As an interim manager, I frequently encountered organizations with a pervasive culture of distrust. At first glance, everything appears to be in order. Employees’ stories sound positive – perhaps a little too optimistic – but the work environment did not feel welcoming. In these situations, I’ve found that it’s critical to listen and observe carefully. Are there characteristics of mistrust?
Mistrust and fear
The characteristics of mistrust can rapidly evolve into a toxic culture of fear, leading to detrimental consequences. It is important to note that there is a significant distinction between mistrust and fear. Mistrust arises from a feeling of helplessness, whereas fear is the product of power abuse.
Once mistrust takes root, it traps the leader and their team in a vicious cycle. Often, the leader implements various tools purportedly for quality control within the company or department. However, instead of improving service quality, these tools are used to scrutinize employee performance.
In their attempt to regain a sense of control, the leader unintentionally undermines the trust of their team, exacerbating the existing mistrust.
10 Characteristics of mistrust at work
1. Lack of engagement
The lack of engagement of employees can have significant consequences on the productivity and success of a company. When employees are not engaged, they are less likely to be invested in their work and are more likely to disengage from their responsibilities. This can result in lower quality work, missed deadlines, and decreased morale. In addition, disengaged employees may also have a negative impact on their colleagues, creating a toxic work environment.
2. Employees only share positive stories
Sharing only positive stories are one of the characteristics of mistrust.
It is a matter of concern when employees refrain from sharing their honest thoughts and experiences with their managers or colleagues, limiting themselves to positive stories only. This behavior is a clear indication of a deeper issue within the organization, where individuals feel discouraged to express their opinions or vulnerabilities.
In a culture of mistrust, individuals tend to tell others what they think they want to hear, instead of offering honest feedback. This lack of transparency and authenticity stifles healthy communication, as people in team meetings are no longer self-reflective, but rather offer responses that align with the expectations of their superiors.
A committed employee understands the importance of providing constructive criticism to improve the organization or department. However, in an environment where mistrust prevails, even well-intentioned criticism can be viewed with suspicion. Critical employees may be perceived as disloyal and not supportive of the organization’s goals.
3. Emails with cc to the supervisor
It is concerning to encounter supervisors who demand to be included in every email, even finding it pleasing as it allows them to closely monitor team activities. This behavior displays an excessive need for control, which can create an environment of mistrust and discomfort for team members. Unfortunately, this culture of control often leads employees to cover their tracks, and the content of such emails may be questionable.
Moreover, this habit has an unintended effect on the employees who receive these emails, as they may feel insecure and doubtful about the purpose of the email. This feeling of uncertainty is particularly concerning since it can create a barrier to open communication and collaboration among team members.
In 2017, Professor De Cremer conducted research on this issue and found that such practices erode trust and harm teamwork. (Source).
4. Asking for permission for everything
One of the characteristics of mistrust is that employers will not do anything without authorization. This can create a bottleneck in productivity, where employees may be waiting for approval for tasks that they could have completed on their own. Additionally, this behavior can lead to frustration and disengagement among employees, who may feel micromanaged or undervalued.
In many cases, permission may not even be necessary, and employees can use their judgment to make informed decisions that align with the organization’s goals. In such cases, a supervisor may be satisfied with being informed of the decision, rather than being asked for permission.
5 Little or no participation during meetings
A team or department where mistrust is present may prioritize safety above all else. The fear of negative consequences, such as punishment or blame, may cause employees to avoid taking risks or making decisions that may result in failure. This can lead to an unwillingness to try new approaches or share innovative ideas during team meetings, resulting in missed opportunities for growth and development.
When employees do not feel safe to express their thoughts and opinions, it can also create an atmosphere of stagnation and lack of progress. As a result, team members may become disengaged or demotivated, further exacerbating the problem of mistrust.
6. Yes-men and no-doers
Yes-men and no-doers are two types of behavior that are often associated with a culture of mistrust. A yes-man is a person who always agrees with what their supervisor or colleagues say, regardless of their own opinions or beliefs. They may do this to avoid conflict or to curry favor with their superiors, even if it means compromising their values or the quality of their work. This behavior can create an echo chamber where ideas are not challenged, and critical thinking is discouraged.
On the other hand, a no-doer is a person who always says no, even when presented with reasonable ideas or proposals. They may do this to exert control or demonstrate their independence, or out of fear of being wrong. This behavior can create a sense of frustration and stagnation, where progress is hindered by resistance to change.
