The Trust-Communication Trade-Off
A tool for building innovative teams
By Emily Levada
At Wayfair, we strongly believe in teamwork, open communication, and collaborative problem-solving. We take these core values very seriously, and it is important to us that all our teams and team members are effectively partnering to build the best experience for our customers. Of course, we sometimes miss the mark. As a leader, ensuring that my teams have the right tools to address these instances when they arise is key to success. Below, I will share with you an example of a time my team failed to work cooperatively across the organization and a management tool I find invaluable in such situations.
When Things Go Wrong
It was September 2016. My team owned the category and browse pages on Wayfair.com. We were in the process of testing a new page layout, the first domino in a series of learnings that was intended to inform our merchandising strategy for the holiday season. And our test was broken. Another team had made a change to the website three weeks ago that interfered with how we collected test data, and we hadn’t known. The entire data set was unusable. The follow-up test wouldn’t launch. Our whole roadmap was blown. It was bad. But not nearly as concerning as what happened next. The lead engineer on the project threw his hands down on his desk and blurted, “How could they have made such a stupid mistake? Didn’t they test their code?”
Alarms bells rang in my head. What is a “stupid” mistake? Shouldn’t we assume that they made the best decision they could with the information they had? Why didn’t they know enough about our test to avoid this issue? Why didn’t we design our test to be more resilient? Or put in appropriate monitoring so we could catch this earlier? Plus — we broke their page last week, so shouldn’t we have empathy for how these miscommunications happen?
We’ve all had experiences where we blow up over something we perceive to be a stupid mistake by a partner or team members. We also have occasionally had experiences where this friction with another person or team becomes an ongoing drag on our productivity. Take a moment to think about one of those situations in your own career.
At Wayfair, teams that function independently within a decentralized organizational structure often edit the same pieces of code. Usually they work in this way without issue, addressing any disagreements or conflicts with cooperative problem-solving. In this case, this wasn’t the first time I had heard these teams sniping at each other, and the issues seemed to be reaching a fever pitch. I spent the day reflecting on the interactions I had observed between these teams. Two things stood out — they weren’t communicating effectively, and they didn’t trust each other. That endangered our success more than anything concerning our test. We all play for the same team, fighting in the bullpen doesn’t help us win the game.
So, we had to clean up our test and rewrite our roadmap. But I had a much more important task at hand: figure out how to get these groups to work as a single team. In order to do that, I needed to first build trust between the teams. There has been much written about the definition of trust, so I won’t spend much time here. My preferred definition (from Maisters, et al. The Trusted Advisor) involves four components — I trust that the words you say are accurate, I trust that you will do what you say you will, I trust your discretion, and I trust that you will act with my best interests in mind. I doubt the folks on the two teams in question would have agreed with any of these statements.
All I could actually observe was the communication (or lack thereof) between these groups. In my experience, trust has a very particular, very predictable impact on how people communicate within an organization. While people may understand this implicitly, they rarely recognize it explicitly and frequently underestimate what it takes to effectively manage both trust and communication.
When we mismanage trust and communication in our organization, we see both interpersonal conflict and poor execution on our work. More importantly, the converse is true: We can help our organizations move faster and deliver at lower cost by improving the way we manage trust and communication between team members.
Defining the Trust-Communication Trade-Off
The trust-communication trade-off is a straightforward concept: To accomplish any goal with two or more people, the amount of trust between the team members and the amount of communication required are inversely related.
This notion is commonly attributed to technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things he writes, “If I trust you completely, then I require no explanation or communication of your actions whatsoever, because I know that whatever you are doing is in my best interests.” I first saw the concept illustrated as a simple graph in a Hackernoon article about the qualities of great Product Managers written by Lawrence Ripsher, head of product at Pinterest.
That simple visualization looked something like this:
In this visualization, you will accomplish a given goal if you fall anywhere along or above the illustrated line. If you have a lot of trust between team members, you need relatively little communication. If you have little trust, you need a lot more communication to accomplish the same goal.
The reason that I like this framework and have incorporated it into how I evaluate and manage my teams is that it offers instructive insights beyond this surface-level evaluation. First, it is important to acknowledge that it’s easy for teams to be somewhere in this diagram other than on the line.
Too Little Communication
If you overestimate the amount of trust between a set of individuals, or you’re not properly prioritizing communication within your team, you will end up below the line. In this situation, you are prone to (1) high interpersonal conflict due to lack of trust combined with inadequate visibility and (2) poor output on your initiative. Examples of signs your team might be below the line:
- An important partner or stakeholder is angry when they find out what you’re doing — either because they disagree with the direction or they simply expected to be included sooner
- You hear sniping or otherwise unconstructive feedback from your team or partners (“How could they make that mistake? Didn’t they know they would break our test?”)
