14 min read

The Mistrust Epidemic: Why we don't trust anyone at work

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A creeping crisis

I’m fortunate to work with some incredible companies and people – ambitious, passionate leaders who are dedicated to their jobs and work their butts off to get things done. When they call me, it’s usually because something isn’t working quite right. They’re finding it hard to agree on their next steps, or they’ve noticed a gap in their capability.

For years, this has usually meant I’ve had a lot of variety in my work: everything from teaching policy advisors how to build more influence, working with executive teams to get strategic clarity, designing programmes to accelerate organisational change, or training eager consultants to facilitate better meetings.

But over the last six months… that’s started to shift. While the reasons for calling might still be different, there’s been a consistent underlying issue common to almost everyone I speak to: a lack of trust.


How to spot a trust deficit

A trust deficit shows up in lots of different ways, depending on your organisation or the size of your team. For some, it might be that meetings are taking longer, and people aren’t sharing or speaking up. In other workplaces, it might be that staff seem to be checking in more, and are less confident making judgement calls in case they get it wrong. Oftentimes, it’s slow or one-sided decisions – lots of relitigating, not a lot of action. People say things in the room, but they don’t take action back at their desk.

Sometimes it’s super sneaky. I see things like: people only reporting good news to their boss, because they’re afraid to show the truth. Or even trickier: nodding-head syndrome - a lack of conflict or disagreement at the surface, masking secretive politics and manuevring behind the scenes.

What all of these situations have in common is a lack of overall safety. People don’t trust themselves, each other, or their leaders, and when that reaches a tipping point, the backslide happens quickly.

You can tell when you’re in an environment like this, even if you can’t name it. People are unreliable, and they don’t talk to each other. The vibe changes all the time, and it’s stressful. People don’t own their mistakes, they don’t help each other out. After a while, work feels like a guessing game.


Diagnose your trust level 

  1. Are job expectations clear? Do people understand exactly what they need to do?

  2. Are meetings enjoyable and productive - or slow and energy-sapping?

  3. Is there an us/them mentality with the leadership team? Does it feel like leaders play favourites?

  4. How much gossip is there? Is promotion and progress more about ‘who you know’ than following the rules?

  5. Are people trusted to take on new responsibilities? How often do you need to check in with your boss?


The impact of mistrust

Trust ultimately drives performance. Left untreated, mistrust spreads like a disease, infiltrating all of our choices and conversations and making it impossible to do great work – or feel good about it.

When we don’t nab a deficit in time, the cracks in our foundation start to show up everywhere. We see:

  • The loss of spark and joy in even our most dedicated performers, sending engagement downward. Over half of employees say trust has an impact on their mental health, career choices and sense of belonging.

  • Information withholding, as people cling to what gives them power and stop sharing openly with others

  • Trouble collaborating on joint projects, slowing progress and making innovation impossible

  • Exhaustion and overwhelm, caused by bottlenecks that could be solved by delegation… if only people felt safe handing things over

  • Productivity dropping off, as decisions are re-hashed or not made at all

  • Climbing absenteeism, leading to an eventual spike in turnover, as people plot their exit from an environment they don’t enjoy anymore. Over a quarter of employees have left a job because they didn’t feel trusted.


When did things get so bad?

Struggles with trust-building are nothing new. In Five Dysfunctions of a Team, published in 2002, (the brilliant model that Meetings that Matter is closely tied to), Patrick Lencioni points to trust as the absolute foundation of building a powerful team. 

As Lencioni describes, the lack of trust is about a fear of being vulnerable – which stops us from developing as a team, engaging in productive conflict and delivering useful outcomes. 

Lencioni talks about what happens when people hold back from asking for help, giving advice or sharing their learning. As people become increasingly uncomfortable working together, achieving a common goal gets further out of reach as we respond poorly to problems and stop supporting each other.

Ultimately, mistrust kills an organisation from the inside out – and we’ve known this for a while. In its 2016 global CEO survey, PwC reported that 55% of CEOs think a lack of trust is a threat to their organisation’s growth. It’s nothing new.

 But things are getting worse – and not just at work. This is a bigger issue, spreading across communities. Working off my hunch, I started digging for information – and it’s not pretty. The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer has revealed “an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of social institutions and leaders across the world.” They identify a “failing trust ecosystem unable to confront the rampant infodemic, leaving the four institutions – business, government, NGOs and media – in an environment of information bankruptcy and a mandate to rebuild trust and chart a new path forward.” 

According to the latest report, the pandemic has accelerated an erosion of trust at all levels around the world, most evident in—unsurprisingly—the US and China.


Why, though?

