Friday, April 20, 2018

Want trust? Deal with fear!

"Fear is a bad advisor!" - proverb.
Positive working environments require trust. Trust can be given and earned - it can't be forced or demanded. Team building workshops often focus around building trust. Are they dealing with the symptom of distrust, though?

Here is a causal loop diagram modeling the relationship between trust and fear:

There is a direct relationship between trust and fear: Fearful people don't trust. Trustful people don't fear. Then, how do you get from A to B? It's not as easy as extending trust, although that helps.

The vicious circles

In the model, we see three different vicious circles which need to be broken almost simultaneously before trust can be established. I also hint a way to break these vicious circles.

Blame Games

Starting on the top left, the most visible fear cycle is related to Blame. Nobody likes to be blamed. Being afraid of blame, people hide their mistakes. in consequence either finding someone else to blame ("But you said ..." - "X told me...") or, when caught, receiving blame. Positive management must end blaming peole. Blame helps nobody. Identifying someone responsible should never be aimed at having someone to blame, it should always be aimed at finding a way to change things for the better.
As coach, I have even resorted to the rather ridiculous tactic of saying "Ok, it's my fault. Now, how can you make sure it doesn't happen again?" - of course, it's ridiculous that it's my fault. That's not what matters. What matters is that the discussion about fault ends and we start talking change.


The next vicious circle is related to information hiding. It's much harder to spot, as one can't know what one could know but doesn't know because it's being kept secret.
It takes a lot of sleuth work to put missing pieces together and discover where people are covering up inportant information revealing what is really going on. Why do people do this? Often, they either don't trust what will happen when uncomfortable facts are revealed - in which case it's a trust issue, or they know what will happen and don't like that - in which case it's a fear issue.
People wouldn't be afraid if failure was not perceived as a stigma with negative repercussions. Establishing a positive failure culture, "Hooray for failure" can go a long way. Just make sure that this Hooray is then hooked up with real learning and change - otherwise, a team member's trust in the team can turn into an outsider's distrust in the work of the team.

Choking Control

The third vicious circle is related to controls. Be that meetings, reports, supervision or checklists. While every single of these isn't necessarily bad, in sum, they can devastate people's ability to think, act and change. One control may be no issue, a hundred controls make it impossible to change anything - and simultaneously, often create a self-contradictory system where at least one control is always broken. People are constantly afraid of breaching control and spend more time on meeting control requirements than on doing actual work which helps the organization.
Managers stop trusting their employees when controls are broken, and employees stop trusting their managers when broken controls don't lead to more effective ways of working, but more controls. At worst, managers also stop trusting their controls when these prove ineffective and load yet more controls to control the controls.
Creating transparency what is truly going on and which processes are actually enforced by these controls can go a long way in abolishing their destructive force and minimizing control to truly helpful levels.


"Don't fear" or "We can trust one another" are hollow slogans. These don't help anything. "Building trust" without understanding the vicious circles and loopback dynamics leading to the low levels of trust we often observe in organizations.
The main lever for raising trust isn't simply building trust, but alleviating the fears which constantly chop at any small flower of trust sprouting up.

As coaches, we must understand both the fear dynamics and the fears driving people. Only then can we build the trustful environment needed to succeed.


  1. Coverups/info hiding is more than a trust/fear of blame construct. The fear may also be related to power - wanting to have power and influence over the team and project vs fear of losing it if the info is shared with the team. The fear of irrelevance.

    1. Yes, fear is a broad topic. There are so many different types of fears.

      In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the fear of information hiding you address would cut anywhere from safety needs to esteem needs (and potentially, if one is afraid of losing their job, maybe even physiological needs).