“The propensity for email, texting and quick-type apps has led us to forget some of our people skills, including distinguishing the nuances of language and meaning, fostering of a feeling of belonging among groups of people, and knowing our bosses and colleagues well enough to have confidence that others will pull their weight. That, in turn, has diminished implicit and earned trust among the people we work with.”

So suggests Georgina Kenyon in an excellent article on BBC Capital.  She goes on to talk about how lack of trust leads to fear, which leads to employees feeling they have to show their face at work, even though flexible working is so easily available to all of us because the technology is there.

She comes to an arresting conclusion:

Georgina_Kenyon“No matter how much a work rock star you might be, your manager does not trust you. Your colleagues do not trust your manager.  And, truth be told, you probably don’t trust most of your colleagues or your boss, either.”

Gulp.  She said it, not me.

This level of fear in the workplace leads to employees turning into children.  They find it hard to have the courage to ask for time off or to negotiate flexible hours.  In summary, it leads to conflict avoidance, about which I’ve written before.  It inhibits collaboration, and leads to what Phyllis Moen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota in the US, calls the ‘mother, may I’ problem.  Not quite at the level of asking to go to the toilet, but not far off it.

This subject of “Child” behaviour crops up reguarly on the leadership courses I run.  I often ask managers what percentage of people in their teams they would characterise as having a fundamentally Child ego state.  The answer is usually at least 20%.  This strikes me as probably conservative, with the figure in reality being much higher.

Who shall we hold responsible for this?  Is it all about the technology, which is inhibiting us from having meaningful relationships at work (or anywhere, for that matter)?  Is it managers’ fault for allowing fear to breed, and not spending enough time with their employees so that trust has time to develop?  Or should we blame the employees for allowing themselves to avoid the important discussions and telling themselves they have no power to influence change?

It’s probably all three.  I think we agree on several things here:

  • This is here to stay.  It can only get worse.  The technology isn’t about to uninvent itself.
  • Managers need some help.  They need to recognise the fear issue and know how to go about dealing with it.  Enabling them to hold genuinely Adult conversations with their team members would be a good start.
  • Employees need some help too.  They need to see that “flexible working”, “team collaboration” and other such fine concepts are more than catch phrases:  the organisation has to model these behaviours from the top and live and breath them every day.  Employees need to step up and not allow themselves to be ground down into submission.

What is your experience of trust and fear levels where you work?  How does this compare with 5 years ago?  How do you see it progressing?  Do please share your experience using the comments tab.