There’s a bit going on, out there. Six of the most significant factors underpinning our current mistrust epidemic include:

  1. Covid economics

  2. Job uncertainty

  3. Pandemic fatigue and chronic stress

  4. Remote working

  5. Media mistrust

  6. New workplace expectations.



Covid economics

The pandemic has had a huge economic toll, even in countries like New Zealand and Australia who’ve escaped the worst of it. In Australia, GDP per capita took a massive hit – peaking with a 7% quarterly loss in June 2020, with unemployment reaching 7.5%. In New Zealand, it took longer, but we officially entered a recession in September 2020, with GDP contracting by a massive 12.2% in the June quarter. In the US and Europe the toll has been far worse.


Job uncertainty

With heavy travel restrictions, closed workplaces, rapid restructures and job losses, our sense of safety at work has been shaken. The impact on trust – and performance – makes perfect sense. When people feel insecure about the safety of their job they’re less engaged, because their energy is focused elsewhere. Employees harbouring fear about the stability of their work are, on average, 37% less engaged than their safer counterparts, according to Gallup research. Given less than a third of employees are truly engaged in their job as it is, according to the same research, that’s a worry. 

While things are now looking up for our economies, our jobs may not be any safer. In the latest Mercer report, 71% of Australian HR leaders expect COVID-19 to impact their business negatively, with restructuring or workforce changes the top priority for investment in 2021. 66% of Australian organisations surveyed are planning a restructure – compared to just 45% globally. This has trickled down quickly to employees, with a December 2020 Hays report indicating the 74% of employees are planning to look for a new job in 2021.


Pandemic fatigue and chronic stress

 We’re super stressed. When the pandemic hit and we needed to mobilise quickly, most of us did. We worked harder than ever to rapidly shift – moving services online and staff into remote environments – and for many people, the dial got stuck in hero mode 

Hero mode is an amazing thing, and can bring an exceptional productivity boost – but it’s not sustainable. The lag effect of powering up and powering through is hitting home, with people now feeling exhausted and overloaded. 

In many workplaces, people feel an expectation to be constantly at their best, and this is eroding trust between leaders and staff. Burnout is on the increase globally, and we’re no safer on this side of the world. New research out of AUT suggests 11% of New Zealand workers are facing burnout thanks to stress and overwork.

It’s a dangerous place to be. According to research by Accenture, burned out employees are 63% more likely to take sick days and are 2.5x more likely to leave their jobs. Mental health issues are on the rise, with more employees accessing EAP programmes as pandemic fatigue hits. People have been expending huge amounts of extra energy dealing with the struggles and changes of a new lifestyle, and it’s exhausting - which lowers our resilience and boosts negative feelings. We’re more on edge, we’re more anxious, and, if we’re not careful, this puts us in a negative self-perpetuating cycle of chronic unhappiness.  


Remote working

People who started new jobs in the midst of lockdown often speak of the difficulties of adjusting to a work environment and getting to know their colleagues online – and it’s not limited to new hires. Zoom might be great for juggling family responsibilities and reducing the pressure to wear work outfits, but it comes at a cost. 

Virtual meetings can be challenging environments, especially when we use them over a long period of time – and the impact on our working relationships is starting to show. Without the intermittent personal interaction of a physical office environment, we can find it harder to build relationships and personally connect with people. We miss body language and facial cues, and miss out on the face-to-face advantages of eye contact and small talk. Over time, these lost connection opportunities can worsen an existing culture of mistrust or make it impossible to build relationships at all.


Media mistrust

Media thrives on fear. It’s how journalists meet click targets and provoke hateful conversations in their comment threads, boosting visibility and attracting advertisers. We see it in our entertainment too, as true crime podcasts continue to be all the rage and people seek solace in the complexity of others’ lives to escape their own. This has long been a trend in a resource-constrained, fast-news media environment – but things are getting worse.

The click-fodder provided by COVID has sparked a sharp increase in anxiety-inducing media – and politics! – which might be great for news budgets, but has a long tail impact on the way we feel about the world around us. As we operate in a context of mistrust, those external forces start to affect the way we judge situations, people and challenges in our own lives, making it harder for us to assume positive intent.

In Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, Malcolm Gladwell examines the harm and tragedy we face as a society when people fail to understand each other or see others’ points of view. Targeted marketing and algorithms drive these divisions deeper, serving us content that aligns with our existing viewpoints, and creating bubbles of mistrust between key groups in society. It might be easy journalism… but it’s ruining us.

New workplace expectations

As we continue to bring important social and equity issues to light, in our communities, and at work, the pressure is on for employers to show how they’re tackling diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Recent movements, like Black Lives Matter and fair pay initiatives, are casting the spotlight onto the way we make decisions – and not everyone is coming up well. These forces, while undeniably for good, can sow seeds of doubt when it comes to the way we’re treated at work.

