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Suspicious Minds


Trust is so easy to lose - and when you do lose it trust, logic and reason disappear with it...

I’ve written before about the importance of trust and the consequences when it is lost and I was reminded of this recently, while working with a client that I’ve known and worked with for five years now. Every two years or so, they conduct an employee survey and, when the last one was done in 2009, I administered it. This involved collecting the written survey responses and opening them offsite, so that no one in the company got to see the actual forms. I then typed all of the responses into a document and provided an analysis of the results.  

In 2010, as the company was thinking of the 2011 survey, the directors decided to bring the bulk of the work in-house, to save money, so that the opening of the envelopes and the entry of the survey responses into a database was done by the HR department. My role was simply to oversee the process and ensure fair play. In August 2010, the HR department sent an email to all users, informing them of the change and asking for their comments or concerns. Only positive responses were received.  

Then fate intervened and my client was bought by a US company.  As the directors knew this was going to happen - in the economic climate, it was the best way of securing the company’s long-term future - they postponed the survey until February 2012.  I went up to the factory last month and did a series of launch meetings to begin the two-week survey period.

And then it all started to go wrong.

At some point during the survey period, it became apparent that a significant minority of employees were unaware of the change in the way the survey was administered.  When they found out that HR were opening the responses, rather than me, they immediately cried foul and suspected that results were being manipulated.  Why, they demanded to know, had they been lied to about the way the survey was conducted?

Last week, I spent several days at the factory, listening to their concerns and hearing pretty much the same story, dozens of times.  I tried to reassure people that we hadn’t tried to mislead them - how could we? We had written to all members of the company in 2010 - and that here was no possibility of results being manipulated. But trust is a delicate thing and when it’s replaced by suspicion, logic and reason tend not to work very well.

I listened as people expounded their theory that there were microchips in my company logo, printed on the survey form. Or their theory that HR were matching their handwriting to previously collected samples. Or their theory that HR could identify the survey responses through fingerprinting, which is why they had worn gloves when completing the form. Nothing I could say would shake their belief that they were being misled or that they just couldn’t trust the HR department.

And that’s the heart of the problem. When trust goes - lost, in this case, by complete accident - it’s very difficult to get back. In that moment, suspicious people can’t be persuaded that their fears aren’t justified; in fact, they don’t want to believe anything other than their fears and suspicions.  Losing their trust happened in moments, without our even realising it. Regaining their trust will be a long road over the coming months.

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