10 Behaviors that Kill Trust

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Dennis S. Reina, PhD and Michelle L. Reina, PhD have devoted their professional life to building and rebuilding trust in the workplace because, in their words:

 “Business is conducted through relationships and trust is the foundation of those relationships.”

Photo by Jesse757, Flickr

While working directly with organizations for over 20 years, in those that foster relationship and trust-building behaviors, they found that employees focus on the work they were hired to do and productivity increases. When trust is damaged, however, morale and productivity begin to decline and turnover increases.[1]

Although it’s possible to destroy trust with one significant betrayal, usually trust is eroded over time as a result of many small incidents and behaviors. Here are ten behaviors that will result in the death of trust among the people you work with.

  1. Lying: When someone you work with lies to you, either by telling you something that’s simply not true, or by failing to tell you something important, trust is (sometimes irretrievably) damaged.
  2. Crying wolf: In the well-known children’s story, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, a young shepherd boy likes creating a panic and being the centre of the resulting attention, so he repeatedly sounds the alarm, claiming that the sheep are in danger from wolves. Unfortunately, his grand-standing and over-dramatization causes the townspeople to distrust him, and they don’t come to his aid when he faces a real wolf. People who create unnecessary drama or false urgency by exaggerating the seriousness of situations they face in the workplace, gradually lose the trust of their colleagues.
  3. Hoarding information: Refusing to share information that co-workers and reports need (or would benefit from), sends the message that the hoarder’s need for control is more important than co-workers’ need to know. If the information is then used to “one-up” others or to knock down their ideas, trust declines further.
  4. Disconnecting talk and action: One of the fastest ways to send trust on a downward spiral is to say one thing and do another. Contradiction between words and actions rapidly undermines trust.
  5. Making end runs and other sabotage: Backstabber is a powerful and evocative word. When we go behind someone’s back or over someone’s head to get what we want, we may deal trust a fatal blow.
  6. Bullying and browbeating: To trust someone, people need to feel safe with that person. Bullying and browbeating others leaves them feeling vulnerable and abused and as far from trusting as it’s possible to be.
  7. Failing at follow-through: When someone promises to follow through and then doesn’t, co-workers are disappointed and frustrated. When follow-through failure is the rule rather than the exception, people simply stop trusting.
  8. Stealing credit: Taking credit for work done by others demonstrates pure self-interest. While an isolated incident might be forgiven, habitually stealing credit from others kills trust dead!
  9. Acting like a weathervane: It’s hard to trust someone who randomly changes direction for no apparent reason. Heading “any way the wind blows” or changing the plan “just because,” throws people off balance, makes them suspicious and blows their trust away.   
  10. Refusing to communicate: Working relationships are built on communication. Refusing to interact with the people at work makes it impossible to establish trust. Withdrawing communication after a good working relationship has been established puts trust on life support with a terminal prognosis.

Building trust takes work. Destroying it can be effortless. If someone on your team is exhibiting any of these ten habits, it’s time for a reset. Make sure to turn that mirror on yourself as well. Don’t wait until the wolf is snapping at the sheep to find out you’ve lost the trust of your team or your colleagues. Aside from losing the business benefits Reina and Reina have seen demonstrated in a high trust working environments, it's hard to survive at work when trust is dead.


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[1] Understanding the importance of trust in the workplace.  http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/understanding_the_importance_of_trust_in_the_workplace

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