A recent Workforce Institute study, which surveyed almost 4,000 leaders and employees globally, has surfaced some of these tensions, showing that we’re not totally convinced our employers are on our side. For example, 38% of employees don’t trust their organisation to put employee interests ahead of profits. 32% don’t trust equal standards for pay and promotions, and 29% don’t trust their employer to create a diverse and inclusive workplace.

Beyond diversity, our mistrust extends to logistics and administration too, with 27% of people not trusting they will be scheduled fairly, 25% not trusting their employer to create a safe workplace, and 24% of people not even trusting they’ll be paid accurately each pay period.

The lag effect of the pandemic, and the ongoing ripples of change, confusion and uncertainty are hitting us hard – and in organisations who aren’t actively responding, we may very well be about to reach a tipping point in mental health, performance and engagement.


It's not all bad!

We’re definitely wobbly, but the game isn’t lost yet. In fact, some workplaces are experiencing higher trust levels than ever. In many workplaces, the shifts caused by the pandemic have had a positive effect on trust, and the rise in flexible working has unleashed new levels of freedom and permission that would have been unheard of a few decades ago. 

Bright spots include:

  • Flexible working

  • Business reputation

  • Trusting + thriving


Flexible working

The same Workforce Institute Survey that unveiled the curly statistics above also found that flexible working trust levels are pretty positive, with a quarter of employees globally saying they’re now trusted to swap shifts without manager approval, and a third able to select their own time off.

The positive flow-on of having autonomy in the way we schedule our lives and work is huge, and provides real hope for managing mistrust in the future. We’ve seen a greater focus on employee health and wellbeing than ever before, as people have been forced to bring more of their lives in view of their work.

School closures and lockdowns supported a transition toward a more flexible approach to managing work and children, and many of us have more flexibility than ever in the way we do our work.


Business reputation

Interestingly, with trust in social institutions at an all-time low, business has become the most trusted institution globally (across business, NGOs, government and the media.) Recent data is suggesting that when social trust is shaken, many consumers and employees expect business to step in. While this puts added pressure on businesses, socially conscious or not, it also provides an opportunity for employers to build new pathways and relationships with their teams.


Trusting = thriving

People who do work in high-trust environments thrive. In a 2017 US study, neuroscientist Paul Zak discovered a physical link between trust and performance, thanks to the power of oxytocin. He found that employees in a high trust environment experience…

  • 74% less stress

  • 50% higher productivity

  • 106% more energy at work

  • 13% fewer sick days

  • 76% more engagement

  • 29% more satisfaction in their lives, and

  • 40% less burnout.

Beyond the personal, trust helps businesses thrive financially too, increasing speed and lowering costs. It’s a shortcut to getting things done more quickly.

When people trust a business to deliver, marketing and sales are easier. When airport security trusts people to be more compliant, scanning is twice as fast. When people trust each other to deliver, meetings are quicker. When opinions feel safe to share, problems are solved faster. When we don’t have to build in extra layers of bureaucracy and accountability, everything is simpler and easier.

How trust works

Trust involves different directions, dimensions and dynamics.

Directions of trust are about the different kind of relationships involved.

Dimensions of trust are about the different types of trust we build in those relationships.

Dynamics of trust are about the actions we take in those relationships to build trust.



Trust moves in at least three different directions – inwardly, horizontally, and vertically.

Inward trust – In order to trust others, we need to trust ourselves. When we have a negative self-perception around our reliability, competence, or worthiness, we tend to project that to others. In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey identifies the key areas we need to focus on here – our intent, our integrity, our capabilities, and our results. When we believe in our own credibility, we’re able to extend that compassion and faith to others. 

Vertical trust –Leaders need to trust their people, and people need to trust their leaders. Vertical trust looks at both directions – do people feel safe and supported? Do leaders feel confident in the capability and integrity of their teams? 

Horizontal trust – People need to trust their peers to uphold their commitments, deliver on their promises and be reliable, positive sources of support and collaboration. Trust between teams enables us to make decisions and get things done together. Without horizontal trust, progress slows to a standstill.

Dimensions of trust

Stephen M. R. Covey: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour” – The Speed of Trust.

Trust at work isn’t just about our performance – it’s about our personality, too. Gardner identifies two key, mutually reinforcing dimensions of trust – competence trust (professional ability) and interpersonal trust (personal connection.)

Trying to have competence trust without the interpersonal connection is challenging, because we need connection to humanise people and reduce attribution error – where we judge ourselves by our intent, but others by their behaviour. 

