July 20, 2019

Trust: The Oxygen of High-Performing Teams

The most significant undertakings at work and in society depend on teams of people working together effectively. Oddly, organizations largely leave effective teamwork to chance.

My colleague and friend Gordon Curphy repeatedly makes these points in his articles, books, and presentations:

  1. Few organizations factor the ability to build great teams into their selection and promotion decisions,
  2. Few organizations have a working model of what effective teamwork looks like
  3. Few provide training in how to do it, and
  4. Few have the resources on staff with the ability to stand in the fire with all the various groups as they attempt to forged themselves into a high performing team.

In my team building work, I use the Rocket Model, an empirically-based team assessment designed and developed by Dr. Curphy and Dr. Bob Hogan, two renowned authorities in Leadership and personality testing. The Rocket Model assesses eight critical dimensions to team success: Context, Mission, Talent, Norms, Buy-in, Resources, Courage, and Results. Also, there are over 1500 team results in the database which provide instructive benchmarks.

One of the eight dimensions, Courage, assesses the team's ability to be honest with each other, openly debate strategic issues, and address intra-team conflicts. Courage covaries with Trust in either virtuous or vicious ways. The virtuous cycle looks like: people show more courage and trust starts to grow. As trust grows, people have more courage to speak and act. In a vicious cycle, trust and courage spiral down together.

The premise here is that trust is the oxygen high-performing teams need flourish. No matter how clear the mission is, no matter how much superstar talent is on the team, no matter how much buy-in and commitment exists, no matter how good the operating norms are, a team can simply not perform effectively for very long without a high degree of trust. And for many teams, especially Executive teams that tend to work in silos, trust is often unfortunately in short supply.

The good news is that Trust is a very elastic commodity. Barring some dire or pernicious actions from team members or the leader, it can be easily expanded. On the other hand, without monitoring and "regular deposits," it can also rapidly decline.

How to Build an Expanding Pool of Trust on a Team

Here are reliable ways the pool of trust on a team can be expanded:

Play Your Position Well. Everyone has a role and others have to be able to count on you to do your job and do it well. You can be the nicest guy or gal anyone has ever met, but if you don't have the will or the skill to do what the team expects you to do and do it well, the team will have to slow down, stop doing what they are doing to look over your shoulder, or make other sacrifices. Rare are the individuals and teams that can do this for any length of time without resentment starting to build.

Do What You Say You Will Do. When you join a team, you probably will get a "benefit-of-the-doubt" window or grace period. One of the things people are watching for is does she do what she said she would do when she said she would do it. Consistently "keeping your word" is like making deposits in a bank account. Continually meeting your commitments creates a big balance. Should you drop the ball, the resulting "withdrawal" is less likely to disrupt relationships. This is especially true if you let people know beforehand that you are not going to be able to keep the agreement and if you publicly own your mistake.

Speak Your Truth...in front of the Team. People have to know you are not keeping your thoughts and feelings from the team. If people find out later you didn't share what was on your mind, or you didn't share all of it, or if you say something different to someone else after the meeting, trust is destroyed. So if you like what is happening, speak up. If you don't like the direction the group is headed in, speak up. If you have a concern with what someone on the team is doing or saying, speak up.

And, like it or not, the speaking up I am talking about is in front of the whole team. Every sports and military team prepares for battle by putting themselves through stressful training conditions to test the abilities of the individuals and the group to work through difficulties. And if the training exercise or the game doesn't go well, the team often "has it out" to figure out what went wrong and who or what needs to change.

Corporate teams are just the opposite: beyond the difficulty of the work itself, they assiduously avoid friction and conflict. When the truth is only being spoken behind closed doors or in small groups or with HR, you have a team in trouble.

The military has After Action Reviews (AARs). Pixar has "The Candor Room." When you speak your truth in front of the whole team and show a willingness to work constructively through the conflicts and disagreements, trust grows and the team develop its tolerance for and ability to work through difficulties.

Be Consistent. I am a little hesitant to mentions this one as it might be prone to misinterpretation. This is not saying you have to be a robot or show up to work every morning at 8:30 or never change your mind. But consistency in messaging and behavior, especially around values and priorities, allows people to trust you more.

Consider the opposite: working for leaders who this quarter announce, we are "all about our customers" but next quarter, talk about the need to be more focused on shareholders. Or a leadership that careens from "Quality is Job #1" to "Cut corners if we have to" or from "Sales needs to focus on profitable deals" to "we need revenue at all costs."

Dr. Edwards Deming, the guru of Quality who helped Japan rebuild after the war and become a manufacturing juggernaut, used to exhort organizations that wanted to achieve excellence to maintain a Constancy of Purpose. Consistency or constancy if you prefer allows people to trust that the effort they are expending in one direction will not be for nought.

Be a Good Teammate. Everyone wants talented players on their team. But trading superstar players off of sports teams because they are more "me-first" than team first is so common it's almost prosaic. Teams are often willing to sacrifice start talent for a solid players who are good teammates, willing to put the team first and give more than they take.

Here is a list of small actions that can make others see you as a team-first person, someone who cares about something beyond his/her own priorities and needs:

  • Knowing your teammates' agendas and showing public support for what they are trying to drive
  • Being willing to lend a hand or resources more often then you ask for or need help
  • Not acting entitled or standing on ceremony in your interactions
  • Acknowledging and expressing gratitude for others efforts and contributions
  • Showing support or standing up for them when the boss or another team member is being overly critical, whether warranted or not
  • Looking for win-for-all solutions in your negotiations with your teammates

If your team is low on trust, you are essentially saying the team is low on oxygen. That the team's mission is in jeopardy goes without saying.

Take advantage of Trust's elasticity: encourage your team to take inventory and start making the small steps that can expand the pool of trust.

Learn more about consultant, coach, and facilitator Dennis Adsit at www.adsuminsights.com

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