The slippery path to who knows what?

Last week I bumped into some stark evidence of something potentially very worrying.


If what I saw was, as I suspect, symptomatic of what is going on in the workplace, we really are heading down a dangerous path.  Sorry to be the harbinger of doom, but I feel a duty to call it.


I was running a leadership programme in Silicon Valley for a major tech firm.  It’s the 15th time I have run it for this particular part of the organisation, and I tend to build each event around the same building blocks and associated exercises.  Over the 4 years the programme has been running I have built a sense of how groups tend to respond to the activities, and can thus benchmark their results against other groups.

What I noticed, for the first time, was that the level of trust between individuals was markedly lower than it has ever been in the past.  Here are some examples of why I felt this.

I ask the participants to assess how much of their working week they feel they are wasting on unproductive activities.  Most groups say they lose 3 days per week to this (I know, amazing isn’t it?).  This group told me they were 50% better than this, at only 2 days wasted.  They also reckoned they are markedly less stresssed, more productive and unlocking far more of their potential than any other group I have worked with.  I somehow doubt whether all of these can be true.

I run an exercise in which they go into groups and decide whether to co-operate (and trust) the other groups or whether to work in a silo and try and beat them.  This time they displayed less trust in the other groups than I have ever seen, and produced the worst result.

One of our central themes is how to inspire through communication, and we examine storytelling as part of this.  I ask them to come to the course having prepared to tell us a story about something they found challenging as a teenager.  This is usually a very powerful and often highly emotionally charged exercise, with people often taking a risk by opening up and disclosing a vulnerability of some sort.  On this event it was more of a factual statement, with minimal amounts of personal disclosure.

As the pattern of low trust emerged across the three days I felt a need to put this to the group and see how they responded, with a view to seeing whether we could pinpoint why it might be.  Interestingly, whilst they took on board my feedback, they seemed a little surprised by it, and no one could comment on where this behaviour might be coming from.

In a way I find that even more worrying.  It has me wondering whether we are slowly but surely -and without realising it – slipping towards a world where low levels of trust are the norm.  Might we be so perplexed by the extraordinary events going on in the world, that we are subconsciously hunkering down, closing in on ourselves as a means of self defence almost?

If so, the implications are of course enormous.  If we stop trusting each other we can’t collaborate, and if we can’t collaborate we will fail.  Any organisation which requires people to work in some sort of matrix, with relationships upwards, sideways and downwards which are in a constant state of flux, has to have people delivering results through collaboration.  When that fails and we simply look after our own self interest there will be winners and losers, which will rapidly take things from bad to worse.

I may be completely wrong about this, of course.  It wouldn’t be for the first time.  This may have been a one off aberration, and if next time I run it the results are closer to normal, maybe I can stop worrying.  But what if I’m not?

I am writing a book about what I think of as mid-career malfunction.  It’s about the challenges of surviving, let alone thriving, in an increasingly dysfunctional workplace.  It gives my perspective on what people are up against based on meeting 10,000 employees over 18 years.  Lack of trust is one of the top sources of what I call “career mojo loss”, and it is probably one of the hardest to fix if everyone around you feels the same.

I would love to get your perspective on this.  Even more I’d love you to prove me wrong.

What is your view?  Do you notice a deterioration in trust levels around you?  How does that manifest itself?  How much less trusting of others are you than you were, say, 5 years ago?  How does that impact you and the work you do?

If you’d like to share your experience, please contact me with your story (which of course is confidential and will not be attributed to you directly):


About Michael Brown Training

I'm a business skills trainer, facilitator and coach. I've been helping people to learn for 16 years, working all around the world on topics such as Negotiation, Conflict Handling, Sales, Leadership, Consulting and Personal Effectiveness. I'm an ENFP, constantly looking for new and inspiring things to do. I love my job for its variety and the stimulation I get from it, and spend most of my time seeing how far we can go with the subjects we work on in the training room. I've recently started a new venture in making video on how NOT to do things, which you can find at
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10 Responses to The slippery path to who knows what?

