I have several times written about trust in business, government, and families because I believe we have made it disposable or temporary at best. In the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, they cite the top 10 issues facing the workplace today, and many of the issues discussed here are embedded in their list. Employees are looking for a change and are willing to wait until they see definitive action.
Destroying trust at work can lead to a toxic environment, lower productivity, and, ultimately, the downfall of an organization. Trust is the foundation of any successful society, team, or society, and once it’s broken, it’s challenging to rebuild.
We will break this topic into two articles, the first dealing with ways to destroy trust in the workplace and the second dealing with ways to build trust. Remember that this list is not exhaustive. It will be a discussion starter with your management team and stakeholders.
Here are ten ways that trust can be inadvertently or deliberately destroyed in a workplace setting:
1. Lack of Transparency
When management or team members withhold information, are unclear about company goals, or are secretive about decision-making processes, it creates suspicion and uncertainty. Trust is a two-way street, so if the communication is that employees don’t need to know anything about the business, they will tend to have reduced trust in leadership. Lack of transparency can signal to employees that there are things they should be worried about or are not valued enough to be kept informed.
2. Gossip and Office Politics
Gossiping about colleagues or engaging in office politics erodes trust quickly. It creates an environment where people feel they have to watch their backs instead of working collaboratively towards a common goal. The implication of unbridled gossip and office politics is that only some people are worthy of trust and others are not, so the whole organization winds up being divided or siloed depending on how destructive the gossip is. This is probably the most demonstrated malay in business today, especially when gender, race, or politics are allowed to permeate the culture.
Being inconsistent in policies, expectations, or behavior can lead to mistrust. When employees can’t predict how their leaders will react or what rules will be enforced, it undermines confidence in their management. Employees today want more positive actions and less talk in the workplace. The addition of extending the firm into the local community and society, in general, has risen to the top very quickly. Suppose a leadership team does not operate based on the published values, vision, or ethics. In that case, there will be a severe disconnect between all stakeholders depending on the level of interface within the company.
4. Unfair Treatment
Favoritism, unequal opportunities, or inconsistent application of rules can all contribute to a feeling of unfair treatment. When employees feel that they or their colleagues are not treated fairly, trust in the leadership and the organization can rapidly deteriorate. While this is similar to Inconsistency above, it is much more specific. Having worked with several large companies, I always fought categorizing employees into A, B, C, and D because it was demeaning and artificial, especially when told that 10% of the employees must be in the D category. This does not require a leader. A trained line worker can enforce this type of destructive management. If a leadership team lacks the creative intellect to handle the employees and career planning, they should not be in leadership positions.
5. Failure to Follow Through
Making promises and not keeping them is one of the quickest ways to break trust. Whether failing to uphold commitments, missing deadlines, or not providing the promised support, these actions signal unreliability. If your company is struggling in a tough market or economy, this is not the issue you want employees exposed to at any level. My experience has been that when leaders consistently follow through, there is a good chance the team will help weather the storm.
6. Poor Communication
Miscommunications, lack of clarity, and failure to provide feedback can all damage trust. Good communication is critical to understanding and alignment within a team; misunderstandings and conflict can thrive without it. Included in good communication is listening. Too often, workers anticipate what the leader wants to hear, so they avoid giving honest, possibly negative feedback that can improve the organization. Have demonstrated this to various leaders in the last 50 years. In some cases, they made the necessary changes; in others, they ignored it, resulting in conflicts and turmoil. All stakeholders must be empowered to point out what is going right and willing to help out what is going wrong.
7. Breaching Confidentiality
Sharing someone’s private information without their consent violates trust. In a workplace, respecting confidentiality shows that you value your colleagues and the integrity of the business. I’m sorry, but this is the basis of RESPECT 101. If this is going on at any level, then there needs to be changes taking place.
8. Not Valuing Employees
Failing to appreciate employees’ contributions, not recognizing their hard work, or neglecting their well-being can make employees feel undervalued. This often results in a lack of trust in the organization’s commitment to its workforce.
How many times can you continue to ask any employee to take one for the team by putting in more than 40 hours per week, cancel a vacation because of a deadline, or even duck out on family events because of work? The fact is that this is changing. GenZ workers are leading the charge in redefining work in their companies. They desire work-life balance and boundaries, help with career development, and openness to new processes and technologies to improve the workload. This will spread to other generations.
Micromanaging signals employees a lack of trust in their ability to do their jobs. It may be disguised as a quality issue or risk mitigation, but that is only the cover story. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where employees become less engaged and motivated, further degrading trust.
Most leaders pay employees to be experts or at least proficient in their current roles. Still, when they micromanage, those same employees will sit back and wait for the leaders to make the decisions, sometimes do the work, or possibly go renegade and create an internal black ops group.
10. Handling Mistakes Poorly
Have always been taught that if you are not making mistakes, you are missing out on a tremendous amount of learning. Everyone makes mistakes, but how they are dealt with can build or destroy trust. Blaming, shaming, or punishing mistakes instead of treating them as learning opportunities can foster fear and distrust among employees.
Finally, building and maintaining trust requires ongoing effort and commitment from everyone in an organization. It’s about creating a culture where transparency, fairness, communication, and respect are part of the everyday fabric of working life. By avoiding these ten pitfalls, organizations can work towards fostering a trusting and productive work environment, which translates to a more profitable and sustainable company.