Teams and Trust

The elements of trust, and their role in team effectiveness. Guest experts were:

Steve Balzac
Steve opened by suggesting that there are four elements to building trust:

  • A No-Fear Culture — never motivate with threats or fear, and ensure nobody fears for their job or needs to be afraid of public criticism
  • Structure that creates Autonomy — create clear roles, rules and boundaries, to enable workers to exercise autonomy in their tasks
  • Connection among Individuals — get to know what it is each worker wants for their careers and in their lives, so you can help connect work with those goals
  • Competence by Focusing on Success — celebrate and notice and emphasize the things that people do right, and create an air of “we do things well” — emphasize victories large and small

It’s vital to balance the “I” in team — if there is no “I” the team is blind, says Steve, and too much “I” and the team is not unified.  A team that is too task-oriented means we don’t treat people as human beings.

Each team member is there for their own personal reasons.  Joe is here to develop his skills; Jan is here to earn a paycheck; Jack is here to have good interactions and advance his career.  The work of the team has to move forward in ways that are compatible with our private motives.

When the team’s goals are overwhelming each person’s autonomy and individuality, it causes folks to lose motivation.  As a leader, I have to know what each person’s own goals are, and I have to be able to connect the goals of the team with the goal of each person.

Part of what builds trust is structure — where we each know what to expect from the other team members, and can tell if they are keeping up their part, or letting us down.  With the role comes an expectation, and by fulfilling that expectation I build your trust in me.  That allows us to maintain trust even when we don’t see each other all the time.

Suppose two people are always late to our team meetings.  One of them has a role of taking all the incoming urgent calls, shielding the rest of the team from those interruptions.  The other is just flaky.  We will probably experience the first one’s lateness as being supportive and trust-enhancing, and the second as un-supportive and trust-destroying.

One of the fundamentals of human psychology is, when something isn’t working, we blame the person in the situation instead of the situation.

Steve will offer a scenario to a roomful of managers: you have someone on your team named Bob, and Bob is not doing his job. Why is that?

They always give answers such as “he isn’t motivated” or “he doesn’t take the job seriously” or “he’s blowing us off.” Steve will finally cut them off by asking “how do you know?” Steve hasn’t provided us with any actual information. In reality, the vendor hasn’t delivered the material that Bob needs to do his job. But we immediately jump to blaming the person.

However, the more we know the person, and the better we know the situation, the more likely we are to blame the circumstance. As you build trust, and as you get to know your team members as human beings, we become less likely to assume that the person is to blame.

In an effective team, members help each other. When you can neither accept help nor offer help, you cannot participate as a team member. If it is socially awkward in your office culture to ask for help, then it’s hard to form the trusting team relationships where people help each other. This seems to be a pretty human thing across cultures, that it is generally not okay to ask for help.

If asking for help is interpreted as a sign of incompetence, or if management criticizes you for asking for help, or if I cannot admit to not knowing something, that reduces my ability to develop trust with you, because I must hide from you what I do and don’t know.

One strong piece of advice Steve offers is, only reward teams for team performance. Do not reward individuals on a team solely for individual performance. If you only reward individuals for individual effort, you put the team members into competition with each other, and it undermines trust.  (If you only reward team results, you can encourage free riders.)

Note: Steve’s new book “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development” is due out this summer — look for a review here.

Elizabeth Sears

Elizabeth agreed with much of Steve’s remarks, adding that without trust, nothing can be accomplished on a team.  A foundation of trust building is clear and open communication.

As Lencioni describes it in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the first dysfunction is lack of trust.

How do I build trust?  Elizabeth recommends being direct.  Address the trust issues directly.  We see this all through the modern literature of management, in talk about “crucial conversations” and the like.

One great trust-builder for a leader is to publicly and immediately thank people who point out our inconsistencies.  Reward people for their honest and open communication.

So if I have a trust problem with a team, at the next meeting I should bring up my worry about trust.  “Where do you see our team now, and how do you think we should move forward?”  You could ask a Mark Goulston style question like “I’m worried about our level of trust.  What have I done or failed to do that has contributed to the lack of trust?  Help me out, please.”

Elizabeth agrees — that’s a potential winner.  Leaders who show vulnerability can build strong bonds with their people very quickly.

In her interviews of people at Fortune Magazine’s list of excellent places to work, she finds across the board that the best places all actively encourage open and honest communication.

What if I’m not good at? What I think I’m good at it, and I’m not?  Elizabeth reassures me that, if we do have a culture of open and honest communication, I’m going to be aware of my problem, because my people will tell me.  In an organization with a high level of trust — which is the number one thing in making a workplace a great place to work — that trust is created through open and honest communication.

Where can I get started?

