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 development 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).

Image:  yourlogicalfallacyis.com

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