Have you ever been part of a team in which there was a high level of trust? What kind of team is a high-trust team? At a first glance, for me it’s when I know that others have my back, when I don’t have to be the hero every day because I know that one of my team mates will step up and help the team succeed, it’s when we share information easily, we support one another and do not worry that some of us will let the team down. It’s when we fail and lose together.
When accompanying teams in their agile journeys, I begin by talking about the 5 dysfunctions of a team and explain where the lack of trust can lead to but also how the consequences can seriously affect the bottom line. During our journey, we experiment also with some techniques mentioned by Lencioni that will help build trust inside the team, such as:
- Experiential team exercises
- 360 degree feedback
- Personality and behavioural preferences profiles
- Personal history exercises
These exercises are great for building a solid foundation, since they focus on connection and mutual understanding. They allow trust to grow, but they don’t constitute trust itself. We have been not asking ourselves what exactly is trust, what it means to us as individuals and to the team as a whole.
The nature of trust
I started to reflect and research on this topic, thinking about the elements that have to be in place for us to trust someone, or a group of people. But also the other way around: what behaviours would signal that someone could trust us, if they are willing to do so. What behaviours would inspire someone to trust us?
Luckily, there is a lot of material that has been written on trust by psychologists, business theorists and practitioners or relationship experts. On one of my browsing adventures, I happened upon Brené Brown’s trust definition.
In “The Anatomy of trust”, she explains how trust is a lot like a marble jar, which was a discipline and reward system her daughter’s teacher used in the classroom. If the class did positive things, marbles went in the jar and there is a party when the jar is full. If the class did something negative, then marbles are taken out of the jar.
She used an acronym, BRAVING, to break down the meaning of the word trust:
You respect my boundaries, and when you’re not clear about what’s ok and what’s not, you ask. You’re willing to say no.
You do what you say you’ll do. At work, this means staying aware of our competencies and limitations so you don’t overpromise and are able to deliver on commitments and balance competing priorities
Take ownership for our behaviour, including making amends when we make mistakes.
You don’t share information or experiences that are not yours to share. I need to know that my confidences are kept, and that you’re not sharing with me any information about other people that should be confidential.
When our actions match our words and when we practice our values rather than just profess them.
Being able to ask for what we need and talk about how we feel without being judged.
Extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words and actions of others.
Setting boundaries is very important. In a nutshell, they help us let the good stuff in and keep the bad stuff out. You can’t practice your values if you are not setting boundaries around behavior that is not in line with your values, while being generous without setting boundaries is being a doormat – letting people walk all over you.
When embarking on a new journey, agile teams invest time in building a relationship among team members, which will foster not just a successful outcome but also a satisfying work experience. Investing in relationship building is invariably less costly and time-consuming than recovering from the divisiveness and conflict that may result from its absence. And that’s where team norms come in. Team norms concern how team members will interact, communicate, and conduct themselves as members of the team. Setting them will allow every team member to express what’s important to them and to learn what’s important to their teammates. It’s a great opportunity also to build trust by connecting through understanding to your team colleagues. People do not trust when we understand them. They trust when they understand that we understand them. In other words, they get that we get it. For this to happen, it’s important to listen and understand where they are really coming from, and truly connect with them, showing them that we care.
Doing what we say we’re going to do, when we say we’re going to do it goes hand in hand with the track record. We can trust people to be reliable based on what they have done in the past. If the team is going to trust someone, that person is going to have to build a track record of bringing results in some area. Of performing well in that ability. Of delivering well in what has been promised. Teams need to look at their own track records as well, also by looking in the past. Only when they can trust their ability to predict and shape, teams can confidently make bigger investments.
Accountability can be sometimes confounded with reliability. Nevertheless, it’s about owning your decisions and the consequences that come with them. Especially in teams where the culture of blame is present, practicing accountability is quite difficult. Acknowledging your mistakes instead of making excuses or pointing your finger at someone else may feel extremely dangerous.
Trust grows also when we display credibility and character. You know a character problem when you see it, and your guard instantly goes up. Character encompasses a wide range of attributes — from morals to ethics to personality traits, attitudes and ways of behaving. For example, if someone is a poor listener or a political maneuverer, we would not say he is of “bad” moral character, but we would say that there are issues about his makeup that affect the team. And there are other examples of this kind:
- innability to connect with others
- being more of an individual contributor than a team player
- Managing one’s own career more than the interests of the team
- not being able to deal with negative realities, failure or criticism
- “yes” person
These are all examples of people’s makeup that are not moral or ethical per se but that certainly affect results. On the other hand, when people exhibit other character attributes—a willingness to listen, to seek the truth, to persevere, to try to be wise, to take calculated risks, to work for the team over their own interests, sacrificing and serving, to be disciplined, and to be kind and understanding—they gain our trust. We move toward them, give more of ourselves to them and want to serve them. We know that it will be worth it.
The effect that judgement has on trust is huge. Forming judgements is built into our system, or at least has been driven into it by our upbringing and education. When judging, our concern centres on “who is what”, our attention is focused on classifying, analysing and determining levels of wrongfulness rather than on what we and others need and are not getting. Judgement makes also giving feedback very hard. Effective feedback requires you to get past your emotions, focus on observable facts and the impact it has on you. Clean language gives us a simple way on how to formulate feedback without judging:
- What I noticed/ heard/ saw
- The meaning I made from that
- The impact it had on me
Generosity goes hand in hand with intent. If we know that someone’s intent is to help us, that they are “for” us, we open ourselves to them. We give to them. We coöperate with them. We invest in them. We share with them. We work for them. What happens if they are not “for us”? We consider them either “for” themselves and neutral to us, or “against” us. To truly trust someone, we need more than someone trying to please themselves and their own agendas, even though they will not act against us.
When teams truly realise that they are “for” each other, and that each member is “for” their shared objectives, then they trust each other.
Trust is central to human existence. Even though the decision to trust is so important, for most of us it is difficult to explain why we choose to trust certain people, groups and institutions and not others. Research in organisations shows that trust improves the internal effectiveness of groups and organisations, there is lower turnover, higher commitment and better mutual adjustment.
BRAVING is a simple way to remind ourselves what trust is and it’s ingredients can be applied to ourselves to get a measure of our self-trust.
- What is the current level of trust on your team?
- How do you define in your team, what is trust and what is means for each member of the team
Boundaries for Leaders — Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge by Henry Cloud