Successful Supervisor 21 – The Importance of Trust

April 8, 2017

In my seminars on trust, I always do an exercise that illustrates the pivotal importance of trust in any organization.

In this experiential exercise I split the group up into small discussion groups and give each group a different dimension to work on by answering the following question: for your dimension, can you contrast what it is like to try to accomplish it if you are working with a high trust group versus a low trust group?

I could think up dozens of dimensions to explore, but to keep the exercise bounded in terms of time, I use only nine dimensions with groups. Here is a list of the nine dimensions along with my comments on the contrast of trying to do them in a high versus low trust group.

1. Solving Problems

In organizations of high trust, problems are dealt with easily and efficiently. In low trust organizations, problems become huge obstacles as leaders work to unscramble the mess to find out who said what or who caused the problem to spiral out of control.

Often feelings are hurt or long term damage in relationships occurs. While problems exist in any environment, they take many times longer to resolve if there is low trust.

In addition, the creative ideas of people are more readily accessible to the group when people aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

Sometimes a lack of trust can cause small problems to bloom into first class disasters.

A good example of this progression is the Challenger Disaster in 1986. The Rogers Commission (1987) found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision making process were key contributing factors of the accident. Technicians who were aware of a problem did not feel it was safe to bring it up due to low trust levels.

2. Focused Energy

People in organizations with high trust do not need to be defensive. They focus energy on accomplishing the Vision and Mission of the organization. Their energy is directed toward the customer and against the competition.

In low trust organizations, people are myopic and waste energy due to infighting and politics. Their focus is on internal squabbles and destructive turf battles.

Bad blood between people creates a litany of issues that distract supervision from the pursuit of excellence. Instead, they play referee to a bunch of adult workers who often act like children.

Trust leads to constancy of purpose as well as focus. In Managing People is Like Herding Cats (1999), Warren Bennis wrote: “A recent study showed people would rather follow individuals they can count on, even when they disagree with their viewpoint, than people they agree with but who shift positions frequently. I cannot emphasize enough the significance of constancy and focus.” (p.85)

3. Efficient Communication

When trust is high, the communication process is efficient, as leaders freely share valuable insights about business conditions and strategy.

In low trust organizations, rumors and gossip zap around the organization like laser beams in a hall of mirrors. Before long, leaders are blinded with problems coming from every direction. Trying to control the rumors takes energy away from the mission and strategy.

High trust organizations rely on solid, believable communication, while the atmosphere in low trust groups is usually one of damage control and minimizing employee unrest.

Since people’s reality is what they believe rather than what is objectively happening, the need for damage control in low trust groups is often a huge burden. Not only is verbal communication enhanced by trust, all forms of communication including e-mail, body language, and listening are improved by trust.

In A Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven B. Sample (2002) discusses the concept of Artful Listening which enables a leader to “…see things through the eyes of his followers while at the same time seeing things from his own perspective” (p.22). He calls this skill “seeing double.” Sample stresses that Artful Listening is enabled by trust.

4. Retaining Customers

Workers in high trust organizations have a passion for their work that is obvious to customers. When trust is lacking, workers often display apathy toward the company that is transparent to customers.

Most of us have experienced this apathy while sitting in a restaurant where the service is poor. If there is a low trust environment, we feel an uncomfortable tension that discourages our future return to that establishment.

All it takes is the roll of eyes or some shoddy body language to send valuable customers looking for alternatives.

5. A “Real” Environment

People who work in high trust environments describe the atmosphere as being “real.” They are not playing games with one another in a futile attempt to outdo or embarrass the other person.

Rather, they are focused toward a common goal that permeates all activities. When something is real, people know it and respond positively.

When trust is high, people might not always like each other, but they have great respect for each other. That means, they work to support and reinforce the good deeds done by fellow workers rather than try to find sarcastic or belittling remarks to make about them.

The reduction of infighting creates hours of extra time spent achieving business results.

6. Saving Time and Reducing Costs

High trust organizations get things done more quickly because there are fewer distractions. There is no need to double check everything because people generally do things right.

In areas of low trust, there is a constant need to spin things to be acceptable and then to explain what the spin means. This takes time, which drives costs up.

In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey relates that when trust is low, organizations pay a kind of “tax.” This tax increases costs and reduces speed (Covey, 2006).

7. Perfection not Required

A culture of high trust relieves leaders from the need to be perfect. Where trust is high, people will understand the intent of a communication even if the words were phrased poorly.

In low trust groups, the leader must be perfect because people are poised to spring on every misstep or misstatement to prove the leader is not trustworthy. Without trust, speaking to groups of people is like walking on egg shells.

