How to Survive a Low Trust Culture – Part 1 – LogiSYM March 2019

Typically, leaders ask me “I trust my team, but I don’t trust management at large or even the culture.  How can I build trust in a low trust company?”  It’s a good question that can be difficult for an individual to overcome without the right strategies.

Some people solve the problem by resigning and going elsewhere.  Others choose to hold onto their job, tolerating the toxic behaviours around them and becoming part of the problem.  While others resort to complaining about everything and railing against the system.

If this is you, it’s time to decide which is more powerful – shouting at the system or changing it from the inside?

Complaining about the culture only takes your power away and makes you miserable (and attracts negative, drama-loving people around you to boot.  Misery loves company).   It’s also exhausting.  If you want to be part of the solution, it’s time to step up and think strategically about what you can do.  If you’re in some type of leadership role, this is much easier to accomplish.

Believe it or not, you are actually in a wonderful learning environment that can teach you many powerful leadership lessons.  As in – what not to do as a leader.   Some of the worst leaders I had to work with at the start of my career were very good teachers in demonstrating how not to behave.

The goods news is that lots of successful people have experienced toxic leaders and cultures.   In fact, many of them will say it was the secret to their success.  It all starts with being the leader you want leadership to be.   In fact, being yourself and modelling the right trust behaviours that are important to you is critical.

So if you want to take your power back and empower those around you, it’s up to you to demonstrate to others what a high trust leader looks like.  In fact, you want to get so good at this that people ask, ” What’s their secret?  Why does everyone want to work with them and why does their team do such good work and seem so happy?”

You can only work with what you can control.  The truth is you can’t change other people.  You can’t tell your boss he’s a jerk and expect him to agree and promise to change his ways.  Nor can you say that to the CEO or management team.  The only way to champion high trust is to lead by example and deliver great results.  Once you demonstrate that you can reliably deliver excellent results because of how you interact with others, it gives you a much stronger platform to influence other leaders to change.


Here are the first four of eight essential techniques to build trust in your team in a low trust company.


1. Know Thyself and Be Congruent

 “Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he says…a leader’s actions and a leader’s professed beliefs must be congruent, or at least compatible.”  Peter Drucker

 First of all, know who you are and what’s important to you.  What sort of leader are you?  Are you for the people or against the people?  Are you for individual or group results?  If you want to be a high-trust leader that models the way for others, you have to be for the people and ready to promote group results (sorry for anyone who thought they had a choice there)!

If you’re like most of the well-meaning leaders I know who want to make a difference, but who are frustrated with some of the leadership behaviours playing out around them, it’s most likely you don’t trust leaders at your firm because they say one thing and do another.  One of the most powerful human drivers is to live in alignment with who we believe are and whom we want to be.  When our words and actions don’t match, it creates an integrity gap.  People don’t trust us.  In fact, the bigger the gap the more likely people around you will act in ways that go against what you’re trying to achieve.

The reason why matching our words and deeds is so critical is because we subconsciously process whether we can trust people in the part of the brain that has no capacity for language.  We don’t trust people by what they say, but how they make us feel.

Make sure you always do what you say you’re going to do.   No excuses.  Return phone calls and emails.  Deliver work on time and at a high standard.  Greet your teammates every morning, not just on Fridays.   This builds authenticity because people see that your energy matches your intention.  People need to be able to read you and see consistency in your behaviours, to feel comfortable around you.

In fact, research by Duncan Watts at the University of Columbia found that email response time is the single best predictor of whether employees are satisfied with their boss.  The longer it takes for a leader to respond to their emails, the less satisfied people are with their boss.


2. Foster Candour

In a fear-based culture, you won’t know really know what’s going on.  Fear drives things underground.  Your team members and peers will be holding back from expressing their views, suggestions and flagging potential issues because the environment seems too risky.

Do what you can to create a psychologically safe space to enable others to know they can be themselves around you and won’t be punished if they make a mistake.   In a low trust environment, high performers want to be able to speak up and they want leaders who can help them do that.  Things that you can do are:

  • Encourage people to challenge you.  Be open to hearing feedback both good and bad.  Avoid jumping to conclusions about what the person is saying and don’t judge or blame.
  • Be transparent with information. Openly share information (except for confidential matters).   Regularly communicate, where the business stands, why work matters what’s coming up next, and how you plan to get everyone there.  Be honest about the financials.
  • Acknowledge when you don’t know something and ask for help.  Confess when you’ve messed up.  Admit when there is uncertainty and that you don’t know how you and the team will solve tricky issues, but let people know you are certain that as a team you’ll work it out together using everyone’s know-how and voices.
  • Importantly, congratulate people when they talk about the difficult stuff. 
  • Ask Great Questions and Be an Active Listener

“The minute we begin to think we have all the answers, we forget the questions.” Madeleine L’Engle

 High trust leaders lead by asking questions.   Empower those around you to think for themselves and solve problems.   Modelling curiosity encourages others to think more, rather than react.

This also ensures that you break through the fog and avoid making hasty assumptions.  A lot of people talk using vague phrases and generalisations (eg: “None of our customers like the higher price.”)  High trust leaders are attuned to fluff and vague corporate speak.


3. Ask questions that gain specificity and improve accountability.

Do this by avoiding using why questions that sound like you are making the other person wrong.  Instead, ask outcome-based questions (what or how) that focus on results such as:

“What specifically do you mean by that?”

“What would you do if you were in my role?”

Then, keep quiet.  Really listening to employees shows that you are present and focused. This demonstrates that you care more than any words can alone.  It gets you out of your head, so you’re more able to help people and understand what is going on.  It encourages you to live in reality.  Great leaders know that really important information surfaces when they keep quiet.  It is when transformation occurs.


4. Build in Accountability

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmonson, who coined the term psychological safety, discovered that psychological safety and accountability interact to produce a high-performing team when there is uncertainty and interdependence.  Asking questions, fostering team discussions and holding employees accountable for excellence fall into the “learning zone,” or the high-performance zone.

In fact, Edmonson discovered that high-performing teams seem to make more mistakes.  But what she found was that they were more likely to report errors and fix them.

On contrary, leaders who only hold their employees accountable for excellence, but fail to foster psychological safety fall into the “anxiety zone”.  Needless, to say this isn’t good for people’s mental health, let alone team performance.

While leaders who only create psychological safety without holding employees accountable for excellence stagnate in the “comfort zone.”  Comfort breeds complacency and poor employee engagement.  People perform better and enjoy life more when they’re constantly challenged.

To encourage your direct reports to be accountable means you need to be accountable.

Improving accountability means having clear consequences for poor performers.  Hold people accountable when they drop the ball.

Demonstrate accountability by putting in processes to:

  • evaluate every project (what was good/bad, what can be improved),
  • track weekly results/deadlines/accountabilities, and
  • articulate clear action steps at the end of each meeting.

Combining psychological safety and accountability is critical for teams to achieve their full potential.  Make sure you do both.


Find out the next four essential elements to building trust in a low trust culture, in Part 2 that will be published in the next issue of LogiSYM Magazine.Marie-Claire Ross
Chief Corporate Catalyst at Trustologie

Marie-Claire Ross is the chief corporate catalyst at Trustologie.  She is a workplace sociologist, author and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to empower employees to speak up about issues, challenge each other and share information.  If you want to find out more about building trust, download the free

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