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How To Build Trust Within Your Leadership Teams

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Great leadership teams don’t happen by accident. They take a great deal of effort, planning, communication and willingness to make things work.

Trust is the fuel that helps leadership teams thrive. Reinforcing this point are the findings from Google’s seminal study on what makes a great team at Google: “Individuals on teams with high trust bring in more revenue, are less likely to leave Google, are more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates and are rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

As Paul Santagata, head of industry at Google, put it simply, “There is no team without trust.”

Trust is complex and has different meanings for different people and while trust can be positive or negative, it is emotionally charged. Webster defines trust as, “The belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.” or a “reliance on character, ability, strength or truth of someone or something.’ In our work with leadership teams, we boil this definition into three important components: trust in competence, trust in character, and trust in dependability.

• Competence. Trust on leadership teams isn’t simply about team members liking each other or enjoying each other’s company. In fact, danger flares should go off on leadership teams where members are too nice to each other and afraid to hurt each other’s feelings as this can be a signal that trust is fragile. Highly capable leadership teams are comprised of team members who are competent in their roles and who take pride in delivering quality work and always striving to get better. Team members on high trust leadership teams have high expectations for themselves and for their teammates and encourage a strong feedback cycle. These teams strengthen trust by leveraging their collective skills and abilities, seeking each other’s input, sharing expertise and knowledge, and offering support when teammates struggle.

• Character. Character is a foundational dimension of trust. High character leadership teams are filled with team members with integrity—those who choose the right path even when it’s hard. Team members are “we” focused and consider the needs of the team as a higher priority than their own personal desires. These leadership teams are comprised of members who aren’t afraid to be wrong and who admit their mistakes and commit to improving. Team members demonstrate curiosity rather than defensiveness or judgement when receiving feedback or observing their colleagues. On leadership teams with strong character, team members communicate directly but with compassion and empathy. When a teammate fails to meet expectations or behaves outside of team norms, team members are disappointed but don’t rush to judgement and assume bad intent. In short, high character leadership teams create what Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmonson refers to as psychological safety: “Teammates feel safe to take risks without being judged as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive.”

• Dependability. Dependability is an essential trait of high trust leadership teams. Team members work diligently to establish mutual expectations and rely on each other to live up to their commitments whether it’s completing an important task on time or adhering to a team norm of showing up on time and being present at team meetings. High dependability teams deploy a “no excuses” approach to working with each other. Team members have a sense of personal ownership and communicate openly when confronted with challenges that get in the way of living up to commitments. However, when teammates sometimes fail to live up to commitments, their colleagues don’t rush to judgement and are able forgive and move on. This becomes natural when teammates are consistent in their actions and behaviors and take measured, rationale risks.

How Trust Diminishes

Great leadership teams don’t happen by accident. It takes a great deal of effort, planning, communication and willingness to make things work for teams to reach their potential. There certainly is no perfect leadership team; they all have flaws and experience conflicts and at times even drama. The challenge is not to let these issues chip away at trust because trust is very difficult to repair.

In our experience trust diminishes on leadership teams for a few reasons. First, teams often don’t spend the necessary time and effort to gain clarity on mutual expectations (i.e., roles, behaviors, team norms). Next, leadership team members make assumptions based on how they view the world and often these assumptions are wrong. Finally, members of great leadership teams operate with what renowned psychologist Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset or a belief that learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience rather than a fixed mindset or a belief that an individual’s qualities are fixed and therefore cannot change.

The Journey to Generate Trust

Great leadership teams are comprised of talented individuals who come to their teams with a basket of technical skills, a depth of life and work experiences, and a diverse set of motivations and styles. These leaders manage success and approach stress and conflict with great variety. Some move from one win to the next with little celebration or acknowledgement. Many enjoy a good fight and can move on with no hurt feelings. Others struggle with the pressures of running a business and managing lots of people and deal with stress by withdrawing or lashing out. These differences can be magical but given the natural variety of skills and styles it is not surprising that leadership teams often face relational challenges that chip away at trust and diminish the team’s ability to engage productively.