The irony is that leaders should be glad when people are vocal about apparent inconsistencies between actions and values. People will not do so unless the leader has created an environment of trust.

This phenomenon was described by Noel Tichy (1997) in The Cycle of Leadership as follows: “The truth is that the leader gets nailed to the wall for failing to live the values only if he or she has created an open and honest shop. More often, people simply become demoralized and ignore the values just as the leader does” (p. 43).

8. More Development and Growth

In low trust organizations, people stagnate because there is little emphasis placed on growth. All of the energy is spent jousting between individuals and groups.

High trust groups emphasize development, so there is a constant focus on personal and organizational growth, as described in Treat People Right (Edward Lawler, 2003).


9. Better Reinforcement

When trust is high, positive reinforcement works because it is sincere and well executed.

In low trust organizations, reinforcement is often considered phony, manipulative, or duplicitous, which lowers morale. Without trust, attempts to improve motivation through reinforcement programs often backfire.

The trick is to get people to want to do the right thing through reinforcement.

Ken Blanchard (2002) in Whale Done wrote “Instead of building dependency on others for a reward, you want people to do the right thing because they themselves enjoy it” (p. 56).

Once groups wrestle with these nine dimensions and contrast what it is like to operate as part of a high trust group versus a low trust one, they understand the immense impact that trust has on every aspect of how an organization operates.

Simply put, if you have high trust, all aspects of the organization work well, but with low trust, nothing works as expected.

Seek to build trust at every level all of the time. If trust becomes compromised for any reason, move swiftly to repair it (the subject of a future article).

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

Successful Supervisor 18 – Avoid Playing Whack-a-Mole

March 19, 2017

Unfortunately, there is a situation in most organizations where the supervisor is served up a never-ending supply of tasks to do and problems to resolve.

Let’s picture a supervisor named Marcie. She comes to work on a typical day with 2-3 problems left over from the previous night. Her calendar is jammed with discussions and meetings to report on the status of problems or work on emergency situations.

Perhaps there is an immediate need to reorganize her group because of an unexpected order or the absence of some key people.

She faces several new problems or crises every day. Sometimes the problems are waiting for her outside her door when she arrives in the morning. There are certain to be several new ones when she looks at her inbox or her manager shows up unexpectedly.

She instinctively knows the organization could run a lot better, but there is simply no time to even work on a long term plan. So, poor Marcie runs herself ragged and just keeps her head out of the water on most days. She goes home exhausted, yells at her kids, and tries to clear out a few more issues online before going to bed.

I call this condition the “Supervisor Whack-A-Mole” syndrome, after the famous carnival game. Every time a mole comes out of one of the holes you whack it down, but there are others emerging all the time. You can never get them all down at the same time, and they keep coming up faster and faster.

The poor supervisor feels totally overworked and cannot begin to think strategically about how to improve her conditions.

This problem is not universal, but it is far too common in most organizations. There is a way out of the maze, but it requires courage and vision. The way out is to invest time creating an improved culture within her team.

Supervisors need to see one of their key roles as creators of culture, not just problem solvers. Developing an environment of higher trust is an investment that pays off many times over the cost. This shift in mindset has numerous advantages.

First, carving out time where the entire team can work on trust issues will result in less friction between people in the future. Since many of the “problems” have to do with people being unable to work together efficiently, this investment pays off in two ways: Employees work better together with fewer problems, and employee satisfaction improves, resulting in greater productivity.

Second, by focusing on teamwork, the supervisor emphasizes that many employees are capable of solving the inevitable daily problems themselves. The supervisor has many willing hands to lighten the load of problem solving in the future.

The employees feel good about having greater responsibility as well. They become empowered and trusted to handle many situations previously delegated upward to the leader.

Third, the tendency toward burnout is greatly reduced when there is time set aside to work on the culture. Getting temporarily out of the “rat race” every once in a while to think about what is happening and do some planning is cathartic.

People have the opportunity to vent and rebuild relationships in a “safe” atmosphere. In some situations this is best handled with the help of an outside expert schooled in conflict resolution.

Of course, the supervisor needs to be creative and fit the development work into times when the pace of production is not at a peak level. This means she needs to consider how to get snips of time that would otherwise be not fully loaded and use them to figure out how to improve relationships among the team.

In the time crunch on every supervisor, many believe it is impossible to invest a few hours every few weeks to work on the culture. They are too busy solving problems and juggling all the balls on a daily basis. However, those supervisors who are able to carve out some time, find the payoff is far greater than the investment. It leads to a stronger, more productive, and more smoothly running organization. It also leads to fewer health problems due to burnout.


