The High Cost of Low Trust

By on May 24, 2017
The High Cost of Low Trust

A discussion Dilbert is having with his pointy-headed boss.

Dilbert – “What’s our strategic plan?”

Pointy-Headed Boss – “It’s a secret.”

Dilbert – “Don’t you trust me?”

Pointy-Headed Boss – “I don’t think it’s an accident that most employee sabotage is done by employees.” (Translation: “No, I don’t trust you.”)

This conversation between Dilbert and his Pointy-Headed Boss is, of course, absurd. That said, if you’re like me, you’ve heard comments not radically different from this one that were equally absurd. People have said things to you that made it clear that they really didn’t trust you. You’ve also experienced the stultifying weight of policies and procedures that say loud and clear, “You’re not trusted.”

When this happened, do you remember how you reacted? If you’re like me, you became less and less engaged in your work. Emotionally, you detached yourself from the organization. You referred to the organization that treated you this way as “they” rather than “we”. You were no longer part of the whole. You were detached, in orbit around the organization that paid you a salary. You became less and less interested in whether the organization was successful.

Your connection with the organization became strictly transactional. They paid you and you came to work. And while at work you went through the minimal motions needed to stay employed. You gave the organization the same level of respect that they gave you. Over time you lost the ability to pass off the way you were treated with a shrug and where previously there was annoyance, there was now anger. And eventually this anger couldn’t be contained and it surfaced in the form of destructive behavior.

What did this anger drive you to do? In some cases, it drove you to intentionally damage the product your company manufactured. In others, it drove you to intentionally cause equipment to break down. And in others, it drove you to spread destructive rumors on the plant floor and sometimes on the social media. And It may have even driven you to steal from the company. Ultimately, it made you a very untrustworthy employee.

It didn’t have to work out this way. You didn’t have to become an employee like some who I observed in automotive factories in the mid-80s, workers who intentionally dropped nuts and bolts into the doors of pickup trucks so when they were purchased they would rattle. You didn’t have to become an employee like the one who told me that he intentionally caused equipment to break down so he could have a break in his work. You didn’t have to become like the employee who told me with an emotion that bordered on hatred that “I don’t give a damn what this company does. They don’t care about me and I don’t care about them.”

What a tragedy.

And how different it would have been if you hadn’t worked for a company that kept tools locked up because they feared that if they were kept in an unlocked cabinet they would be stolen. And how different it would have been if you hadn’t worked for a company where a production line was shut down because no one could locate a key to this locked cabinet. And how different it would have been if you hadn’t worked for a company where the financial performance of the company was treated like a state secret.

Low trust has a very high cost. I’ve observed first hand, as many of you have, the difference seemingly mundane things like unlocked cabinets make on employee engagement and, subsequently, employee performance. I’ve also observed first hand, as many of you have, the very positive impact that financial transparency has on employee morale and performance.

Lean manufacturing teaches that the three most vital characteristics of any organization that intends to achieve high levels of productivity and profitability are trust, respect, and candor. And of the three, I’d suggest that trust is the most important.

I understand, as I’m sure you do, why some employers don’t trust their employees. The bedrock of their lack of trust is fear. Fear of employees stealing something. Fear of employees misinterpreting financial information. Fear of employees giving trade secrets to competitors. Fear of this and fear of that.

Here’s an idea to ponder. Fear drives mistrust and showing mistrust makes employees untrustworthy. Want employees to be trustworthy? Show them trust. Unlock cabinets. Report on your organization’s financial performance to all employees. Treat all employees like responsible adults rather than recalcitrant children.

I know some of you will agree with this line of reasoning because you’ve also observed it in action. Others, I suspect, will see it as naïve. To those of you who believe that many employees can’t be trusted I would simply say this. Holding onto this belief is exceptionally expensive. Low trust has a very high cost. It drives down employee engagement. It damages productivity. It limits profitability.

You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your company, to take the risk of trusting your employees. My prediction is that if you do you’re going to be very pleasantly surprised at the transformation doing this will drive in your workforce.

C’mon, Pointy-Headed Boss, show Dilbert your strategic plan. In fact, call in Wally and Alice and show it to them also.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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