Start by noticing whether your verbal and non-verbal communication are synchronized — if I’m saying that I am open to hearing what you say, does my body language and tone of voice reinforce that? Do you feel safe talking to me? That sense of safety is an absolute precursor for open and honest communication.

Changing teams, and adding people to a team, can disrupt the bonds of trust. I need to be honest, and I need to feel safe being honest.

It would be valuable to assess people on how well they receive — and give — open and honest communication.

Elizabeth describes one major barrier as “observation inference confusion” — our tendency to see an action, and infer a reason for it, and then act as if the reason we made up is in fact the true reason. We impute motives to other people that are often quite untrue. Elizabeth coached a young woman who had such a big problem with a coworker that she felt literally sick to her stomach at the thought of interacting with that person. Elizabeth encouraged her to approach this person and share her own internal state and her own desire to communicate better. The young woman tried it, and called Elizabeth back to say “you are absolutely right — it had nothing to do with me.” It was a pure misunderstanding.  The entire relationship changed.

Elizabeth says there are three deadly sins of communication:

Assuming meaning
Failing to listen
Ignoring nonverbal communication

Aneil Mishra
Aneil Mishra is co-author of the new book “Trust is Everything.”

Aneil describes a model of trust he calls the ROCC of Trust — people must be:

  • Reliable
  • Open
  • Competent
  • Compassionate

These variables determine how well team members will be willing to work together.  And they determine how well a leader can lead.

How can I tell how I stack up?  One critical skill is listening skills.  Find out what’s important to my team; find out what each individual wants.  Then consistently get feedback on whether my actions reinforce the ROCC of Trust.

Reliability — the easiest to demonstrate right away.  Do you do what you say you will do?  When you cannot hit your promise, do you immediately give a heads-up to those affected?

Open — candor, transparency, and telling the truth.  The highest level is full transparency regarding your actions and agenda.  One dramatic approach involves showing employees the books.  This is described by Jack Stack in The Great Game of Business.  I consider it to be an exceptionally good idea, though it pushes many owners way outside their comfort zone.

Openness can lead to deep trust that can allow people to become even more vulnerable, and reinforce trust even further — a virtuous cycle.

Competent — demonstrating your ability to actually do the work.

Compassion — having the other person’s interests at heart.

How do we connect this ROCC of Trust concept with the idea of accountability and performance?  Aniel believes in using metrics.  Those metrics need to be honest, transparent, and connected to the organization’s performance.  Then you hold people accountable to their results.

Very few organizations actually have those metrics.  Even fewer reward people based on their metrics.


Coach Reed Maltbie has made a name for himself by taking terrible, non-winning teams and players and helping them transform into winners.  Coach Reed’s experience is that the root of such turnarounds is trust.

How do you build trust with such players and teams?

Coach Reed started off by asking, not what is wrong with the kids, but what are we doing wrong as coaches?  And that turned out to be the right question.

Coach Reed starts by empowering the kids.  He asks – What do you want to accomplish?  Where do you want to go?  They have a say.  Now they can be held accountable for acting in ways that are in conformity with their own goals.

He goes out on the field and plays with them.  He makes mistakes on the field like any human being, and then uses his own mistakes as teaching points — What did I do wrong?  What would have worked better?  This gives everybody permission to make mistakes, which in turn enables learning.

Coach Reed believes getting out on the field is itself a trust builder.

He recently took over coaching a team that had lost a good coach, and the players felt let down and angry, which made them play badly and lose games, which sapped their confidence.  Administrators were saying, “Don’t take them to the state championships — they’ll be slaughtered and they’ll feel even worse.”  Coach Reed said, “Have you asked the kids what they want?”

When folks are hurting, they are looking for someone to believe in.  You can really reach them.

Once a team starts to trust him, they also start to trust each other.  Coach Reed was able to help this team build that trust, and they went as far as the final 16 — much better than anybody expected.

You have to make mistakes to grow, and you should not hide your vulnerabilities.  They make you human and they give people a window into who you are — they make it easier for them to learn to trust you.  Just acknowledge your mistakes and apologize for them and learn from them.

The very first thing Coach Reed does with a new team, is ask them what they want — both as a team, and as individuals.  Because each player has his own different specific personal goals — some may want to play in college; some may want to go for varsity.

And he finds that by incorporating the captains into the huddles and coaching meetings, the other players see their peers involved in the process — it keeps them more enrolled.

Once the team makes a decision, he “holds them to it” by reminding them every practice that they picked a goal and pumps them up to make that goal.  It’s okay to make an intermediate goal — it’s not okay to lie down and quit.

Coach Reed says, “If they are having fun and working hard and making progress, we’re going to win.”

His parting comments:  “Anybody that’s listening, take what you can from this.  Apply it to what you’re doing. I just walked away with the ROCC of trust and other pieces that are phenomenal and will make me a better coach.”

(Listen to the full interview.)

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