  1. howard ellison says:

    Robert Townsend said it all in ‘Up The Organisation’ long ago. The opener: “First, fire the human resources department”. Then promote the gifted, unofficial, ‘people person’ to drive something more humane.

    Next, every director to do a spell on the front line, sellng tickets or whatever, so they would understand the business.
    When he proposed that at Avis, half his board left: a positive outcome.

    When I was appointed to lead a community nfp, I was blessed with a chairperson who read Townsend as well as Charles Handy (‘The Empty Raincoat’), Melvin Belbin and others.

    My guru was assertive, cheerful, respectful, much liked, interested in typologies and motivations, and had the rare courage and humility to invite real two-way review. Any other kind is simply a sham.

    I’m hugely grateful to him for helping me grow, so our team could work harmoniously to train and place hundreds of volunteers who worked cheerfully unpaid, aside from out-of-pocket reimbursement. There’s a thought.

    The theme of Michael Brown’s thread is trust. Yes, I can say that was our culture. And I saw it begin to erode (20 years ago, this) when external bodies began to over-analyse monetary and other bottom-line statistics. We began to feel untrusted. My creative time was halved. The volunteers sensed it, and felt insulted.


  2. Kevin Hudson says:

    Hi Michael, I think the point you make on survival is key. Too many times I encounter comments on the justification on what we do (especially in training) to meet the bottom line requirement / ROI. When we train, it is to add value to our company’s / clients / employees – our raison d’etre. However, there seems to be a culture emerging of constantly looking over the shoulder to see if anyone else is doing something that might be a threat to our existence. Therefore trust (even within our own teams) seems to be declining because of the need to justify our existence in very pressing times. You could call it survival of the fittest/ ruthlessness, but, in the current climate (especially in the corporate world) it is about what value you bring to the table. Empowering people (trainees) to go and practice what has been delivered is all about trust from senior managers. Or, will this be viewed as a threat in case others are seen to be more proficient resulting in a power change? This brings into the equation again, who can you trust?


    • Yes Kevin. It seems everywhere you turn people are looking over their backs. So energy sapping and demoralising. I hadn’t thought about how it would affect trainers. Funny that, as that happens to be my world! Thanks for your comment.


  3. Michael, “If we stop trusting each other we can’t collaborate, and if we can’t collaborate we will fail. ” This is an assertion on your part, and not necessarily true. The second world war is an illustration of armies/countries not trusting each other, yet collaborating to achieve a mutually desirable end result. Companies and outsourcers do ti all the time. Non-trusting parties can collaborate.
    The problem is that it slows things down. You have to check the other fellow’s work, you have to make contingency plan in expectation that he messes up and so on. — James


    • Good point James, and WW2 is a good example. Maybe it’s a matter of definition: I would say working together in a non trusting way is not true collaboration: maybe it’s more like co-operation instead.


      • Matt Zobrist says:

        I think the WW2 example is a macro scale model. The question would be if the troops from the various countries trusted each other when the lead was flying? I think at some point, they must have (been a long times since history class, so I don’t have any examples). Can you see soldiers having a “Canadian stand-off” just before an assault on enemy position: “You go first.” “No, you go first.” “No, I insist, you first.” “I’ll cover you, you go first.”


  4. There’s a lot here Michael. But I agree with your conclusion.


  5. Dave Loewy says:

    Great noticing Mike, and yes, I agree that the increasing frequency of leadership debacles over the last few years has increased the spread of Distrust Rot. Stephen R. Covey, in “Speed of Trust” calls it the (lack of) Trust tax. Leaders who focus exclusively on the rewards available for them and their tribe increase the Trust tax on their organisations. Regular job cuts to hit arbitrary performance numbers increase it still further.
    Good leaders in good organisations attend to trust and recognise its importance. Bad leaders ignore it, often seeing it as part of the F-word*. Their teams and organisations pay the inevitable tax, both in the bottom line and with their health.

    (*F-word = Feelings. What did you think I meant?)


    • Good one Dave. I had forgotten I read Covey’s book a while back, must reread it. I bet is it even more resonant today. Are you noticing any difference in how people see relationships at work through your coaching?


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