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ATD 2019: We have a trust crisis

Trust isn't just a human good -- it's a business necessity. And yet in so many ways we're failing right now.

7 min read



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“Trust is based on perceptions that are formed by behaviors.” ~ Randy Conley

At this week’s ATD 2019 conference in Washington, D.C., you expect to hear a lot about methodologies and theories, about Net Promoter Score and the Kirkpatrick model, and about software and systems. Those are valuable discussions!

But underneath all of that, you have humans. No matter what systems, frameworks and metrics you have, they all depend on people participating, having good intentions, being invested and bringing their full selves (and a little luck). But you can’t participate fully at work, or anywhere else, if you don’t have trust.

And on Wednesday, I heard from two speakers who talked about trust — and the unfortunate lack of it in many workplaces and manager-report relationships. First was Randy Conley of the Ken Blanchard Companies, who’s so involved with trust that it’s part of his official work title. Second, I heard from Ronna Detrick of Fierce Inc., where she is senior vice president of learning.

How does trust, or a lack thereof, harm work? You can probably think of a few ways. But there’s also data. Here are a few facts from Conley:

  • Half of workers who distrust senior leaders are thinking about changing jobs.
  • The quit rate reached its highest point since 2001 (in July 2018, and that’s stayed steady since).
  • 20% of people are thinking of leaving within 2 years, and 20% expect to be gone within half a decade.
  • From a Forbes study: 82% of people don’t trust their boss to tell the truth
  • Lack of trust increases stress among employees.

Combine a lack of trust in senior leaders with a tight job market and a need to fill vacancies, and it’s suddenly crystal clear how much of a business problem a lack of trust can be.

On the other hand, what if there is high trust?

  • High-trust organizations, Conley noted, have been found to have half the turnover of other organizations.
  • Efficiency and productivity increase, while costs go down, especially with regards to turnover.

Managers are the key — and the problem

What’s worse is that this trust problem is not something more abstract, like “Work’s great, but I’m not sure about my boss’ boss’ boss.” Of all the trust areas, maybe the most important is the employee’s relationship with the manager — and that’s one that’s greatly suffering.

It’s not a small group of disgruntled employees, either. As Conley noted, 45% said say the biggest impediment to their performance is a lack of trust in their managers. Two in five employees are feeling burned out and considering leaving, according to Randstad U.S. — and poor manager relationships are a key factor.

Need to hear this argument in terms of internal data? Gallup suggests, as Conley said, that “managers account for 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores.”

Quote by Ronna Detrick, Fierce Inc.

Nice doesn’t always equate to trust

Workplaces that suffer from a trust deficit aren’t necessarily places full of backstabbing, shouting and overt intimidation.

Many of us in Detrick’s session recognized what she meant by a “culture of nice,” whether it described whole organizations or just teams or individuals. It’s a form of “nice” that’s gone too far, where important questions, clarifications, improvements and disagreement are discouraged because it’s better to “play nice.”

An excess of nice leads to a culture, she said, that can be described with the word derived from the Papuans: “Mokita” — that which everyone knows and no one speaks of.

Too much “nice” or caring, even when it comes from a good place, can also lead to, according to Detrick:

  • “An avoidance of conflict, or a resistance to provide timely feedback when a co-worker, or a direct report, is underperforming,” she said. Over time, this can lower standards and drive away talented co-workers forced to pick up after their colleagues.
  • Underpeformers think they’re doing great. This is mistaken — but understandable — because they’ve never heard otherwise.
  • Easy to work with’ can translate into this plight of ‘never saying no” lest you look like a bad teammate, Detrick said.
  • Apathy can result when people feel they cannot safely have necessary conversations and thus withdraw. Stress and anxiety are also possible.
  • Turnover costs money and time and can derail projects and initiatives.

What can YOU do?

There’s no easy solution to this depressing list of adverse effects, but Detrick offered a pathway that starts with acknowledging our mindset and how we approach the situation. It’s less about “we” and more about “you,” she said.

Start with “you” rather than blaming the “culture,” which you cannot change all on your own. “You’re the culture,” Detrick said. “You, individually, are shaping and creating the culture — by the conversations you have, and by the ones that you don’t have.”

We also have to start with ourselves for two reasons:

  1. We’re probably avoiding conversations or not thinking through them enough.
  2. We all have our own “context filter” that encourages us to accept reinforcing information and reject that which doesn’t agree with our perceptions. We also invent our own stories instead of asking for feedback. As Rose Krivich wrote for Fierce this year: “We also make the mistake of assuming that if someone has feedback for us, they’ll give it to us without being asked.”

Conley also had a framework — the ABCD trust model — and that also involved looking at yourself before trying to assess others or the organization. During his session, we had to evaluate ourselves on three areas for each of the four letters (Able, Believable, Connected, Dependable). This evaluation took all of five minutes and involved nothing more than assigning myself values of 1 to 5. Yet, I learned quickly where I need to get better, at least in a broad sense.

You can take a lot of paths toward assessing trust levels, diagnosing problems and sorting out soluations, and you can do this for yourself, for organizations big and small, and in your personal life. I’m not here to endorse any one way. But whatever you do, notice the commonalities from just my short summation of Conley and Detrick’s talks:

  • Building trust requires openness, communication and meeting others literally and figuratively. We can’t do that if we’re avoiding conversations.
  • If we want to change cultures, organizations, teams or people, we need to look at ourselves first.
  • Unless we know ourselves and bring our real selves to our interactions, we’re unlikely to win over others. As Conley said, “walk the talk” is another key component of trust.
  • We can’t lump in our experiences, or those of our teams, with that of the “organization.” Organizational cultures are not monoliths. As “Connection Culture” author (and SmartBrief contributor) Michael Lee Stallard told me four years ago: “”Recognize that the most important culture is the local subculture, the people you interact with day in and day out.”

Don’t forget: Trust doesn’t need a business case

Whether it’s training, learning and development or HR, everyone has to show these days why they matter to the business. And most workplaces, if not all, are better with trust. But while Randy and Ronna offered data and real-life examples to show why businesses should promote trust-building, the secret to their presentations wasn’t, “Hey, trust is a financial instrument!”

Trust between people, especially when there is a power imbalance, improves our lives, our relationships and our society. And that should help business. But it’s not business justifying trust. Trust has pre-existing and inherent value. We have to start by believing in trust as an a priori good. Only then can we seek to build fruitful and fulfilling relationships capable of withstanding challenges, tensions and even mistakes.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content. Sign up for SmartBrief on Workforce and our newsletter for HR executives. Contact daSilva at @James_daSilva or by email.