What trust is made of

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:

  • Bound­aries

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.

  • Reli­a­bil­i­ty

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

  • Account­abil­i­ty

Take own­er­ship for our behav­iour, includ­ing mak­ing amends when we make mistakes.

  • Vault

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.

  • Integri­ty

When our actions match our words and when we prac­tice our val­ues rather than just pro­fess them.

  • Non-judge­ment

Being able to ask for what we need and talk about how we feel with­out being judged.

  • Gen­eros­i­ty

Extend­ing the most gen­er­ous inter­pre­ta­tion pos­si­ble to the inten­tions, words and actions of others.

Practical application

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

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