Trust is What Fuels Great Leadership Teams
“Trust is like the air we breathe. When it is present, nobody notices. But when it’s absent, everybody notices.” Warren Buffet
Great leadership teams are critical to an organization’s success and trust is the fuel that helps to make leadership teams thrive. Reinforcing this point are the findings from Google’s seminal study[i]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.” Paul Santagata, Head of Industry at Google, puts it simply - “There is no team without trust.”
The Components of Trust
In this article we will discuss how trust on leadership teams can diminish and what steps leadership teams can take to repair trust. But first we will describe our view on what trust is all about. Trust is complex and has different meanings for different people and while it 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.’ Three important trust components emerge from this definition – Competence • Character • Dependability.
Competence (Capability • Pride • Value Learning • Share Expertise)
While helpful, 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 is can be a signal that trust is fragile. High capability 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. High capability leadership 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(Integrity • Vulnerability • Curiosity • Communication)
Character is the foundational dimension of trust that leadership teams need to be effective. 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. High character 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. Finally, 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 Amy Edmonson[ii]refers to as psychological safety – ‘teammates feel safe to take risks without being judged as ignorant, incompetent, negative or disruptive.’
Dependability(Commitments • Consistency • Expectations • Measured Risks)
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 meeting 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.
The Importance of Trust
Great leadership teams are laser focused on performance, are force multipliers for their organizations, are resilient, and grow in their capacity to solve increasingly complex challenges. The fuel that enables leadership teams to be maintain their ‘greatness’ is trust. Trust directly influences a great leadership team’s ability to engage in productive dialogue and hold each other accountable. When that fuel is lacking, it is easy to identify a dysfunctional team –avoid confrontation, act passive aggressively, lobby the leader, churn on issues, protect turn. But when it is present the sky is the limit – great teams challenge, debate and discuss their most important issues in a manner that progresses the issues and leaves minimal relational scares.
How Trust Gets Diminished
Great 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. We have been working with leadership teams now for more than ten years and one thing we can state with absolute confidence is that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ team. All leadership teams 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 begins to diminish for a few reasons. First, leadership 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 times these assumptions are flat out wrong. Finally, members of leadership teams operate with what Carol Dweck[iii]calls a fixed mindset (belief that an individual’s qualities are fixed and therefore cannot change) rather than a growth mindset (belief that learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience).
The table below illustrates the shift in behaviors and mindset that can help leadership teams begin to repair trust.
The Path to Repairing Trust
Trust is extremely difficult to repair because when trust is diminished curiosity and learning often stop. It takes leadership, commitment and practical experience to help leadership teams regain their curiosity and desire to learn.
It takes leadership and not necessarily from the formal leader (CEO, Department Head, GM) to help a leadership team recognize that a low trust environment is getting in the way. This is a particularly challenging for a team that is working in a psychologically unsafe environment. Nevertheless, mature leader(s) needs to put a mirror up to their colleagues. First, mature leaders need to model openness to receiving feedback, demonstrate an ability to listen intently, and hold back on making assumptions or judging. Next, the ‘elephant in the room’ issues need to be put on the table and acknowledged by all teammates – e.g., Bob and Mary are clearly not in sync and it is impacting how their departments are interacting. Next, mature leaders need to help teammates need to suspend judgement – assume positive intent, show forgiveness and have patience – so that the team can work towards productive discussion and resolution.
Formal commitments are absolutely essential for trust to have any remote chance of being repaired. Commitments start with what Tasha Eurich[iv]refers to as the two sides of self-awareness – internal(self-reflection) and external(feedback from others). This requires team members to talk to each other about what they expect from each other and what they would like their teammates to do differently to strengthen trust. From these discussions (which clearly happen over an extended period of time) teammates make formal pronouncements of their commitments designed to strengthen trust. The language goes something like this – ‘I commit to thinking through the potential consequences before taking action that impacts my teammates and their units and when I struggle to live up to this commitment I want my teammates to provide me with feedback.’
Experience Productive Disagreement
Disagreement is an inevitable, normal, and healthy part of any leadership team. Unfortunately, many of us are not very good at disagreement and as a result disagreement often turns into unproductive conflict. Team members either avoid disagreement for fear of being uncomfortable, wrong or judged or enter discussions as if they were boxing matches with a win at all cost mentality. The steps to productive disagreement are pretty straightforward but the work is hard; especially if the team’s experience with disagreement has been less than constructive. Productive disagreement requires three things. First, commitment from both sides of a disagreement to be curious – listen and really try to understand other perspectives. Next, both parties have to build a learning and ‘go forward’ mentality and work hard not to be weighed down by any bad disagreement experiences they have had. Finally, and most importantly, teammates have to learn, reflect and reinforce the positive feelings and outcomes they have when they experience productive disagreement.
“What helps rebuild trust most is when teammates experience the positive outcomes and feelings that come from experiencing productive disagreement.”
Trust on leadership teams is complex as it means different things to different people but at its core it is based on how teammates view each other’s competence and character, and dependability. The natural stresses on leadership teams and the fact that teams are typically comprised of leaders from diverse backgrounds and experiences can put pressure on perceptions of teammates trustworthiness. While the road to repairing trust is not easy, mature leadership action and earnest commitment making by each teammate are instrumental in the repair journey. What helps most, however, is when teammates experience the positive outcomes and feelings that come from experiencing productive disagreement.
[i]Charles Duhigg, “What Google Learned in its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” New York Times, February 25, 2016.
[ii]Amy C. Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1999, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 350-383.
[iii]Carol Dweck, “Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset,” Education Week, September 22, 2015, Vol. 35, Issue 05, pp. 20, 24.
[iv]Tasha Eurich, “Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life,” Crown Business Publishing, 2017.