How to survive a low-trust culture

by Marie-Claire Ross
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Company culture, employee morale and trust between workers and management are all vital elements of a successful team. How can you take your business from a low-trust to a high-trust culture? By MARIE-CLAIRE ROSS.

Typically, leaders say to me, ‘I trust my team, but I don’t trust management at large or even the culture. How can I build trust in a low-trust company?’

It’s a good question that can be difficult for an individual to address without the right strategies.

Some people solve the problem by resigning and going elsewhere. Others choose to hold on to their job, tolerating the toxic behaviours around them and becoming part of the problem, while others resort to complaining about everything and railing against the system.

If the latter is you, it’s time to decide which is more powerful – shouting at the system or changing it from the inside?

Complaining about the culture only takes your power away and makes you miserable (and attracts negative, drama-loving people around you to boot – misery loves company).

It’s also exhausting. If you want to be part of the solution, it’s time to step up and think strategically about what you can do. If you’re in some type of leadership role, this is much easier to accomplish.

Believe it or not, you are actually in a wonderful learning environment that can teach you many powerful leadership lessons. That is, what not to do as a leader. Some of the worst leaders I worked with at the start of my career were very good teachers in demonstrating how not to behave.

The good news is that lots of successful people have experienced toxic leaders and cultures. In fact, many of them will say it was the secret to their success. It all starts with being the leader you always wanted leadership to be. In fact, being yourself and modelling the right trust behaviours that are important to you is critical.

So, if you want to take your power back and empower those around you, it’s up to you to demonstrate to others what a high-trust leader looks like. Ultimately, you want to get so good at this that people ask, ‘What’s their secret? Why does everyone want to work with them and why does their team do such good work and seem so happy?’

You can only work with what you can control. The truth is you can’t change other people. You can’t tell your boss they’re a jerk and expect them to agree and promise to change their ways, nor can you say that about them to the CEO or management team. The only way to champion high trust is to lead by example and deliver great results. Once you demonstrate that you can reliably deliver excellent results because of how you interact with others, you will gain a much stronger platform to influence other leaders to change.

Here are eight essential techniques to build trust in your team in a low-trust company.

1. Know thyself and be congruent

First of all, know who you are and what’s important to you. What sort of leader are you? Are you for the people or against the people? Are you for individual or group results? If you want to be a high-trust leader who models the way for others, you have to be for the people and ready to promote group results. (Apologies to anyone who thought they had a choice there!)

If you’re like most of the well-meaning leaders I know who want to make a difference, but who are frustrated with some of the leadership behaviours playing out around them, it’s likely you don’t trust the leaders at your firm because they say one thing and do another.

One of the most powerful human drivers is to live in alignment with who we believe we are and who we want to be. When our words and actions don’t match, it creates an integrity gap and people don’t trust us. In fact, the bigger the gap, the more likely people around you will act in ways that go against what you’re trying to achieve.

The reason why matching our words and deeds is critical is because we subconsciously process whether we can trust a person in the part of the brain that has no capacity for language. We don’t trust people by what they say, but how they make us feel.

Make sure you always do what you say you’re going to do. No excuses – return phone calls and emails, deliver work on time and at a high standard, and greet your teammates every morning, not just on Fridays. This builds authenticity because people see that your energy matches your intention. People need to be able to read you and see consistency in your behaviours to feel comfortable around you. As Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, says, “Trust equals consistency over time.”

2. Foster candour

In a fear-based culture, you won’t really know what’s going on – fear drives things underground. Your team members and peers will be holding back from expressing their views and suggestions, and flagging potential issues because the environment seems too risky.

