The Other Contagion: Mistrust

Under any cir­cum­stances how peo­ple per­ceive they are being treat­ed by their employ­ers either cre­ates greater or less­er trust. The coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic nat­u­ral­ly stirs up and may dras­ti­cal­ly height­en what­ev­er lev­el of trust is part of an exist­ing work­place envi­ron­ment — depend­ing on what the lead­ers do. A lot has been made of ensur­ing ade­quate com­mu­ni­ca­tion and main­tain­ing the flow of tasks and sense of con­nec­tion as peo­ple are sent home to work. But the issues of trust are deep­er and poten­tial­ly have more impact on pro­duc­tiv­i­ty than those sole­ly relat­ed to the ongo­ing orga­ni­za­tion and con­trol of work and man­ag­ing remote work­ers — if only because con­ta­gious dis­ease is so stress­ful, unpre­dictable and per­son­al. And we can’t for­get that this is gen­er­al­ly a time of mis­trust, in gov­ern­ment, soci­ety and nature, too. It’s easy to believe things are hang­ing by a thread, that full-on cat­a­stro­phe is near­ly upon us.


There are many, many ques­tions and sit­u­a­tions aris­ing, some legal or eth­i­cal, some about the raw fair­ness of poli­cies, some dri­ven by real­is­tic or unre­al­is­tic fears and the nature of orga­ni­za­tion­al ambi­gu­i­ty. No one could pos­si­bly know all the answers but it’s clear that employ­ers that aren’t con­scious­ly work­ing to allay peo­ples’ fears, answer their ques­tions and deal with the com­plex­i­ty human­ly and sen­si­tive­ly will suf­fer. It isn’t just a mat­ter of hir­ing good lawyers or kick­ing HR staff into gear or mak­ing hyp­o­crit­i­cal promis­es. Peo­ple will remem­ber for a long time how they felt their orga­ni­za­tion­al lead­ers treat­ed peo­ple in the face of chaos and may­hem cre­at­ed by and reflect­ed by the pandemic.

Some staff con­cerns will nat­u­ral­ly have to do with all the pro­to­cols of work­ing from home. Oth­ers, prob­a­bly more volatile, are the ones relat­ed to what’s hap­pen­ing with those who are stay­ing at the office or plant. For exam­ple, what guid­ance has been pro­vid­ed to first and sec­ond lev­el lead­ers about:

• the favorite staff mem­ber who shows up at work with what seems to be a minor cold, down­plays the sneezes and coughs, and does­n’t want to go home?

• the oth­er staff mem­bers who com­plain about the co-work­er who comes to work with that minor cold?

• the staff mem­ber who wants to move to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion because her sta­tion is right next to a door­way where poten­tial­ly con­ta­gious patrons are enter­ing the building?

• the super­vi­sor who per­son­al­ly stays home to work but says employ­ees need to be at their desks?

• the super­vi­sor who is wait­ing for guid­ance about what to do with such issues and asks every­one to also con­stant­ly wait for word from “high­er-ups”?

• the staff mem­bers who appear to be per­fect­ly healthy but want to work from home?

• and on and on.…

I’m sure you have heard many oth­er quandaries.

The point is that the nature of a pan­dem­ic and the broad pro­tec­tions such as social dis­tanc­ing being put into place have strong emo­tion­al con­tent that inter­acts with what­ev­er lev­el of trust or mis­trust is already present in a work­place. If the lead­ers are gen­er­al­ly trust­ed to begin with, even if they make some mis­takes, even if not every part of their action plan is per­fect, peo­ple are like­ly to hang in and maybe even increase their lev­el of engage­ment. But if the lead­ers are not trust­ed or only part­ly trust­ed, if they appear unin­volved or sus­pi­cious­ly self-pro­tec­tive, staff may very well feel greater per­son­al and group anx­i­ety and stress. They may be more judg­men­tal and crit­i­cal of the lead­ers. The rumor mill may be oper­at­ing, as they say, “at fever pitch” about all man­ner of issues includ­ing but extend­ing beyond the pan­dem­ic. They may have a hard­er time con­cen­trat­ing. There may be more mistakes…by every­one. Such is the nature of pan­ic, whether low or high key. The less incip­i­ent his­tor­i­cal trust in the orga­ni­za­tion and its lead­ers, the more like­ly peo­ple will feel threat­ened — threat­ened poten­tial­ly on many levels. 

