How to address the distrust gap and stem business losses

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We hear it everywhere. People do not seem to trust large institutions, their leaders, or often others at work. The distrust gap is very significant, and its costs are significant. If there is distrust, we can lose customers. Or if our executive team members don’t trust each other, they may be seriously misaligned on strategy. Or if our workforce distrusts leadership, there can be a loss of productivity, quality, and/or cost effectiveness. The costs are real, and if the distrust gap is not addressed as a core leadership challenge, business performance suffers.

What is this gap? One way of thinking about it is that it is the difference between our expected levels of trust of others, and the behavior we actually experience of them, or that they experience of us. It is palpable in our work relationships and has a bottom line quantitative value.

The real question then is how can we address this gap?

Put the issue on the table: Distrust is usually the elephant in the room. It will take leadership courage to put it on the table in a way that is non-blaming and can actually lead to solutions. Denial, however, or sweeping it under the rug merely widens the gap.

Seek workforce input on the dimensions of trust: Quantitative data can be generated from the workforce that will enable leadership to have a serious dialogue about the subject.

Start at the senior team level: Building high levels of trust starts at the top. If leadership can walk the talk, then trust levels will be strengthened across the board. If leaders constantly differ with each other from their silos, then the distrust gap widens.

Common rules of engagement: A lot of distrust is generated because leaders play by different sets of rules. Having a common playbook, like how to make strategic decisions, that all leaders use, reduces the distrust gap.

Feedback is essential: Creating an ongoing, objective feedback loop, among leaders on the senior team, with direct reports, and with the workforce, provides a self-correcting mechanism that increases the possibility the gap will shrink.

We can ignore the distrust gap and it can easily widen. Or we can consciously choose to deal with it on an ongoing basis, for it is a journey and not a destination, an ongoing process and not an event. It’s a journey worth exploring.

Edward M. Marshall is a senior partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C. He can be reached at marshalle@ccl.org, or 919-265-9616.