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Five Ways to Reverse the Downward Spiral of Distrust

How to shift negative momentum in working relationships.

A few years back, a VP at a high-tech firm I was working with pulled me aside. “Our division is mired in distrust,” she said. “Teams are not talking to each other. Meetings are more about posturing than work. And no one is taking any real risks. But when I bring it up, I get shot down. Does the CEO not see it? Or has he given up on us?”

This story echoes many others I’ve heard from professionals in a variety of industries. In the day-to-day rush of business, leaders are often stymied when confronted with such breakdowns in collaboration and teamwork. They see the damage that distrust can do, but they also believe that rebuilding will cost them more political capital than they can afford. At its core, distrust means we have little hope that the other party will ever change. Why make the effort?

Unfortunately, once a company or team is infected with distrust, it tends to fall into downward spiral that drags everyone down to the lowest common denominator. Adapting William Ury’s stages of conflict in The Third Side, we can see how predictably this spiral advances.

It starts with latent tensions: the normal frictions that arise from daily pressures and differing perspectives. A promise is broken, an expectation is violated, a value is not lived. All too often, we interpret even inadvertent breakdowns as intentional, which creates doubt about others’ integrity or commitment.

At the overt conflict stage, differences become more explicit. If these are handled constructively, teams get stronger and performance improves. However, if differences are mishandled, conflicts become personal and resentments arise. Listening is replaced by kneejerk reactions, as people focus on their own needs or on being right.

Left unaddressed, this type of conflict leads to withdrawal. Team members give up on change and start to pull back, often in subtle ways. They feel a little less committed and hold back on the extra contributions that help the team deliver. As people retreat into their corners, stereotypes, miscommunication, and assumptions abound.

Finally, if we don’t take action, we end up with gridlock. At their worst, teams (and companies, and even countries) get stuck in power struggles in which private agendas, politics, and “winning” take precedence over the larger mission or goal. At times, hostile parties will even risk their own survival rather than let the other side win.

Clearly, the best time to invest in relationships, alignment, and trust is in the early stages. But what can you do when the team is already stuck in withdrawal or gridlock? The precise moment when trust is most needed is often when it is hardest to get people to the table. In my experience working with teams, the following five strategies can help.

The precise moment when trust is most needed is often when it is hardest to get people to the table.

1. Don’t delude yourself. Many executives who are rigorous about data-driven decision making ignore the evidence that trust and teamwork make or break business performance. For example, a two-year study by Pat Holahan and Ann Mooney at the Stevens Institute of Technology found that project teams with low trust and higher destructive conflict made poorer quality decisions and exhibited less commitment to decisions, which hindered their ability to meet deadlines and achieve project goals.

2. Ask for people’s stories. Individuals usually have legitimate reasons for not giving their all. As Dennis and Michelle Reina highlight in Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace (Berrett-Koehler, 2010), taking the time to listen enables you to uncover the real barriers to trust and begin the process of healing. For example, one senior leader I worked with found that a team member who was holding back on taking initiative did not trust that she really meant to empower him. His reason? Prior leaders had chastised him for “overstepping.”

3. Create low-risk opportunities for interaction. Rather than tackling the most challenging causes of distrust as your first step, you can start by inviting the team to work on a joint task. Choose a task with clear payoffs and not too much baggage, and encourage collaboration. Often, people will quickly find that they can learn from their colleagues and, in the process, complete the project with less time and effort. This creates feelings of goodwill that become the foundation for rebuilding relationships.

4. Signal your commitment through action. In the gridlock stage, people are fed up with words. They trust only commitments demonstrated by action. One approach, developed by psychologist Charles Osgood in response to the Cold War arms race, is called GRIT (“graduated reciprocation in tension-reduction”). You invite others to provide you with a list of small steps you could take to show you are serious about turning over a new leaf. Then you give a similar list to them. Over time, as someone tries an item on the list and the other reciprocates, trust begins to grow.

5. Pay closer attention to others’ efforts to change. When teams are mired in distrust, members see one another through their built-up history and often fail to notice efforts to change. Thus, one of the most effective strategies is to let others know you are paying attention, and reward any serious effort. This isn’t just the boss’s job; peers and employees have an important role to play in acknowledging (and reciprocating) when others put themselves out there.

In the heat of a conflict or the cold chill of gridlock, it can be difficult to imagine a turnaround. But with these five strategies, you can help team members establish a baseline of hope and confidence, which is needed before they will invest time, share information, express needs, and re-focus on a shared mission. And with that, you can reverse the spiral and get back to productive work.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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