There they sat, arms crossed, avoiding eye contact.

You don’t have to be an expert in body language or emotional intelligence to know these folks were not interested in anything I had to say.

They’d heard it all before. They’d seen leaders like me blow through time and time again. Big talking, full of fresh enthusiasm, they come up against entrenched resistance, fry themselves like moths against an electric light, and fade out again.

Leaders churn, and the workers remain, obliged to carry on.

If you’re staring down a leadership challenge like this, you are not alone. Many leaders have walked into troubled cultures, and aspired to make a shift. Some do, many don’t.

Here’s where to start.

Seek to lower distrust, not build trust.

It feels counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t we aspire to building trust? Of course we should aspire to that, but we need to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be.

An organisation with a long history of poor culture and conflict is not going to greet us with open arms, no matter how amazing and genuinely fervent we are in wanting to make a big difference.

Our first aim is to lessen distrust. We do that by LISTENING.

From a neuroscience point of view, if an individual feels under threat, they will be single-minded and focused on survival. In workplaces, this manifests in behaviour like jealousy, silos, and turf wars.

Our good news and utopian vision for positive change will land on hostile ears until we give an outlet to that pent up resentment.

So listening is the order of the day.

Two key triggers are issues of fairness and status. Here’s what to explore with people:

Listening to understand issues around fairness

  • Ask first about what they think about fairness and why. Do they feel they have been treated fairly? Why or why not?

  • Ask them what they would prefer instead.

  • Though they may be very disappointed in the current status quo, ask what opportunity there might be in the situation they may not have seen before.

Do not conclude the meeting until you are certain they have experienced some form of relief in the conversation.

Listening to understand issues around status

  • Listen one-on-one to each person’s concern about their contribution being recognised and appreciated.

  • Determine what status symbols are important to each person (title, privileges, access, car park, desk space).

  • Ask how they feel their skills and expertise might be best put to use.

Help them to see where the gaps might be in their expertise and how they might go about bridging those gaps.

By listening deeply, paying attention to their answers, and creating movement through the issues is how we nudge the barrier of distrust down a notch.

It’s not everything but it’s a good start.

Who do you need to have a conversation with about fairness and status? What question will you start with?