Trust & Dysfunctional Groups

I would especially appreciate hearing your thoughts on how trust and courage can be nourished laterally “among co-workers, especially when there is a dysfunctional work culture.” Blog reader

I was asked to lead a new business unit at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis, Minnesota. One of the departments I would be responsible for was Field Services. This group was unhappy: mad about changes being forced on them, some employees were working with the Teamsters union to gather enough signatures to force a vote for a union.

I met with Field Services employees and shared with them the story of what we were doing in another department of the new business unit. I described our need to grow in new ways, our struggles to define our values and create a new vision for the mature workforce, and our ideas for what might be possible in the new business unit. An employee said, “We don’t know you. Why should we trust you?”

“You are used to managers who come and go and use you to advance their careers,” I said. “You shouldn’t trust me. Pay attention and watch what we do and your trust in us will grow.”

A few months later, the employees who led the union organizing drive were leaders in the company employee involvement effort. Field Services had created a new vision for their department, redesigned their jobs, downsized their department voluntarily, and one of them spoke proudly about their work to the company senior staff. The Teamsters were gone. Trust had grown.

Dysfunctional organizations and work groups are the norm in many enterprises. They are some mix and degree of petty, political, and mediocre places of lies, abuse, denial, conflict, betrayal, immaturity, bad behavior, mangled relationships, and incompetence rewarded. Such organizations lack accountability, and disengaged workers often intimidate good people who remain silent and go along to get along. Dishonesty in such groups is common.  Distrust is an appropriate reaction in a dysfunctional work culture.

Such an organization needs a strong, value-driven leader who will hold people accountable and will engage people and lead a culture change effort and grow trust one action and one conversation at a time.  Outstanding leader Ruth Rothstein, former Chief, Cook County Bureau of Health Services, Chicago, Illinois, said to me:  “I think trust is important. I think most people trust me because I tell the truth — even if it hurts me. Even if it hurts me, I will tell the truth. I think you build trust by being an authentic leader.”

Pseudo-leaders are common. Before trusting the leader, watch what she does. Observe the impacts people have on others before you decide to trust them. True leaders care about people and help others be the best they can be — all the time.  Pay attention to values and authenticity. In assessing a leader, be wary of words spoken; pay attention to actions taken and trust your heart. Absent authentic leadership, permanent change is improbable.

Earlier in my career at the Star Tribune, I was a front-line union represented employee for two years. The department was highly dysfunctional–a hard place to be a hard-working person of integrity. I believed in excellence and worked hard to achieve. I had to stand up to union stewards and other union leaders who demanded mediocrity so as not to make the most disengaged workers look bad.  I refused instructions to cheat and steal from the company. I moved up quickly in the management ranks and eventually was in charge of the department and led culture change.

My advice to employees who work in dysfunctional organizations: If you get a strong leader, support the leader and help her lead change. If you don’t get the leader you need, stay true to your values, stand against mediocrity and dishonesty, and strive for excellence. Join with like-minded people, find your allies, come together to find courage, and do what you can to bring about change. People will trust you as a person of integrity. But know that you may be attacked, threatened, and sabotaged for doing so (See Plato’s Cave).

If you cannot stay true to yourself, leave the organization and go somewhere where you can be an honest and authentic employee.