Trust in Whom?

Most of the time, we talk about trust as if it has its own independent existence. We can build trust; we can destroy trust. This treats it like it is an aspect of the relationship and is based on how people behave with each other. Are we trustworthy… are they trustworthy? I have trust, but in whom? We talk of others violating our trust; often, in the workplace, it is management who gets more than their share of the blame. We expect leaders to be congruent to walk their talk, and if they don’t, we think we have a “trust problem.” Or, if we are the leader, we are puzzled why the employees don’t trust us.

These assumptions frames trust as if it is determined by behavior. I want to offer another point of view.

Trust is more an expression of our own inner world, not an outside-in reaction to people and events as they affect us.

Trust is a State of Mind

Vaclav Havel, in his “Politics of Hope” book, writes about hope in a way that also applies to trust. Editing him slightly, he says something like this:

, “I should say first that hope is, above all, a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope in us, or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some observation of the world or estimate of the situation.”

As with hope, trust may be something that we carry within us. It is, in many ways, a projection of our own internal struggle onto those around us. If we distrust others, it is that we are asking them to carry a weight that we cannot bear within ourselves.

It is more an attitude about myself, an estimate of my own capacities. For example, if I do not have faith in management, a more accurate statement is that I am not happy with the way I act or feel when I am around management. It is my response to their power that bothers me. My caution. My speaking in generalities. My quickness to back down in the face of an indifferent or controlling act on their part. My short-fused cynicism may be more the source of my distrust than anything they do.

Distrust is too often a projection onto powerful others of our own ambivalence.

Anytime, Anywhere

If trust is my goal, then I must come to terms with my own shadow: the power I give to others, the denial of my own ambivalence about participation, the fact I do not walk my talk, have silenced my own voice, have left behind my own faith and innocence. Trust is the willingness to go public with all of who I am. If I could ever really believe this (rather than write about it), then my “problem” might fade. Why we think it is the task of people in power to create a high-trust environment I no longer understand.

I can create this environment any time I want. All I must realize is that I am creating the environment in which I live. We are afraid of being naïve and a fool if we continue to trust in the face of others’ betrayal. Well, what is so great about being strategic and clever? And what is so wrong about being a fool? Maybe being willing to be a fool is the exact means of creating the high-trust world that we each long for.

If you want help to create a better environment anytime you want, check out our newest program, Flawless Conversations: Building Trusting Relationships, to learn how.

Facing the Virtual World

We now work in a virtual and digital world, with all of its joys and sorrows. Technology is credited with bringing the world closer together, spreading democracy, changing the nature of business, and supplying round-the-clock connectivity. Geography has been made irrelevant. It is mesmerizing to grasp the world in a handheld device, much smarter than we will ever be.

Here are some aspects of this life that Human Resource (HR) practitioners deal with every day:

  • Teams are made up of people who have never been in a room together. This gives rise to the question, “How do we build a team that never or rarely meets face-to-face?”
  • The well-defined workweek is no more. People are online and in touch and reachable most of their waking hours. And expect you to follow suit. If you ask people to leave their cell phones at the door, 40 percent say that this is not possible.
  • We work at home. Our bedroom has become our office. Technology allows us to move our residence/office anywhere and have more control over our time.
  • Speed is a value in and of itself. If something is quicker, it is attractive. If we are quicker, we are attractive. Slow food is considered a revolution. Fast food is a value proposition.
  • Controlling costs is now the dominant value for most organizations, replacing the priority once given to the customer and the employee. Almost every job and function (except top management) can be outsourced to reduce labor and benefit costs. Travel and training are cut on the rationale that current audio and video technology approximates the sights and sounds of being in the room together in real-time.

The virtual world is sold on these features. More individual freedom. Work at home, learn at will, and control your own time. Get the information you need on demand. Be a global citizen.

The challenge is to address the human and workplace consequences of the technological and cultural forces that constantly drive us toward speed, control, efficiency, and short-term results.

Choices for the Future

Organizations that will truly thrive over time are creating a future that transcends these pressures. They will focus on making the choice to (1) act in service of the long run and (2) act in service to those with little power. In this way, they create an alternative narrative, one centered on creating high performance by putting the future in the hands of each member of an organization.

HR can help leaders transcend these pressures by developing leaders who give priority to building relationships with peers. Real relationships, not virtual ones. HR is a stance for leaders that gives more choices to people close to the work. It is the realization that human values take priority over shareholder values. HR clients are all members of the organization, not just top management.

There are more important values than speed and scale, and costs. Organizations are human systems first and technical processes second. Important learning requires face-to-face relationships where all learning is social.

