Your clients trust you to help them fix their problems, engage their teams, get better results, and improve  performance. But do they trust their teams? And, perhaps even more importantly, do their teams trust them?

Workplace relationships built on trust are no longer merely “nice to have”—they are essential for thriving during change, supporting employee engagement and retention, and creating the conditions required for effective collaboration. In short, your clients need trust in their organizations. And yet, the 2016 PwC Global CEO Survey reveals that more than half (55%) of respondents indicated that they are “concerned about the lack of trust in business today.”

A lack of trust is dangerous. Distrust is perceived by the brain as a social threat (which the brain processes the same way it processes a physical threat), which creates a response that shuts down analytic thinking abilities. As Judith Glaser notes in Conversational Intelligence, the threat response activates the “part of the limbic brain called the amygdala. This part is hardwired along with the well-developed instincts of fight, flight, freeze or appease, locating in the primitive brain, that have evolved over millions of years. When we feel threatened, the amygdala activates the immediate impulses that ensure we survive. Our brains lock down and we are no longer open to influence.”

When we are experiencing a threat response, our brains simply aren’t capable of the same level of cognitive analysis, problem-solving, or collaboration that is often desired by organizations.

The HBR article, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” also shares some compelling evidence for why trust is critical in organizations: “Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report: 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives, 40% less burnout.”

Depending on your client, it might be tricky to diagnose low trust as a problem in their organizational culture. Some leaders are self-aware enough to call it out, but might be lacking ideas for how to increase trust in their organization. Others may be lacking the objectivity needed to see how distrust is interfering with their progress, or worse, actively contributing to a culture of distrust.

Here are some ways that you can learn to diagnose a low trust culture in your client organizations, and some tips to help them build trust and enjoy better results:  

Diagnosing a Low Trust Culture

Dig into decision making processes with your client. How agile are they? Rigid hierarchies and overly prescriptive processes can indicate a lack of trust.

Keep an eye on who gets CC’d on your communications. Is it absolutely everyone in the department? There may be some CYA behavior rooted in their culture. On the flip side, do you have just one single point of contact, even when there are questions/concerns that need to be addressed by others? Cultures with a high degree of trust have no problem looping their colleagues into relevant threads.

Is there any pushback or debate about significant projects? Either too much or too little may be a symptom of low trust. The chances that every single person involved in a project will wholeheartedly agree on the strategy and tactics for execution are incredibly slim: if there is no conversation or debate, that’s a good sign that people within the organization don’t trust their colleagues with feedback. Or, do you notice an adversarial attitude to new ideas? When people are married to the idea of “how we’ve always done things,” and don’t take kindly to suggestions for how they could improve, they are indicating that they don’t trust anyone who challenges the status quo.

Do leaders make excuses for low-performers, or undermine the contributions of top-performers? An unwillingness to recognize problems or successes can indicate that something is broken in the culture—there’s a good chance that individuals within the organization don’t trust leaders to manage performance effectively.

Is there pushback when you propose any kind of accountability or follow up with your services? If they want you to come in and either “fix” their teams, or to back up what they’ve been saying all along, but the idea of being accountable to changing behavior is a non-starter, there’s a good chance that the idea of meaningful change challenges their sense of security, indicating a lack of trust.

When you meet with your client, pay close attention to the language they use to describe their teams. Do they use inclusive pronouns like “we” and “us”? Or pronouns that distance them from the group like “they”? An “us” vs. “them” mentality can tell you a lot about the way they relate to their teams.

Building Trusting Cultures

Ongoing and open communication is key to building trust—it helps individuals within the team understand their role within the organization, and creates a vehicle for sharing values and priorities from senior leadership. When you are designing your next client engagement, plan to build in a communications plan that helps team members understand the purpose of the initiative. It’s not enough for your clients to simply tell their staff, “you will be participating in sales training next month,” or “we’re rolling out a new strategic plan.” Instead, focus on desired outcomes, and alignment with the direction of the organization.

Leverage your position as a trusted advisor to call out behavior that indicates a lack of trust. Unfortunately, some leaders suffer from “smartest person in the room” syndrome—this kind of attitude can be extremely damaging to the culture, and creates an atmosphere of distrust. Help those leaders develop coaching skills, and step away from their position of “leader as hero.”

Focus on the specific behaviors that need to change within the organization, and make follow-up and accountability a baked in part of your process. What will the members of your client organization do differently as a result of their engagement with you? Create a follow-up plan for ensuring that those behaviors are embedded in the culture, and hold your client accountable for making those changes. Just as individuals on the team need to be accountable to their managers, leaders need to be accountable for implementing change.

If overly rigid decision making processes are slowing the organization down, it’s time to have a look at how decisions get made, and to empower individuals on the team to be accountable for their own projects. This can be scary at first, but through coaching, robust communication, and regular conversations, you can build trust into the culture and boost engagement.

Talk about fear. If your client learns to trust their leaders and teams, what is the worst that could happen? Some of their fears will be rational—if we’re not in the loop on decision making, mistakes could be made that we don’t know about; or, teams won’t be aligned to the strategic direction of the business if they’re allowed to design their own projects. But a lot of their fears will be irrational—I’m the only one who can do this, everything will burn to the ground if I don’t know exactly what everyone is doing at all times, etc. Get the fears out in the open. Make plans for addressing the rational fears, and spend some time getting to the root of the irrational fears in order to expose them as such.

Paint a picture of success. If your client could trust each and every member of the team—from senior leaders all the way through to front line workers—how much more could they achieve together? Pick a day 6 months from now, and describe it in detail. Focus on how freeing it will be to not feel the urge to micro-manage, and emphasize how much more relaxed they will be knowing that they are creating the conditions required for complex thought.

Encourage open conversations throughout the organization. Not just project check-ins with direct reports, or the routine sales meeting to walk through the pipeline. Real, open, honest conversations are critical to building trusting relationships. You can pass along our infographic to help them get started.


Trust, like Rome, cannot be built in a day. Your clients might not even be aware that it’s lacking. And yet, trust is critical for organizations that want to thrive in change—which, given the current VUCA landscape (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous), is all organizations. As you work with your clients, guiding them toward building a culture of trust will help them achieve better results. They trust you to help them—help them see that extending that trust to their teams, and behaving in trustworthy ways themselves, will benefit everyone in the long run.

Low Trust Culture