The Trust Tailspin

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Broken Windows

Are you familiar with the Broken Windows Policing philosophy? In short, this model posits that disorder (like a neighborhood with broken windows) causes fear and withdrawal of community members and more serious crimes creep in.

The environment affects behavior. It’s less likely that we would throw trash on a pristine lawn than if it was already strewn with trash.

The parallel to leading our organizations is that the small things matter. The single disgruntled employee left to fester is like a broken window. The ineffective process that goes way past frustration to an ‘oh well’ attitude is a sign that we are accepting of our natural decay over time.

This analogy works related to our overall culture but also applies in interpersonal relationships.

The Cycle of Trust

With my view as an outsider working with leadership teams, I sometimes see one problem child. This is the person who seems to be on the outs. The senior executive seems to never give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s always frustrating and seems to drive his boss nuts. There’s always a conflict.

Of course, I wonder why. I talk to both parties. Each seems to be right. They are on different wave lengths.

The classic cycle of mistrust is at play. Once you’re in this vortex it’s hard to recognize and very difficult to get out of it. Here’s how it works.

The employee starts and although he made it through the hiring process there were some rough edges that needed to be polished. The employee shows one of his bad tendencies. He raises his voice in a meeting, taking some things a bit too personally.

The boss was already cautious, aware of these past tendencies, not sure if the employee would make it or not. The boss observes the current bad behavior. Rather than say anything he stews about it. His concerns have been validated.

In interactions with the employee over the next couple days the boss is standoffish to the employee.

The employee feels like he may not be fitting in. He gets frustrated. This frustration shows.

The boss observes this behavior and his feelings about the employee are reinforced once more. At this point all development has stopped. The employee isn’t going to make it. All because of one mistake. The cycle continues.

That one mistake was the broken window for the boss who then felt there wasn’t much point in improving the situation.

This was of course totally unavoidable. Unfortunately this cycle of mistrust can go on for a very long time with the employee reinforcing the assumptions of the boss as he acts out because of his interpretation of the bosses’ behavior thus continuing the cycle.

When I work with both parties in a situation like this the first thing I say to each person is that we have to move to the present moment and take an action that likely is opposite of what you want to do given the history. The cycle must be broken. And, it’s not fair.

Even though the other person wronged you, you have to respond in a way that breaks the cycle. It’s not fair. So what? Now if both of you do this a breakthrough can happen.

Congruency of purpose solves so many personal issues. Without it conflict arises. After recognizing we’re in the cycle, we need to get back to the leadership principles we talk about here every week.

It’s not just business. It’s personal.

To do this week: Do you have a ‘problem child’ on your team? Can you step back and recognize how the cycle of mistrust might be at play?

Let me know how it’s goes. Click the “comments” box below to participate in an on-going discussion via LinkedIn.

Jim Canterucci

I don't know everything. But I want to. The focus of our firm, Transition Management Advisors, is to develop leadership capabilities to create a championship culture, generate innovation, and successfully lead the resulting changes.

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On October 3, 2018
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