Leadership teams often think of trust as an input, but it is not; it is an output of the individual and collective efforts to adopt a growth mindset and a reward for doing the work to build meaningful productive relationships. Generating trust is not a linear formula; it requires awareness of how we see ourselves and how others see us and a great deal of patience from every team member. Great leadership teams don’t assume that trust will just happen; they take important steps that help to build a foundation of trust and recognize that given the challenges of running a business there will be times when trust needs to be repaired. First, leadership teams must take time to get to know each other at a deeper level. Next, leadership teams must take time to discuss and embrace why trust is so critical to building a great leadership team. Perhaps most importantly, team members must commit to specific behavioral actions that will strengthen the relational fibers among team members:

• Get to know teammates at a deeper level.

Given the fast pace and constant change in today’s complex environment it is critical for leadership teams to know each other beyond functional roles and competence. Teammates must build deeper connections so that they begin to appreciate the nuances that create understanding and establish greater bonds. While social settings such as dinners, lunches, drinks, and other outings are helpful, CEOs must set the tone in their regular interactions such as inquiring about family life and outside interests and learning about passions and inspirations.

Setting aside even a small part of a team’s cadence to establishing a sense of curiosity and understanding among all members of a team can pay big dividends. Adopting what Tasha Eurich refers to as the two sides of self-awareness—our view of how we see ourselves and our appreciation for how others see us—is essential for this work to be productive. Psychometric instruments such as DiSC, Insights and Core Strengths are excellent vehicles for gaining a deeper understanding of the styles and motivations of individuals. Exercises such as Pat Lencioni’s Personal Histories Exercise also help teams gain a greater appreciation for why teammates view the world like they do. After these types of exercises, we often hear comments such as “wow that explains a lot” or “now I understand why he approaches decisions like that.”

The key for making these types of getting to know you exercises fruitful or for building strong relationships in general is vulnerability. According to Brene Brown, an expert on social connection, vulnerability lies at the root of social connection; it is the lifeblood of humility and can show up in many forms. When teammates demonstrate that they are dependent on each other or when they admit mistakes, they are displaying vulnerability. Vulnerability tells the world we are human and serves a grease for building good relationships.

• Gain agreement on the importance of trust.

It is natural for varying levels of trust to exist among the members of a leadership team – some teammates may have worked together for years and can finish each other’s thoughts while others may have had conflicts that have strained trust. Regardless of the situation, to build an environment of trust leadership teams must take time to discuss why trust is so important for their team. Teams with a clear purpose as discussed in chapter 3 get the trust building journey off to a good start because when the interests of individuals are aligned, teammates are much more likely to trust each other.

To set these important discussions up for success teammates must come prepared to actively listen to each other and seek to understand the nuanced views their teammates have that in many cases might different than their own. Teammates will certainly go through their own informal decision processes – some will trust right out of the starting gate while others believe that trust must be earned over time. When we ask leadership teams what it means to have an environment of trust the answers vary greatly – “trust is all about getting the job done”; “it’s obvious that we trust each other because we all get along”; “I know I can trust someone if they are honest”; “trust is about not stabbing each other in the back”. None of these perspectives are wrong but it sure is important to understand colleague’s views when generating or repairing trust.

• Be careful about assumptions.

We all make assumptions to fill in gaps in what we think and perceive and to make sense of a complex world. But assumptions that are unchecked can be dangerous and lead to unintended consequences. One type of assumption is what we refer to as the “hangover” effect: despite the induction of a new CEO with a hands-off, empowering approach some team members still behaved as if he was micromanaging. Other assumptions are based on the behaviors team members see from their colleagues related to competence, character or dependability—e.g., “she has no idea what she is doing because she asks too many questions and takes too long to get to the point.” This certainly may be a development challenge, but it is not necessarily a question of competence. Trust is generated when teammates start to discuss the behaviors they are seeing that contribute to assumptions and begin to dig deeper to understand the motivations and intent behind the behaviors.

The antidote to unchecked assumptions is inquiry. When team members become curious about a behavior that seems odd, annoying or disturbing and pause to reflect on other potential realities beyond our first reactions, new realities often emerge. Team members must embrace the fact that they are often venturing into the unknown together and, as such, there will be times when assumptions simply do not hold up.

Illustrating Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset,” which can help team members move beyond assumptions.


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