A Concerning Story of Workplace Trust (and How It Can Spiral out of Control)
Trust only goes so far where it pertains to employee and employer. It’s not a whole-hearted trust, but more like an “I trust you for now” sentiment.
I personally have experienced the strangest culmination of trust issues in the workplace. My issues with one of my employers began at the intersection of trust, insecurity and ambition.
I was the ambitious employee who saw the possibilities for my career in taking advantage of every educational opportunity this employer had to offer. It seemed reasonable at the time to take advantage and progress myself.
My relationship with my immediate supervisor started off with trust. She seemed supportive of my growth and in turn I believed she understood my motivation to be an asset to the organization.
To start my educational buffet, I requested clearance to take part in the company’s free offering of HR certification courses through Cornell. I was approved for one certificate to begin with. I enjoyed it so much that I continued to ask for clearance as I decided to pursue four other certifications. Additionally, I applied for the internal management program and was accepted.
Here is where my trouble began…
If you read clearly, it seems harmless enough that I was taking advantage of what was available. After all, we create programs like these in HR so that the employees can benefit from them.
At this time, I had been warned many times over not to trust my immediate supervisor despite her seemingly supportive demeanor. I kept what I knew in my back pocket, but continued to interact with her in our collegial, but jovial manner.
It was like one of those bright sunny days where the skies quickly turn black anticipating a bad storm. My supervisor just turned on me one day. A hiring manager claimed I didn’t send them candidates for a position and so she called me in to discuss. I expected to find the usually supportive supervisor and instead I found someone who didn’t care to find out the facts. She had an agenda to berate me - but why?
She thought I wanted her job.
My supervisor was the Director of Talent Acquisition, but the role she loved the most was Director of Gossip. She had a penchant for talking about her employees with their co-workers. In her head, she was sharing her thoughts with what seemed like close friends. She even went so far to ask for their confidentiality. Trust was being compromised at every corner of this workplace and no one was all the wiser.
Eventually, the gossip got back to me and it was about me. I was warned that she berated me that day and it wasn’t even a real issue. I was also cautioned that she felt intimidated by me and my ambition. My very benign intention of pursuing what this employer had to offer was seen as an undercover plot to dethrone her and take her job.
Seven years later it remains somewhat laughable, but this is the epitome of where trust, insecurity, a deviant mind and lack of communication gets a person in trouble. I can write a book about the endless bullying I endured from this woman from that fateful day forward.
For the purpose of this post let’s explore where she went wrong:
- It is never alright to gossip about your employees with their co-workers. In fact, gossip in the workplace is seldom contained. There is no trust where there are juicy office tidbits floating around. It always gets out and it is nothing pretty when it does. Avoid it at all costs.
- When we create training and development programs in HR, it is usually because we understand that a knowledgeable employee is not only an asset to themselves, but for the company as well. Why anyone would take offense to an employee wanting to better themselves is beyond me.
- Let’s talk about assumptions. We all know the saying. My supervisor made a lot of assumptions about me without any real proof. She assumed that because I pursued all of those certifications and passed – that I had a plan to take her job. The reality was I didn’t want her job at all. It was a thankless, high-volume output position with very few controls in place for anyone to be successful in it.
- Which brings me to my last insight; she was insecure in her abilities. If she had the decency to have a straightforward conversation with me about my goals – instead of gossiping - she would have found out that my only goal at that time was to work at one of the site hospitals closer to my home. I needed to be closer to my then infant daughter. Communication saves relationships and reputations.
Trust is important in any relationship. Workplace relationships are no different. Never assume you know what an employee’s intentions are. Actions are half the story, but motivations are internal and not readily visible. Communicate often, address issues and concerns with the pertinent parties and don’t discourage the ambitious of the bunch from bettering themselves because of your insecurities. Doing otherwise results in the demise of your own career as a leader. You’ve been warned.
Why Lasting Change Is Hard
Before we had any children, my wife and I lived in the heart of Dallas. One day, on our way back to our house, we were driving down Skillman Avenue when we were caught in a sudden torrential downpour.
The rain was coming down incredibly hard, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the storm drains were equipped to handle that much water. Instead, the road itself filled with water faster than we could have anticipated. Quickly, the water rose up the side of our car. Trying not to panic, we realized that we could not continue and would need to turn around and get to higher ground.
Water rising up the side of your car door is the kind of roadblock you might not expect to encounter, but when you do, it’s formidable. We couldn’t drive through it or even around it. We had to deal with it quickly or face serious consequences.
When we’re trying to implement change in our own lives, it’s important to identify and plan for common roadblocks to lasting change.
The first and, in my opinion, most important roadblock to lasting change is not addressing the real issue.
Let’s say you wake up in the middle of the night with a sore throat. You’re annoyed by feeling sick but your throat really hurts, so you get up and spray a little Chloraseptic in your mouth and drift off to sleep. When you wake up the next day, you still have a sore throat, so you pop in a cough drop and go about your day.
The change you’re making – using a numbing agent – might work if you’ve only got a cold, but if it’s strep throat, you’re not addressing the real problem. Only an antibiotic will cure what ails you, even if Chloraseptic will keep the pain at bay for a while.
Just like how more information is needed to diagnose your sore throat than one feeling, problems you encounter in your life or business require diagnostics, too. Figuring out the real problem – not just your most apparent needs – requires some introspection and a little bit of time.
Here are eight questions to ask when you need to discover the root cause, courtesy of MindTools.com:
- What do you see happening?
- What are the specific symptoms?
- What proof do you have that the problem exists?
- How long has the problem existed?
- What is the impact of the problem?
- What sequence of events leads to the problem?
- What conditions allow the problem to occur?
- What other problems surround the occurrence of the central problem?
Once you have your answers to these key questions, you can’t stop there. Your vantage point is skewed from your own perspective. You’re going to want to ask someone else to evaluate the problem at hand with the same questions and then compare your answers.
If you and all of the partners at your firm have similar answers, you’ll know you’re on the right track. If you wind up with wildly different ideas, I suggest seeking the advice of someone outside your organization. Fresh eyes can make all the difference in understanding a problem.
I often talk about being ‘too close’ to understand. You’ve probably heard the illustration about a group of people standing by an elephant with blindfolds on, trying to describe what they’re experiencing. Depending on what part of the elephant you’re next to, you’re going to have different observations.
But someone outside of that elephant’s cage can clearly identify the elephant.
The first key to making a lasting change is to make sure you’ve addressed the real problem and are looking for authentic change.
Next time, we’ll address the second major roadblock to creating last change.
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