This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at, or 585.392.7763

How Trust Helps Solve Problems

April 18, 2015

Leadership SolutionsThe level of trust in a group has a profound impact on the ease with which they solve problems.

I sit on several Boards of Directors, and one of them is a pretty low trust group. When a problem comes up, it seems the team is always tiptoeing around the interpersonal issues.

Low trust groups often fail to solve the real problem and frequently have to deal with a lot of acrimony, often unrelated to the problem.

This low trust group can discuss things for an hour and not even get close to the real problem at hand. We quite often end up putting “BandAids” on the symptoms hoping the problem will resolve itself. We all know the world does not work that way.

It is very frustrating because we waste a lot of time and energy with low output.

Another BOD I sit on is a particularly high trust group. They solve problems quickly and efficiently because they get to the heart of the issue fast without people playing games with each other. One hallmark of high trust groups is that they solve problems quickly and with high quality solutions while having fun.

The quality of solutions is higher because people are not afraid to voice creative ideas. They don’t need to protect themselves from ridicule. Brainstorming possible actions is spontaneous, light, and often comical.

It is important to assess the level of trust on every team. There are numerous surveys available online if you just do a quick search. As an alternative, I have developed a quick survey that can be very helpful at understanding the level of trust on your team. It is available at the following link .

Take the time today to do an assessment of the trust level on your team. This is especially important if your team seems to struggle at times. Make sure all members of the team take the instrument and share the data.

If trust is lacking, then get a commitment to do something about it. Here is a link to several articles about trust on my Leadergrow Website

Putting up with interpersonal issues that result from low trust is a sign of mediocrity. You can move to excellence simply by investing some time and energy into raising the trust level. It is not impossible, and your team will become much more efficient.

Why M&As Fail

June 24, 2014

HindenbergAccording to one study, (Selden & Colvin, 2003, Harvard Business Review) nearly 80% of mergers or acquisitions fail to reach their initial performance targets.

Not all of those crash and burn, but the results are none-the-less disappointing.

The reasons for these failures are as numerous as leaves on a tree. I believe there are some conditions that align to stack the odds in the direction of failure rather dramatically. Here are ten examples:

1. Perspective Problem

When first contemplating a merger, the benefits are rather easy to see and to quantify.

The problems or impediments are far more numerous, yet most of them are hidden from view, like bats in a cave. They will eventually come out and swirl around us, but at the start we do not know the magnitude of the problems.

If we are lucky, and we picked the right cave, the problems will be small and manageable, but if we are unlucky, the sky can turn black with a swarm of issues, and our safety nets are woefully inadequate.

2. Over Enthusiasm

The senior leader “falls in love” with the concept of the merger and loses a sense of reality.

If anyone dares to question the sanity of what is being contemplated, that person is dubbed a non-team-player and sent off to the minor leagues.

Just as love can be blind, managers can ignore the symptoms of problems until it is far too late. Then, all that can be done is to mitigate the damage.

3. Focus on Financials

The deal is conjured up as a financial arrangement having to do with ownership of property, technology, and processes.

The cultural aspects of getting people to work together effectively is assumed until the deal is struck.

The polarization between groups and the interpersonal hassles metastasize throughout the organization and become untreatable very quickly.

4. Wrong People on the Bus

During the run up to a merger, people are aware of what is going on, even though there is a laughable charade of secrecy.

The highest performers recognize the risk and have their alternate landing spot already selected. By the time of the announcement, some of the best people already have job offers elsewhere.

The poorer performers hunker down in the trenches and become problems to deal with after the news is announced.

5. Lack of Trust

The games played during the due diligence and negotiation end up destroying trust within both organizations, and neither group has much trust in the other entity.

Building up a culture of high trust is a daunting task under the best of conditions, and trying to do it amid the chaos of a whole new organization is about as likely as the sun turning blue.

6. Stiffing the Customer

The customers of both organizations don’t care a whit about the integration. They just want seamless service and excellent quality products on time.

When both organizations are urgently focused on stamping out internal problems and redefining their processes, there is little focus on satisfying the established customer base.

In hundreds of ways the poor customer’s needs get shoved to the back burner every day. Since there are alternatives, it does not take long for smart customers to turn elsewhere.

7. Uncertain Environment

People at all levels are petrified. They really do not know their future, and they just hang on until the dust settles.

Teamwork is pretty rare, and everyone is looking out for number one. Meanwhile the work is not getting done as before because people are not getting clear marching orders.

8. Spotty Communication

Since a good portion of the discussions are supposed to be secret (which is a true sham since everyone in both organizations knows what is going on) little credible communication is coming out of the top level.