Neu­rolead­er­ship expert, David Rock, has pre­vi­ous­ly char­ac­ter­ized these threats via his “SCARF mod­el,” work per­fect­ly sum­ma­rized by Ed Batista. SCARF refers to Status, Certain­ty, Auton­o­my, Relat­ed­ness and Fair­ness, all core con­cerns of how peo­ple think about their fun­da­men­tal safe­ty. Does what­ev­er is hap­pen­ing enhance or jeop­ar­dize my sense of my own stature, my sense of pre­dictabil­i­ty, my sense of being with­in my con­trol and knowl­edge, my cir­cle of known rela­tion­ships, my sense of fair­ness? Think­ing of each of these fac­tors in turn, it’s clear how deeply the coro­n­avirus could quick­ly upset any and all of them because what coro­n­avirus essen­tial­ly rep­re­sents is loss.

Giv­en that lead­ers have been thrown into this unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion, what should they — what should you — do? If you want to not only main­tain trust, but even see the cur­rent moment as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to active­ly build trust (because trust is need­ed more than ever right now), what actions will most help you and your organization? 

Well, one could write books about such times because there are so many lay­ers to under­stand and respond to, and sure­ly some will be written. 

The short answer is that trust is deeply con­nect­ed to peo­ple feel­ing they are cared about — per­son­al­ly — in the midst of the mess. When mean­ing­ful per­son­al atten­tion and care are unavail­able, that is exact­ly when mis­trust fills the void. So along with all those oth­er essen­tial attrib­ut­es of lead­er­ship under pres­sure, such as deter­mi­na­tion, per­sis­tence and calm (again, said per­fect­ly by Ed Batista), I would add there is giv­ing oth­ers the gift of your time to inquire, to sup­port, and offer your best wis­dom about how we get through this togeth­er. In prac­tice this means that you divide your time between team col­lab­o­ra­tions about the work and team health*, and one-on-one, more per­son­al exchanges, how­ev­er they might be con­duct­ed by phone or over Zoom. I don’t believe a leader can know how their team is doing unless that leader knows how each per­son inde­pen­dent­ly — and inter-depen­dent­ly — is doing. 

You may be per­fect­ly cor­rect in say­ing, “But I don’t have time…” for all those con­ver­sa­tions — “I’m slammed” — and that may be total­ly true. How­ev­er, it will also define for oth­ers whether you actu­al­ly prac­tice as a leader, or are just a well-intend­ed man­ag­er or col­league. Effec­tive lead­ers know how to build each unique per­son­al con­nec­tion, and it is through this con­nec­tion that psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty either comes or does not. If it comes, trust can be built. Effec­tive lead­ers know when some­one, any­one on their team is hurt­ing, because they notice when a per­son feels threat­ened or upset, is angry or beat up or griev­ing. They do their lev­el best to make time and to let the per­son voice their indi­vid­ual con­cerns and cares, and to respond direct­ly and com­plete­ly, thor­ough­ly to those cares. Even if this is to say, “there’s no answer right now to what you are ask­ing.” It isn’t just those words, of course, that make any dif­fer­ence — it’s who is say­ing them and how. In this sense, coro­n­avirus isn’t dif­fer­ent as a trust-based lead­er­ship chal­lenge — it’s just a more intense form of what’s been there all along in your rela­tion­ships with others.