Jack Zenger, author of “Speed: How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution” calls these three elements of trust: relationships, judgement and consistency. In his research, he found that relationships matter the most - so that even if we mess up, or we’re occasionally unreliable, our relationships will save us.


Dynamics of trust

While trust might be an inward job first, it isn’t built alone – you can’t just “become more trusting” (…I’ve tried). But it does require things to work on all levels.

Each actor in a trust ecosystem needs to be committed to the same behaviours and attributes. When people embrace vulnerability, choose to forgive and assume positive intent of their peers, we create a virtuous cycle of trust that feeds on its own outcomes. 

Trust is a team sport, as Glaser outlines in Conversational Intelligence. Trust requires small deposits of proof and positive interaction, which means we need to make space for that to happen, and build it in a managed and incremental way.

The ties of trust are built through

  • Transparency of communication – “tell me how things are, honestly.”

  • Perception of fairness – “treat me equally.”

  • Role clarity – “be clear about what you need from me.”

  • Reliability – “do what you say you will.”

  • Safe conflict – “disagree with me respectfully, without attacking me personally.”

  • Accountability – “have proportionate consequences when I don’t hold up my end of the bargain.”

  • Forgiveness – “make it safe for me to try things and fail.”


How to build trust at work

I’m not an expert here, and I have plenty of trust issues of my own. In fact, a lack of trust is my singlemost challenging barrier to being an effective leader.

In many ways, I’m the worst person out there to give advice on trust, as it doesn’t come naturally to me at all… but I suspect that might be exactly why I can help.

To support my own journey toward being both trusting and trustworthy, I’ve taken the nerd approach and done the research.

Then, I’ve applied this thinking in my own life, and to the coaching work I do in supporting others to build powerful teams, and to lead successful conversations with Meetings that Matter.

Both evidence and anecdote support some powerful interventions that can turn mistrust around, and none of them are particularly challenging – they just require intention around the way we show up and spend time together.


Nine things you can do to build trust at work:

1. Give more praise. Being recognised for our efforts triggers a flood of oxytocin, the feel good chemical in our brain, which boosts the way people feel at work. According to neuroscientist Paul Zak, recognition works best when it’s “tangible, unexpected, personal and public.”And when it happens as quickly as possible once the goal has been met. And when it comes from peers.

2. Set achievable goals.- When we can’t realistically achieve the workload we’ve been set, we lose trust and happiness quickly. With attainable challenges that have a clear end point, we feel good. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile found that 76% of people report their best days when they make progress toward their goals.

3. Chat more openly.  Uncertainty about what’s going on increases chronic stress, reduces teamwork and drives down engagement. It sets off the rumour mill and makes it hard for people to concentrate or feel good about each other or their work. In 2015, a Gallup study of 2.5 million manager-led teams across 195 countries found that engagement improves when employees have daily communication with their supervisor. Be accountable and communicate. Be honest, be vulnerable and give real authentic feedback. When people don’t know what’s going on, they make up their own stories. Take control of those before the wrong news spreads.

4. Be more social. People are inherently social - check out Wired to Connect for a great read on this - and trust is multi-dimensional. When we can blend the two (interpersonal connection with professional competency) we’re more productive and far more likely to enjoy coming to work.

5. Show respect. Respect people’s time, energy and ideas. Make it safe to share unpopular opinions and treat people how you want to be treated. Simple. Human 101.

6. Care more. When we invest in people, they invest in us. John C. Maxwell once said that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Value people, their futures, and their lives outside work. Instead of looking backwards, on people’s performance, focus forwards, on helping them achieve their goals.

7. Give clearer direction. Make it crystal clear what people are supposed to do, how It fits into the big picture, and what success looks like. Then, be surprised when they do it.

8. Reward unity. Incentivise teamwork and collaboration – rather than simply putting a values poster on the wall and then judging everyone’s performance individually. Make teamwork the way to succeed, where everyone shares in the spoils – and the failures.

9. Make the space. This stuff doesn’t happen by accident. Make the time and space to check in, schedule team building activities (just nothing lame, please…) and make it a priority rather than seeing it as a nice-to-have. Think about how you show up.


To Sum Up

  • There is a mistrust epidemic creeping into our workplaces

  • It’s mostly COVID’s fault, but there’s other things too

  • Mistrust makes everything feel hard and not fun

  • Trust makes things faster, easier and more enjoyable

  • We can build trust by doing nine key things

    • Giving more praise

    • Set achievable goals

    • Chatting more openly

    • Being more social

    • Showing respect

    • Caring more

    • Giving clearer direction

    • Rewarding unit

    • Making the space.


Workforce Institute Survey – Trust In the Modern Workplace is a global survey of nearly 4,000 employees and business leaders in 11 countries. Read here.