This environment is a perfect incubator for rumors and gossip that only add more instability to an already fragile system.

9. Faulty Assumptions

Many of the procedures must be recast with both groups having to change in some ways. It is common for both groups to feel they have been “taken over” and forced to revamp their culture to accommodate the other entity.

Bitter feelings arise as people would rather live in the world that existed before. Of course that is not possible, so there is a grieving process going on, just when the organization needs people to be at their best.

10. Chaos

You can observe true chaos in one of these situations. It is as if a major earthquake just hit off the coast, and people on the island are scrambling because of the tsunami to follow. Not much constructive work is happening during this time.

These are just ten of the conditions that make the M&A process so chancy. There are dozens of other negative things going on as well. It is no wonder the track record of success against the goals is so low.

My new book, Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change, explains how to improve the odds dramatically by focusing equal energy on the cultural parts of the integration as the mechanical process. Doing this mitigates all of the problems listed above and gives a fighting chance for success, despite the issues.

Trust in Transition Cover060The book will be launched on August 18, 2014 by ASTD Press and is currently available for preorder. The book is about how organizations must do a better job of preserving and enhancing trust when they go through changes such as reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, or other restructurings. Your purchase of the book includes access to a set of videos that enhance several of the key points. For a video introduction to the book, click here.

Please Help Me Understand

August 26, 2012

On a daily basis, we experience situations where we are at odds with the actions or words of other people. It is human nature to disagree with other people at times. How we handle ourselves when this happens determines our quality of life, because it will establish how the rest of the world reacts to us.

John Wooden, the iconic basketball coach of UCLA, used to challenge his teams to learn to “disagree without being disagreeable.” We need to find the words to signal a disconnect without short-circuiting relationships. If you listen to people as they interface about their differences, you will hear all kinds of phrases that cause an increase in heat within the conversation. Here is a small set of examples you will recognize:

• What makes you think that…
• How could you possibly believe that…
• Who died and made you the queen of…
• You are not only wrong, you are stupid if you…
• What part of “NO” don’t you understand….
• Don’t you see! My way is better because…
• You never listen to me…
• If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you…

There are millions of ways to humiliate other people when we disagree with their words or actions. Note that the statement may be current or past, written or verbal, and the action may be historical, or something that just occurred. What we need to do is suppress the human urge to blast the other individual and seek a more politic way to have an adult conversation.

The four word phrase, “Please help me understand…” is an excellent one to use as long as it is not given with a sarcastic tone of voice. Reason: The phrase does not start by putting the other person down. It is shorthand for a message indicating open mindedness but also some confusion about what the other person is saying or doing. It does not assume the other person is clueless, underhanded, dishonest, or has any other character flaw.

The phrase simply asks for more information. It calls into question the action or statement without violating the other person. It may not work in every application, since we are all different. Some individuals might even read something negative into the phrase. I think it has a lot to do with what is in the heart of the sender.

By sending a polite signal about a disconnection with the other person, it gives him or her time to rethink what was said or done to see if it was too edgy. Often just this little nudge will cause the person to reframe the action or statement into something more reasonable. It is also an honest way to stop the conversation for a gut check on reality.

When you are tempted to blast a co-worker for something said, written, or done, think about saying “Please help me understand,” and you will see a more helpful and constructive reaction in most cases.

Don’t Do A Survey

February 26, 2012

In most organizations, when managers want to know how people are feeling, they do a QWL (Quality of Work Life) survey to find out. I there are more direct ways to identify what people are thinking. By simply discussing the need for a survey, the most insightful data is already spilled all over the table. To mop it up, you need to improve the level of trust in your organization.

Taking an employee engagement survey usually does not reveal trust weaknesses or their causes because in low trust environments people will either not be totally honest or be turned off by yet another survey to gather data.

Most people believe the data will sit in a desk drawer anyway, and it will not provide real change. How many times have you heard employees say, “They keep doing these satisfaction surveys, but nothing ever changes around here”?

Taking a survey feels like progress to a management team with their hearts in the right place. They believe they can dig in and really understand the problems in depth, but I believe there is a far easier and more accurate way to get the data in most cases.

In an environment of high trust, the information about what is working well and what needs to change is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. People do not need to fill out boxes in a computerized screen to identify the most pressing needs. Improvement opportunities will be offered up continuously, and action can be taken immediately, not after 11 staff meetings to discuss the 27-page summary of the employee satisfaction survey.

The illusion of progress made by taking a survey happens in nearly every organization because managers are not thinking of alternative methods. Besides, the survey gives managers something to talk about and point at to demonstrate they care and are trying to understand.

