Trust, Respect And The Executive’s Dilemma

Feb 18, 2015 1 Min Read

There are certain words we use at work that we simply don’t (or shouldn’t) use at home. I have never said ‘synergy’ to my children. I have never (ever) referred to a request I’ve made of my wife as a ‘deliverable’.

And then there are contronyms – words that mean totally different things in different contexts. Generic examples of this are ‘dust’ (the noun means dirt, the verb means to clean), ‘fast’ (which can either mean speedy or to not eat).

Some contronyms mean something different at work than they do at home. At work, ‘offline’ means a 1:1 meeting, in my home it means turn off all the internet-connected devices before coming down to dinner or my wife will go ballistic.

Trust and respect are unfortunately becoming examples of work-based contronyms.

At home, trust (verb) is something we demonstrate for our children as we watch and check-in on them to verify and assist. They feel ownership over their actions and we release some control so they can take the lead. We stand at the ready to help them any way we can should they ask for it. At work, trust is coming to mean you’re on your own.

Respect (verb) is evolving into a term that distances the utterer from someone else’s decisions, i.e. “I respect your authority…”

The problem with using trust and respect in these new ways is that it exacerbates the silos already slowing us down in the new, hyper-speed marketplace. As executive teams work to resolve critical issues on the ground, they find themselves struggling to implement improvements, while still demonstrating trust and respect for their peers (across silos) and their management teams (across levels).

Abdicate and hope

Often, leaders in hierarchical organisations are choosing the non-confrontational but also non-supportive way to solve problems. More often than not, the executives respect their subordinates and peers by not getting in their space.

They show respect by saying they trust them, then hoping their counterparts make good choices. This supposed trust and respect is, in reality, “abdicate and hope” – all delivered when cooperation and collaboration is what’s really required.

The solution: interoperability

A more powerful and effective way to show trust is to enable interoperability (noun). It takes more trust to invite others in, knocking down silos and helping teams across the lines. The more problems we face that are cross-functional, the more solutions will require the involvement of multiple teams.

Executives cannot remain polite by staying out of each other’s space, choosing to deal with problems only up to the edge of their domain. The ability for executives to work directly with teams that report to other executives – and have that be okay with their counterparts – that’s a demonstration of true trust.

We know we have a problem when leadership teams don’t step in each other’s space or when they decline to talk to team members multiple layers below them.

If it’s a crisis situation and the leadership team is still being really polite to one another and not stepping on anyone’s toes, that is a sure sign of a bigger problem.

How to get it

Like almost all things in organisations, it is not that complicated to start creating true trust and respect. We make it more complex than it really has to be.

Here is a decent recipe for encouraging interoperability:

  • Set some guidelines.

    Describe the behaviour you want to see. Have the leadership team outline ideal ways of working together.

  • Get clear on priorities.

    Establish what matters most to the business. Again, this is a short list (e.g. service wins, customer first, etc.)

  • Ask for support.

    Ask your colleagues to actively help one another. Have them go to each other’s staff meetings to discuss how the multiple groups can help each other move faster, make things easier, remove obstacles, and identify the forces and factors that cause cross-silo turbulence.

  • Model the behaviour.

    Constantly check-in with your colleagues and teams. Work across silos and across levels when things are going well, so when a crisis occurs, this is now muscle memory and not a learning opportunity.

Words like trust and respect don’t belong in the contronym category.

How do your teams and colleagues use these terms? Is interoperability already in place or are you crouching behind the silo walls waiting for the crash on the other side?


Ken Perlman is an engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organisations. This article originally appeared on, and is reposted with permission.

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