The Tragic Cost of Low Trust

It was supposed to go like any other conference call.I dialed in to meet with Meg, Pam, Roger, and Shari – four executives from a biotech organization.  On the back end of a merger, the company had brought me in to help the two legacy marketing departments collaborate more effectively.

Our phone meeting was a planning session for an upcoming all-department off-site event.  In my role as the external facilitator for the off-site, I’d asked for this meeting to interview these leaders.  I really wanted to get to know them and their business better.

I’ve conducted hundreds of these interviews in the past.  In general, the process touches on the four parts of a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).

We had an hour blocked out for our call.  That generally gives plenty of time to allow even the slowest of verbal processors to share a substantial amount of information.

Meg and Pam had been the marketing heads for legacy company A.  Roger and Shari had similar roles for legacy company B.After some initial rapport building, I dove deeper with the questions.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in integrating the two legacy companies?That’s when things started to smell fishy.  The responses were all superficial, vague platitudes.  One was,The teams have different approaches to problem solving, and they’re not used to working with a different approach.

That was as deep as they were willing to go. I continued to probe, attempting to get to something more substantial.  No nibbles.

Quickly, I realized: The four of them don’t trust each other. They don’t feel safe speaking honestly and openly.My hunch was confirmed.  With about five minutes left on the call, I received an email from Shari.  It read,Roger and I would like to set up an additional separate meeting with you.  Can we set up a call for tomorrow at 10 am?

We’d spent a lot of time and energy just getting this call set up.  No, tomorrow wasn’t going to work with my calendar.  Nor was the next day. Or the next.

Shari had sent the email during the meeting.  We had time to meet: this time.  But because trust was so absent, there was not much value to be gained from the time we had.When we finished, I realized we’d have to schedule a whole new round of calls.  Next time, it’d be separate calls:  one with Shari and Roger, one with Meg and Pam.

This first meeting would be written off as a total loss.   The cause?  Low trust.Trust is the most important value in an organization.  It’s the currency with which we trade all the rest of our social capital.

When trust is absent, it creates a vacuum.  Since nature abhors a vacuum, it fills it in with what’s most readily accessible: fear.

There are many costs of fear in the workplace.  Some of these include:

  • Risk avoidance

  • Conflict aversion

  • Information Hoarding

  • Personal Stress

Yet, on a practical level, there’s one cost that stands head and shoulders above all the others:


Some examples of how fear sucks away time:

  • Consider the time spent reading emails that add no value. (cc’s, bcc’s, etc.)

  • Consider the time spent in meetings that should have been emails, or never should have existed in the first place. (let’s invite everyone to the meeting!)

Less trust takes more time.  The sneaky part of this problem is that most of us are completely oblivious that this is what’s happening in the moment it’s occurring.

For example, when Shari sent that email requesting a follow up meeting the next day, I doubt she consciously thought,

Because I don’t trust Meg and Pam I’m going to attempt a workaround to move this project forward. It means more hours on this project for everyone involved, but I’m going to do it anyway.

This cost of time doesn’t even account for the associated energy drain involved.  Some of these include anxiety, walking on eggshells, and second-guessing decisions.

Starting the process to build trust doesn’t feel easy. That’s because it’s scary.

However, a great rule of thumb to use if you want to build trust is this: tell the truth.

Telling the truth (and starting with your own truth) is what great leaders do.

When you get honest, you open a window of opportunity for the conversation to change. You might get some time back in the process.

What other costs does low trust incur?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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