We don’t trust each other

I just wanted to share some thoughts about trust in the public sector and rather than wax poetic I figured I’d just share this excerpt from the Scheming Virtuously presentation I delivered at the Next Generation of Government Summit in Washington DC (I’ve also transcribed the excerpt below)

“You don’t have physical control over the structures within which you work, but you do have control over how you operate within those structures. Don’t let the physical nature of a very square environment box you into very square thinking or very square approach to relationships.

We need to build trust with other people. Trust is like the secret sauce and it is what is lacking in our organizations like nothing else. No one trusts anyone. Its the CYA email, the cover your ass email. Where we have a conversation, you agree to do something, and as soon as we leave I go back to my desk and send you an email that says what you’ve agreed to do and I cc our bosses on it. So, just so, because, you know, the implication is you aren’t going to do it. So I want to be able to hold you to that.

That’s not trust, that’s a slap in the face. We might as well have a meeting and I could just walk up and slap you in the face [laughter] and be done with it. That’s… That’s .. We laugh because we know its true. We don’t actually change the culture we put up Dilbert comics in our cubicles.”

Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca


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Dannielle Blumenthal

Well. If the recipient generally does what they say they will do, or if it was easy to just agree on something and take care of it, then yes it is an inexplicable slap in the face to send them an email like that. I don’t think most people are that stupid are they? Because they know it builds bad blood to be making a legal case out of every interaction.

At the same time, if I am a trustworthy person or I have a pretty good working relationship with the sender, and I receive an email like that, then I’m not automatically offended. I would pick up the phone or walk over and ask what’s going on. More likely than not there is a reason why the email had to be sent, that had nothing to do with me.

I guess the bottom line is that I agree, you should have some emotional intelligence. An email like that is generally perceived as trying to document something, and it can ruffle feathers if you send it like a robot every time you have a conversation. On the other hand, if you send those kinds of emails when they are necessary – like when there could be a miscommunication later, or when the group has to be brought up to speed on a project, or when a person tends to forget what they agreed to, (or disregard it), or even when the culture is such that verbal agreements don’t really stick – then I think it’s OK. It depends on the situation.

Very interesting post, thanks.

Mark Hammer

I don’t think many leaders adequately understand the relationship between trust and turnover. One of the consistent findings in the Canadian public service employee survey was (the question was dropped recently) that the more supervisors employees reported having within the past 3 years, the less autonomy and encouragement to innovate they indicated getting, the less support for their career development they said they received, and communication with their supervisor was generally worse. There is noise in there (e.g., some jobs – like the Coast Guard – require one to report to multiple supervisors, while other jobs – like border guards – work best without “innovation”), but the overall pattern holds up.

I tend to look at the pattern this way. If I was a new supervisor, and had to hit the ground running, I wouldn’t know who to invest in, how to invest in them, or why. I wouldn’t know who to trust with what. The newer the boss, the shorter the leash.

Writers and thinkers in the area distinguish between multiple forms of trust; chiefly trust as expectations that you will act in my best interests, and trust as an assumption about your competence. I may have great faith in someone’s intentions, but not in their ability to pull it off. Junior wants to make mommy a cake for mother’s day for all the right reasons, but the kitchen’s going to be a mess when he’s done.

Forging either form of trust takes time.

And at the moment, as public sector organizations are thrown into chaos by a mass exodus of the boomers who were the only ones left after the cutbacks and downsizing of the mid-90’s, trust is rare and will continue to remain rare until there are VERY few promotions to be had and people start staying in one place for more than a year or two.

This morning, as I went to pick up a print job, I saw another print job sitting, regarding a conference next week that I should be at, probably as much if not more than anyone else in my organization. No one told me about it, and in the decade that this conference has been meeting, no one has ever seen fit to send me or even tell me about it until well after it had happened. I also got an e-mail this morning annoucing the departure of yet another vice-president who was retiring after maybe 18 months in the job, and would be replaced by another guy who was coming to us from having served in 4 different executive positions over the last half dozen years. He won’t know me from a hole in the ground, and probably still won’t when he retires or moves on to a higher position i a larger organization, but WILL expect me to deliver the goods and prop up the organization.

You want trust? To paraphrase the currently popular night-time “kids” book: STAY THE F**K IN ONE PLACE! and get to know people. Help all corners of your organization know what the others do and what they can do, and are only to happy to do, for you. Take every opportunity to be straight up with all stakeholders. Let them know when stuff is going to be hard to do, beyond your resourcing or capacity, or on the stack but unfortunately below requests from other folks. Show weakness and humanity. Two days ago I attended the funeral of my director’s wife who tragically died at age 50 from lupus. The guy was weeping on everyone’s shoulder, mine included. When he eventually returns, I fully anticipate his relationship with the office to be different. Our previous president was a guy whom I liken to Mr. Rogers. He’d easily get misty-eyed and weepy about values, and if anyone said a bad word about his employees in the press, they took a right and a left hook in print from him within 48hrs. I’d take a bullet for the guy and was happy to put in whatever overtime he needed from me. He regularly did things that led me to think “That’s my guy!”.

Bottom line: trust doesn’t come from nowhere.

Peter Sperry

Anyone who has ever lost a bonus, a promotion, or worse yet a job, because a coworker failed to deliver on an agreement; lives by the words “Trust but verify”. Agreeing on a course of action during a conversation already requires trust. Documenting the agreement with a followup email is simple verification. Why would anyone be offended? I would appreciate the courtesy demonstrated by the sender who made it easier for both of us to verify what we had agreed to. They have given me the opportunity to respond and clarify any misunderstandings and let our respective bosses know exactly what deliverables to expect and who to expect them from. I do not trust myself to remember a verbal commitment for more than a week. Why would I expect more from a coworker? Sending an email verification makes both our lives much easier.

Jenyfer Johnson

I have to agree with Peter’s comments below…”trust but verify”. Too many times people forget things; we go to meetings, phone conferences and take notes but they are put away after the meeting. I personally have a hard time with my memory (chemo brain), so I always tell people “email me a reminder, in case I forget. With the busy jobs we have, “doing more with less” and so on, I fail to see how a follow-up email would be misinterpreted. Sometimes the purpose is to make sure one person understood the same things from the meeting, call, etc, that you did.

These follow-ups serve a purpose and IMHO are not a slap in the face.

Nicholas Charney

My thinking is closely aligned with Shelley, in that I think the heart of the problem is that we approach others from a default position of not trusting them, similarly we default to closed positions re: sharing information as opposed to an open one. Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin.

Carol Davison

According to Stephen M. Covey (the son) we have more to loose by non trusting than trusting and can only “lead at the speed of trust”. Non trust always costs more time and money. That doesn’t mean we should trust blindly. We build trust by talking straight and delivering results. Check out his website.