Adapted from Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013). 

Learn more tips in our eBook Engagement By Design: The Virtual Hour found on our articles page. 

How To Reimagine Workplace Politics

The first rule about workplace politics is that nobody will tell you the rules. But everyone somehow knows how the unspoken web of power dynamics works. Or do they?

This fake certainty is one reason we must reimagine workplace politics.

Managers often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how to deal with difficult employees, peers, or bosses. At first glance, this appears to be a normal function of living in the workplace, a closer look reveals that this is more about workplace politics.

The game of workplace politics becomes a tool for negotiating your own position to avoid getting resistance from others in response to your actions. Given enough time and experience, with a non-nutritious sprinkling of gossip, you eventually learn to play the game. You learn to speak the “right” way, to the “right” people, in order to get the “right” reaction. The worst part of all this is it works.

So what’s the problem?

The problem with workplace politics is that it becomes a game where you achieve short-term goals by acting in a way that is not an example of the world you want to live in.

There’s a winner and there’s a loser, and playing the game means that you are simultaneously both.

Think about it, it’s like sawing-off a tree branch while you’re sitting on it!

So why get better at a bad game? The answer is to make a better game…because it is possible to reframe workplace politics as an act of service for the future you want to create.

Workplace Politics as Usual

The traditional rules of workplace politics center around managing and manipulating situations, information, and people to your own advantage. Tactics include being very cautious in telling the truth, selectively invoking high-level names to gain support, closely managing relationships, and paying great attention to what the people above you want.

A sea of books will tell you that you’ll gain attention, move up the ranks, and pull your own strings by mastering these strategies. And you probably will. But in the process, you perpetuate a patriarchal cycle that actually coerces you to surrender your power and autonomy. By “playing the game” you effectively exchange your freedom for dependence on those with power over you.

But what other option is there?

Choosing an Entrepreneurial Path

This doesn’t mean you have to start your own business. Instead, the solution here is to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset that reframes politics in a positive way.

An Entrepreneurial mindset is a path to reclaiming the freedom and accountability that has been surrendered to the unfulfilling game of workplace politics.

The outcome is a powerful yet non-manipulative way to negotiate power and relationships within your organization. It is a move away from obligating compliance to inviting collaboration.

This transformation shift comes down to you making three fundamental choices.

1. Possibility Over Maintenance

Firstly, the path of positive politics chooses possibility over maintenance. Much of traditional workplace politics is preoccupied with safety for fear of losing ground. The more you move up, the more energy you expend to avoid losing what you have. And so decisions become more and more driven by a desire for maintaining. What this really reflects is the choice to be led by others.

The antidote is for you to choose possibility. Making a commitment to building something great carries real risk. It is dangerous. But the first step in being political in a positive way is making the choice not to just maintain what you have, but to reach for unreachable possibilities.

2. Courage Over Caution

This leads us to the second choice, which is courage over caution. There are hundreds of ways that corporate culture drives an atmosphere of caution. Here are just two of the more pervasive ways: Performance reviews and high-pressure presentations to top management. These two are designed to produce extremely measured and conservative behavior. This makes perfect sense when you realize that the aforementioned “Maintenance” requires caution. But striving for greatness requires courage.

Working for a better future always requires courage. And it mostly comes in small steps. Usually, you are the only one aware of the risk you are taking. But your choice for self-assertion and risk is the antidote to caution and maintaining what we have inherited or amassed on our own.

3. Autonomy Over Dependence

Thirdly, the entrepreneurial mindset must choose autonomy over dependence. A culture of maintenance and caution thrives on breeding dependence.

When your aim is to scale the political ladder, you implicitly agree to a kind of parental contract. Their job is to lead and reward and your job is to listen and obey.

But autonomy is the attitude that declares: my actions are my own and I help create the organization I am a part of. By choosing autonomy, you are recovering the freedom you willingly surrendered to play the game. You are recovering what you once gave away, not taking back what was taken from you. This is something you can do without asking permission.

The entrepreneurial culture does not take effect in top-down programs or C-Suite announcements. The only way to change the game is to act in small ways that affect a new culture in recurring moments.

In a way, the only culture that really exists is what happens in the room, the meeting, the conversation you are in right now. By making the choice to pursue positive workplace politics, you will embody the culture you want to create and the short-term goals will take care of themselves.

[Adapted from Peter Block, ‘Twelve Questions to the Most Frequently Asked Answers,’ The Flawless Consulting Fieldbook and Companion: A Guide to Understanding Your Expertise2001 and Peter Block, The Empowered Manager, 2017]