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01 Aug '11

The cancer of mistrust

Posted by T.J. Addington in church health, Healthy leaders, trust, unhealthy leaders
Mistrust is one of the most common dangers that organizations face whether it is mistrust of leaders or mistrust of others on the team. It is like a cancer in the organization and by its very nature, when not addressed it becomes larger rather than smaller as the attitudes rub off on other members. In addition, where mistrust flourishes, good ministry diminishes because the emotional energy needed to deal with mistrust issues takes away from healthy energy that could be focused in productive ways. Mistrust is always a lose/lose proposition.

What causes mistrust? It is not what one usually thinks. Often it starts with a perception about another person and rather than going to that person to determine whether the perception is accurate, which means taking responsibility, it is easier to simply believe that the perception is correct and allow that to color their attitude toward that individual. And, as that "perception" is shared as truth with others, the cancer spreads.

Then there are people who intentionally plant seeds of mistrust toward those they don't like or a leadership philosophy they take umbrage to. In both of these cases, the conversations that take place are behind the scenes, often couched in spiritual language (we are ministries after all). Because the conversation is not out in the open, you see the impact of the cancer but it is often difficult to pin point who is responsible.

In both these scenarios, others get sucked into the mistrust when they unwisely take up the offenses of others. So here you have people who have no first hand knowledge of issues that are shared with them, or even their veracity but they pick up the offense and make it theirs. This is not only unbiblical  but it is harder to fix because there was no offense, real or perceived, committed that involves them. How do you solve mistrust issues where one has not  done anything to cause it?

Healthy organizations and leaders always walk toward the barking dog when it comes to attitudes of mistrust because of the terrible damage it has in the organization. In fact, the longer one ignores pockets of mistrust, the more damage to the organization. Just as we would not think of ignoring a diagnosis of cancer, we cannot think of ignoring a diagnosis of mistrust.

Pockets of mistrust usually have a common source so one of your strategies is to watch and listen and seek to determine who is behind the distrustful attitudes and who has simply taken up that attitude and made theirs. Given time and attention, you can usually identify the source of the problem.

When one knows the source, enter into a defining dialogue with that individual putting the elephants on the table and indicating that unless the mistrust can be resolved it will not work for them to be a part of your organization. Dialogue about the real or imagined offenses that the individual has and seek resolution. Part of that resolution is that in the future when there are issues they must go to the one they have an issue with and seek to resolve it rather than going to others and talking. What mistrust makers need to know is that their behavior is not compatible with the ethos of your organization so you are going to hold them accountable for how they deal with issues they have. Every time there is a violation of that agreement, a direct discussion takes place.

What about others who have taken up offenses? In our organization we go to every one of them that we know, and in dialogue seek to get to the bottom of the issue. Usually their information is either incomplete or not accurate and their assumptions are not correct. After all, these are not their issues, they have simply taken up the offense of others. Once issues have been clarified and questions answered we ask that in the future they don't take up the offenses of others and always go to the person involved first and try to resolve their real or perceived issues. Because we know how damaging attitudes of mistrust are we will not ignore them ever.

Not everyone wants to be accountable for attitudes or be held to biblical standards of conflict resolution. Where we cannot make progress on resolving trust issues we will take the step of indicating that unless it is resolved, the individual cannot stay with the organization. That calls the question since no one can be productive in a ministry organization where there is a lack of trust in leaders or others. In these cases, some choose to leave and some choose to resolve their attitudes. What is not acceptable is living with mistrust because of its high and negative cost.

Leaders who don't have the courage to deal with pockets of mistrust in an upfront way see the health of their organization or team deteriorate. It is a cancer and needs to be dealt with.