Do what you can to create a psychologically safe space to enable others to know they can be themselves around you and won’t be punished if they make a mistake. In a low-trust environment, high performers want to be able to speak up and they want leaders who can help them do that. To promote this, you can:

  • Encourage people to challenge you. Be open to hearing feedback, both positive and critical, avoid jumping to conclusions about what the person is saying and don’t judge or blame.
  • Be transparent with information. Openly share information (excluding confidential matters) and regularly communicate where the business stands, why work matters, what’s coming up next and how you plan to get everyone there. Also, be honest about the financials.
  • Acknowledge when you don’t know something and ask for help. Confess when you’ve messed up and admit when there is uncertainty or when you’re unsure how you and the team will solve tricky issues, but let people know you are certain that, as a team, you’ll work it out together using everyone’s know-how and voices.
  • Importantly, congratulate people when they talk about the difficult stuff.

3. Ask great questions and be an active listener

High-trust leaders lead by asking questions. Empower those around you to think for themselves and solve problems. Modelling curiosity encourages others to think more, rather than react.

This also ensures that you break through the fog and avoid making hasty assumptions. A lot of people use vague phrases and generalisations; for example, ‘None of our customers like the higher price.’ High-trust leaders are attuned to fluff and vague corporate speak, so ask questions that gain specificity and improve accountability.

Do this by avoiding asking ‘why’ questions that imply the other person is wrong. Instead, ask outcome-based questions (questions that begin with ‘what’ or ‘how’) that focus on results. For example:

  • ‘What specifically do you mean by that?’ or,
  • ‘What would you do if you were in my role?’

Then, keep quiet. Really listening to employees shows that you are present and focused. This demonstrates that you care more than any words can alone. It gets you out of your head, so you’re more able to help people and understand what is going on. It encourages you to live in reality. Great leaders know that important information surfaces when they keep quiet – this is when transformation occurs.

4. Build accountability

Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who coined the term ‘psychological safety’, discovered that psychological safety and dual accountability interact to produce high-performing teams. Asking questions, fostering team discussions and holding employees accountable for excellence fall into the ‘learning zone’, or the ‘high-performance zone’.

In fact, Edmondson discovered that high-performing teams seem to make more mistakes, but they are more likely to report and fix errors.

Leaders who only hold their employees accountable for excellence and fail to foster psychological safety fall into the ‘anxiety zone’. Needless, to say this isn’t good for people’s mental health, let alone team performance.

Conversely, leaders who only create psychological safety without holding employees accountable for excellence stagnate in the ‘comfort zone’. Comfort breeds complacency and poor employee engagement. People perform better and enjoy life more when they are constantly challenged.

In order to encourage your direct reports to be accountable, you also need to be accountable.

Improving accountability means having clear consequences for poor performers. Hold people accountable when they drop the ball.

Demonstrate accountability by putting in processes to:

  • evaluate every project (what was good/bad, what can be improved)
  • track weekly results/deadlines/accountabilities, and
  • articulate clear action steps at the end of each meeting.

Combining psychological safety and accountability is critical for teams to achieve their full potential. Make sure you do both.

5. Connect individually with team members

Of course, you can’t build trust with people if you’re unable to connect with them. Every individual differs in their propensity to trust others. Sophisticated managers understand not everyone is the same. Take the time to understand each team member in terms of their dreams, fears, values, challenges and goals. Regularly ask questions about their family or interests to show you care and see them as more than just a productivity tool. After establishing common ground, align each individual’s self-interests to the broader goal of the organisation and team.

This may seem like a lot of work – and it can be. But it is less work long-term. When you put the interests and well-being of your employees above your own, you become a trusted leader – one who is followed in a heartbeat, during bad and good times.

6. Be a great networker

Successful high-trust leaders stand out because they actively build a network of peers and other professionals. Think of a high-trust leader who you have worked with; they almost always know everyone! They are always on the lookout for the best and brightest, and their ability to connect people based on interests, values and common needs enables them to build up their team’s capabilities and solve tricky challenges.

High-trust leaders realise that real power comes not from knowledge, but from the wisdom leveraged in networks. They’re experts at building trust up, down and sideways and they influence others to work to their highest point of contribution (as opposed to low-trust leaders who shut people down, causing them to withdraw and refrain from contributing).