When you come down to it, it’s about who you are, what kind of leader you are and aspire to be, who you feel you want and need to be in a time of cri­sis, and to think for your­self about that, not just take the word of oth­ers that you should be “tougher” or “soft­er,” more or less deci­sive, more less com­pas­sion­ate. “Who you are” means there’s still a part of you that is will­ing to step away from the may­hem, calm­ing your own fears of loss in order to learn as much as you can about what you are fac­ing, and what in the midst of all the crazi­ness you are all about for the peo­ple who depend on you.


* Here’s an excel­lent piece by Chris West­on and shared by Euan Sem­ple called the “Remote Work Sur­vival Kit.”


  • HI Dan,

    …there is giv­ing oth­ers the gift of your time to inquire, to sup­port, and offer your best wis­dom about how we get through this togeth­er… it’s just a more intense form of what’s been there all along in your rela­tion­ships with others.”

    The key…

    This type of car­ing, con­cern, empa­thy and com­pas­sion (tak­en as a sin­gle, com­mon trait) is not like a “cloak,” which you put on and take off only when con­ve­nient. It’s part of your DNA. The folks who man­i­fest these qual­i­ties and capac­i­ties have most prob­a­bly demon­strat­ed them all along, and those who don’t, prob­a­bly have not. You can’t fake care and concern. 

    So, There are, and will be — as this expe­ri­ence con­tin­ues — many lead­ers and man­agers who are react­ing like a deer in head­lights, not know­ing what to “do” — which is nor­mal for the most part, but more­over, how to “be.” For them, if they are for­tu­nate enough, this is a real oppor­tu­ni­ty to take some time to “know thy­self.” Much of who they are, and how they are, as lead­ers and man­agers will be a func­tion of what they learn see about them­selves, if they are able and will­ing, as they nav­i­gate this oppor­tu­ni­ty, not only for their pro­fes­sion­al grow, but, per­son­al growth — as you so well artic­u­lat­ed. Time will tell. Bless­ings to all con­cerned. Good stuff!

  • Hi Peter~

    It’s great to hear your voice in these anx­ious times! 

    I agree with you, this is a time when some may dis­cov­er some­thing of them­selves they had not seen or known. Right now I sus­pect many are in shock. But soon enough, those ques­tions of “what do I do” will come forward. 

    Some may try to put on that cloak of com­pas­sion only to learn it is not tru­ly of their soul. Some may get a dif­fer­ent kind of feed­back from oth­ers than they were expect­ing. And some will gain new insights into them­selves and others. 

    Emer­gen­cies ulti­mate­ly draw down on the capac­i­ty of peo­ple to think for them­selves and trust deep­er forms of integri­ty, rely in deep­er ways on the heart. Per­haps not right at first, but ulti­mate­ly when the strain of hold­ing onto the past is too great. Then old defen­sive ways may begin to crum­ble and we find our choice to either con­tin­ue hid­ing from real­i­ty or learn how to open our­selves to change.

    We can love and we can hope, and we can turn love and hope into action.

    Thank you again, my friend!


  • Emer­gen­cies ulti­mate­ly draw down on the capac­i­ty of peo­ple to think for them­selves and trust deep­er forms of integri­ty, rely in deep­er ways on the heart” (you)

    Vik­tor Fran­kl in Man’s Search for Mean­ing says: “Between stim­u­lus and response, there’s a space and in that space lies our pow­er to choose our response and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

    That space, for me, is the space between the amyg­dala and the neo-cor­tex. Between the emo­tion­al­ly reac­tive and exec­u­tive func­tion of the brain. Cur­rent times more con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly dri­ve lots of folks to the amyg­dala, the place of fear, pan­ic, ter­ror, anger and all of that. When the fear, etc. become too great, each of us has that choice — to go down deep into the fear or to take the time to self-reflect. This is a “choice point.” 

    This can be the place, where, as you say, ” we find our choice to either con­tin­ue hid­ing from real­i­ty or learn how to open our­selves to change.” 

    Time will tell for each of us. We can hold the vision.

  • Beau­ti­ful­ly said, Peter. And thank you again for adding your deep insights!

    Time will tell for each of us.”
    How true. How true.

    All the best to you and please stay in touch!


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