Man-Made Climate Change in Organizations

By Tom Davidson

On Saturday, December 20, two officers with the New York Police Department (NYPD) were executed while sitting in a critical response vehicle on a New York City street, and that night a segment of the same police force demonstrated their disrespect for Mayor de Blasio by turning their backs on him just ahead of his first news conference on the tragedy. Some say he has “blood on his hands” for creating a climate that encouraged hateful people to kill police officers.

What led to this dramatically negative organizational climate is a complex path, a man-made climate change in a country and an organization that depends upon trust in leadership, not unlike your team, workplace or organization.

Trust is Not Exploded but Eroded
Standard commentary on this high-profile example of poor organizational climate would trace the cohesive action of those police officers to a single event, the mayor’s position on the death of Eric Garner. Garner died while being taken into police custody for a minor offense, and a grand jury decided not to indict the officers involved. Garner’s death and lack of indictment added to nation-wide protests about police, racism and the justice system, this time adding some of Garner’s last words to the narrative and the protests, “I can’t breathe.”

In comments to the media after the grand jury’s decision, the mayor implied that the NYPD was racist and could not be trusted, partially satisfying some factions and fanning the flames of others. Mistrust begot mistrust, a cycle that desperately needs to be reversed in the NYPD and our country as a whole

What leads to this type of organizational climate is the subject of Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace: Building Effective Relationships in your Organization, by Dennis and Michelle Reina. One of their main points is that trust is eroded slowly over time, and while the loss of trust may appear to be the result of a single event, it is most often a much slower process of degradation.

What Everyday Leaders Can Do
Just as important, what leads to climate degradation are the same factors that lead to healthy organizational climates. As the Reinas pose, these include the following:

  1. Competence Trust – The Reinas describe this aspect of overall trust as the trust of capability, where leaders trust that people have skills, knowledge and capabilities to make decisions, and leaders build those capabilities through learning. Leaders who build capability trust allow people to make decisions and get their involvement in decisions that affect them.
  2. Contract Trust – This is also called trust in character. The basis for this trust comes from leaders establishing and reinforcing clear expectations, boundaries, and agreements. With contract trust, people are treated with consistency and trusted with delegations because of a clear and mutually understood framework regarding how work gets accomplished.
  3. Communication Trust – This is also called the trust of disclosure. To build communication trust, the leader must provide information transparently, tell the truth, admit mistakes, give and receive feedback effectively, maintain confidentiality, and speak of others with good purpose rather than ill will.

The Reina’s model is a useful lens for seeing how the mayor lost the trust and support of his police officers, and you can use it assess your own team, department or organization. It’s not just the realm of top executives like the mayor New York City but everyday leaders who need to build healthy man-made climate changes at home and at work.

It’s the nature of trust, and it’s the nature of leadership.

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