Both yes-men and no-doers are characteristics of mistrust in an organization. Employees may not feel comfortable expressing their true opinions or perspectives, leading to a lack of constructive criticism and feedback. In such an environment, employees may also be hesitant to take risks or suggest new ideas, fearing that they may be criticized or punished for any perceived misstep.
7. Decisions are made without the team
If the input of team members is not significant, a leader may have the tendency to make decisions without involving the team. Even worse, a leader may choose to override the recommendations of a working group in favor of their own point of view. These actions not only demonstrate a lack of respect for the opinions and expertise of team members but also fuel mistrust and undermine morale.
The consequences of making all decisions without involving the team are far-reaching and can be indicative of inequality and mistrust in the workplace. In such an environment, employees may be hesitant to voice their opinions, fearing that they will not be taken seriously or that their ideas will be dismissed outright.
8. Withholding crucial information
One telltale sign of a mistrustful environment is the use of power to manipulate or control others. This can take the form of withholding information or selectively sharing it with only a few people, creating an imbalance of power that can sow the seeds of suspicion and resentment.
Unfortunately, some managers may use this tactic to establish alliances with certain employees, unwittingly creating an atmosphere of mistrust among others. When one person is privy to information that others are not, it can create a false sense of security that can breed jealousy and distrust. This insidious cycle can damage relationships and undermine the organization’s goals, making it imperative to foster a culture of transparency and inclusivity.
9. Gossip and backstabbing
Gossip and backstabbing can be pervasive in unsafe situations and can be a major cause of mistrust in the workplace. When people engage in negative talk about others behind their backs, it can create a toxic environment where employees feel uneasy and unsure about who they can trust.
The impact of gossip and backstabbing can be significant, leading to low morale, decreased productivity, and a general sense of unease. When individuals feel that they are being talked about negatively, their level of mistrust can escalate quickly, leading to feelings of isolation and disengagement.
Exclusion in any form can be a deeply hurtful and distressing experience, particularly when it is borne out of helplessness or unfriendliness. The impact of exclusion can be far-reaching, leading to feelings of confusion, self-doubt, and a loss of self-esteem.
In an unsafe team environment, the reasons for exclusion are often shrouded in secrecy, leaving the individual feeling isolated and unsure of their place within the group. This can lead to a cascade of negative emotions and self-talk, leading to a lack of confidence and decreased motivation.
The consequences of exclusion can be profound, affecting both individual well-being and team dynamics.
Distrust in the workplace can quickly spiral into a vicious cycle that erodes employee engagement and undermines team performance. When managers feel the need to closely monitor employees’ every move, it can create a culture of suspicion and mistrust, further decreasing employee engagement. This article might help if you tend to control everything: 10 Steps for Overcoming Control Freak Tendencies as a Leader.
Unfortunately, this dynamic can quickly become self-sustaining, with employees interpreting monitoring measures as a lack of trust, which only serves to deepen the mistrust between managers and employees. This vicious cycle can lead to a culture of disengagement, decreased productivity, and a sense of isolation among team members.
Investigate the characteristics of mistrust!
If you’re new to a team, and you encounter several of the mistrustful behaviors outlined above, it’s essential to investigate the organizational culture. By understanding the root causes of mistrust, you can work with your team to find ways to build trust and improve team dynamics.
To begin, take a proactive approach to understand the team’s dynamics and culture. This can involve having open conversations with team members, observing interactions, and seeking feedback from colleagues. By gathering insights into the team’s culture, you can identify areas of improvement and develop strategies to promote trust and collaboration.
Importantly, this process should involve the entire team. By involving colleagues in the search for solutions, you can foster a sense of ownership and accountability, and ensure that all team members have a stake in creating a positive and productive work environment. By working together to promote transparency, mutual respect, and open communication, you can build a stronger, more cohesive team that is better equipped to achieve success.
Read this article if you would like to read more about building workplace trust.
There are many great books on distrust in the workplace, but one that I would recommend is “The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything” by Stephen M.R. Covey. In this book, Covey argues that trust is a key driver of productivity and performance in organizations, and provides practical advice for building trust in the workplace. He also discusses the high cost of distrust and how it can be overcome. The book is well-researched and provides numerous examples of how trust can make a positive difference in the workplace.