to the point where I felt we were at the finish line, but I can certainly think of gratifying experiences that told me we had made a ton of progress. One of these such moments was when one of our operators who was getting off first shift came in to my office, closed the door, and told me that was talking the talk but not walking the walk. He then proceeded to explain where I had dropped the ball on delegating something but not following through to make sure it was being handled properly. He put me to work for the next few days cleaning up that mess and then looked me up to tell me I was on the right track. It was abundantly clear to me that that would have never happened in the early days of our journey. It was a signal that were indeed on the right path.
What opportunities do you see at your workplace to extend trust and demonstrate, with your actions, that you are willing to go first and break the cycle of mistrust?
The Bottom Line:
In any workplace culture, no matter how toxic, it is possible to restore trust as long as the leader takes full responsibility, make clear declarations, and more importantly look for and seize the opportunities to demonstrate in subtle ways that he/she is fully committed to creating an environment of empowerment and engagement.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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