As David Logan says in the book Tribal Leadership, “You are only as smart and capable as your tribe. By upgrading your tribe, you multiply the results of your efforts.”

Create a large network of relationships through introducing like-minded people to each other, proving that you are there to be of service, as opposed to low-trust leaders, who avoid introducing people to each other, as they like to have control.

7. Remove roadblocks

Demonstrate that you care about your employees by removing workplace roadblocks and bottlenecks, allowing people to do their best work in service of a shared goal. This even includes removing toxic team members who give licence for others to misbehave or perform poorly. Remember, a culture is created through what behaviours are tolerated. If you allow bullying or poor standards, you will be no better than the low-trust culture you want to fight against.

In companies, people get so used to roadblocks from poor decision making, communication or planning that they learn to work around issues. This greatly reduces productivity and even morale, so always provide your team with the right resources, tools, decisions and support.

Regularly ask, ‘What information do you need from me or other leaders to make your job easier?’ Sometimes you may be the blocker, holding things up, or it could be another team is gumming up the works by not delivering on key data. Get out there and talk to the team leader and sort out the issue.

8. Champion trust

Improving the trust levels within your organisation all starts with trust being on the CEO’s agenda or through a senior executive who can champion measuring trust within their own division.

If you’re an executive, you have a powerful opportunity to construct an enterprise that has employees who are more productive, enjoy their work and generate happy customers. But it takes time and relentless commitment on your part.

For example, executives with whom I have worked – to successfully develop an internal consensus to build trust – have spent time strategically trying to get the CEO on board. This has included sending them some of my articles, discussing findings from my talks or showing them my insights paper (see download below). Often, the best way to convince the CEO or executive team is through a compelling speaker at your annual off-site or at an executive roundtable.

Those of you who aren’t able to influence the executive office can try to work with other leaders to bring in a speaker to disrupt the thinking. This can mean not even using the word ‘trust’, as this can scare a lot of people off.

Being a trust champion in a toxic environment isn’t for the faint-hearted. It requires commitment and courage because often some leaders and employees don’t want to talk about it and will sabotage any efforts to change the status quo.

9. Commit to building trust all the time

Trust is dynamic. If you are not proactively building trust, it is declining. Regularly review and reflect on your behaviours to ensure you are modelling how you want your people to act.

Building trust in spite of the system involves refusing to become part of the status quo. The truth is you can’t make other people change. It means realising that as a leader you have the power to control your immediate environment, your thoughts, your interactions and your behaviours. No one can take that away from you. The good news is that your team members want you to shine a light and lead the way. They want a hero leader who acts with integrity, can create a compelling vision for the future and provide the support to help them get there.

This, in turn, requires trusting your team members to be the best they can be. Respecting and admiring their gifts and talents enables you to leverage the collective intelligence of your team for the greater good of the whole. Getting this right sends a powerful message to low-trust leaders who prefer to work in silos and pit individuals against each other.

It won’t be long before you’ll find people knocking at your door wanting to join you. But it takes courage, commitment and a belief that we are all worthy and valuable, and that you can bring about change for the better – and isn’t that what leadership is all about? Shining a light on an exciting future and having the courage to bring everyone on board, no matter what obstacles are in your path?

Which way are you going to lead – for the people or against the people?

Marie-Claire Ross is the chief corporate catalyst at Trustologie. She is a workplace sociologist, author and consultant focused on helping leaders put the right processes in place to empower employees to speak up about issues, challenge each other and share information. If you want to find out more about building trust, download the free insights paper ‘Building Trust – How High-Trust Companies Deliver Faster Results, Increase Profitability and Loyalty’ at For more tips on psychological safety visit

This was originally published in the Apr/May 2019 issue of FM Magazine.

Image: 123RF’s Antonio Guillem ©

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