A better way to make progress is to identify which management behaviors are causing people to hold back the truth out of fear for their job or something else. Rather than contemplating an employee satisfaction survey, Management should be asking themselves questions such as:

1. How can we change the culture to eliminate the need to take surveys in the future?

2. How can we modify the way we interact with people so we always know what is on their minds when problems are small and can be easily resolved?

3. How can we get more time in the workplace to chat with people rather than be cooped up in our offices composing e-mails, or sitting in boring meetings?

4. How can we continually test our understanding of what is happening in the hearts of people by listening and watching their body language?

5. Why do we have an insular management team? When we look around the room, why do we not see more workers in our meetings?

6. Why do the people think our values are not consistently practiced? We say people are our most valuable asset, but do we always make decisions that support that ideal?

7. Why are our goals not fully understood or supported by the people doing the work?

If management energy is focused on creating a real environment where people are not playing games with each other in order to survive, then improvement ideas will flow like water down a mountain stream. If the culture is frozen by fear, the resulting ice makes it necessary to have a blast from a survey in order to move the water, and the data will not be accurate due to fear or apathy.

The survey blast does not change the underlying cause and thaw things out to a more fluid state. It only temporarily provides questionable data so there is an appearance of progress. If managers and leaders would ask questions like the ones above and seek to gain information in those ways, the progress will be far easier to achieve and more robust.

Tyrant or Bully?

September 11, 2011

If you had to give one adjective to describe your boss, which one would you choose? Many people would select a positive adjective such as benevolent, caring, trustworthy, empathetic, passionate, or loyal. Others would choose a more neutral word like efficient, logical, helpful, kind, or fair. Still others (perhaps too many) would use an extremely negative word like demeaning, overbearing, spiteful, hypocritical, tyrant, or bully. In this article, I wanted to put the last two words under the microscope and examine what they mean and how leaders can take steps to avoid being viewed as either one of these adjectives.

In contrasting the two words, let’s first look to the dictionary. Here are the official brief definitions:
Tyrant – cruel or unjust ruler.
Bully – one who hurts or threatens weaker people.

The two concepts are not the same for sure, but they do overlap. It is easy to think of a leader who is a tyrant as someone who is also a bully. Can you imagine any tyrant who is not also a bully? I cannot. Likewise, a bully may or may not also be a tyrant. Most of us would agree that too much of a tendency in either of these directions will lead to low motivation or fear among the workforce.
The distinction in my mind is that a true tyrant needs to rule the roost, but a bully can be satisfied just pushing people around mentally or physically. The bully does not need absolute control to do his or her damage. In the everyday exchanges between people, the bully simply fails to take the feelings of others into account and insists on his or her way. The bully resembles a bulldozer and has a distorted mental image of what it is to be a leader. The bully feels superior to the “little people” and is convinced he or she is justified in pushing through the chosen decisions. Reason and analysis are generally not accepted by the bully.

If you have a boss who is either a tyrant or a bully, which one is easier to change? Changing the mindset of a tyrant is nearly impossible. It would take a life-changing event or some kind of miracle to reverse the aberration. Reason: the tyrant simply has no inclination to change and will not do so unless dethroned by edict or coup. The bully may be more curable by reasoning that often this person is operating at cross purposes to what he or she really wants to achieve (I will use the male pronoun for the remainder of this article to simplify the text).

In the workplace, the bully boss pushes people around as an expedient to get things accomplished without having to explain, rationalize, or debate. The bully also has a habit of blustering at people in order to get them to back off. Often, this pattern is a carryover from playground encounters as a child. The bully who has perfected his methods has an easier time in life at the expense of others. The impact of working for a bully boss usually leaves people in a state of very low motivation. This means that the more a boss bullies people, the less cooperation he will get, and eventually his goals will be compromised. If you can get a bully to recognize that he can get more of what he wants by taking a different approach, then you might have a more coachable person.

The most a bully can expect to get is tepid compliance, when to do well in this environment, any boss needs passionate enthusiasm. By training the bully to change his approach to people, we actually can educate him that there is a better way to get what he really wants in the long run. Sure, for the bully, being more participative may not be as much of a sport, but if it ultimately means more money in his pocket, there may be impetus to change.

If you work for a tyrant, chances are this person is also a bully. You can gain on the situation by helping the bully side become less dominant. That is real progress, and when the bully sees the positive changes in attitudes and improvements in productivity that accrue from reform, it may go a long way to softening the tyrant inside. It is a kind of momentum that can take over. When the bully really understands that a better existence is possible, changes in behavior follow easily. If you reinforce the new behaviors and ascribe them to the boss’ different habits, then he is likely to want more of the benefits, which will result in lower tendency to be a tyrant.