- You don’t hear any updates from a group on their project. When you check in it seems like nothing is really getting done and no one really knows what’s happening.
- You’re trying to get a question about a project answered and everyone points fingers to someone else.
Too Much Communication
On the flip side, If you expect team members to communicate for the sake of communication or make them jump through process hoops when there is already a high level of trust, then you will land above the line. In this situation, you will likely meet your objective, but you’re also (1) using your resources inefficiently (read: wasting everyone’s time) and (2) paying the associated opportunity cost. Examples of signs your team might be above the line:
- Your team is complaining that they are in meetings all day.
- You have specific meetings where people in the room leave saying, “Well, that was a waste of my time, I already knew everything that was said.”
- You ask your team to fill out a spreadsheet tracking progress in a standardized way and you immediately get a number of angry emails asking for justification of such an action
- Your product manager missed an important deadline this week, but they got that 3-page long update email out!
It’s easy to be somewhere other than the line:
Low Trust, High Cost
The second important lesson is that not all points on this line are created equal. At the top of the line — where trust is low and communication is high — your employees are accomplishing their goals, but do so in an environment where there is little trust between coworkers and they must put a lot of energy into keeping everyone aligned. In this situation, a team is getting less return on investment (since they are expending more effort for the same output) and will experience a high burnout rate (both because of the high effort and the toxicity of a culture where they are not trusted and do not trust others). In these scenarios, you must assert top-down control and micro-manage decisions made by your team. Not only is your trust in them likely low, but they will have a hard time coming to clear decisions even after meeting on a topic multiple times. Anxiety and fear of negative consequences are common in this situation and job satisfaction declines quickly.
Upside of High Trust
At the bottom of the line — where employees feel trusted and trust those around them — teams deliver the same output for less work (higher ROI). Positive feelings and job satisfaction grow. As a manager, you will spend less time giving top-down direction and resolving disagreements and spend more time vision setting, planning and coaching. In addition, a high trust environment encourages creativity and innovation, because employees tend to be more risk tolerant in environments where they trust that there won’t be negative consequences for failure (that’s another discussion altogether). Therefore, simply getting on the line is not good enough, you should aspire to move your employees down the line as well.
Not all points on the line are equal:
The Path to Building Trust
As a manager attempting to move your team to the bottom of the line, one important element to recognize is that movement within this graph follows a specific path which I will describe below.
For teams below the line, trust cannot be built in a vacuum, so the first step is to add communication in order to get onto the line. (Add a meeting to inform everyone of changes! Make a publicly viewable tracking sheet! Send another email update!). It is important to note here that while I am mostly talking about the frequency of communication in this model, the quality of that communication certainly matters as well.
Once a team increases communication, they will be at the top of the line and at risk for burnout, so they will then need to focus on building trust. Fortunately, increasing communication has the effect of building trust, and over time that team will end up above the line. (An aside: There are many other mechanisms for building trust, that I don’t have time to discuss here. But, at the end of the day, they all include some form of additional communication.)
For teams above the line, you must aggressively subtract communication where it does not add value (Cancel the meeting where you inform everyone of changes! Delete that tracking sheet that no one references! Don’t send any more emails!). Since team dynamics are ever-changing and it is hard to determine the value of specific communications, we will be in a constant flux of adding and subtracting communication in order to stay close to the line.
Movement within this graph follows a specific path:
From Low Trust to High Trust
To illustrate what this looks like in practice, let’s revisit that day in 2016 when I discovered my test was broken. The two engineering groups in question had repeatedly butted heads over project ownership and demonstrated a lack of trust in the other group’s abilities. They were regularly interfering in each other’s work because of the lack of visibility into each other’s progress. When this happened, they pointed fingers rather than trying to build bridges. It reached a fever pitch that day, but the solution was relatively straightforward. They were asked to meet for an hour every other week, with their managers present, and do nothing except share everything they were working on with each other.
In most cases, it would be a waste of time for two teams to share updates in this way. There are more efficient ways to transfer information. In this case, the update meeting didn’t just help keep everyone informed about the work. It also gave team members important insights into how their colleagues approached building products. The meeting created additional communication, and also served as a mechanism for building trust. The teams became increasingly more likely to consider each other’s perspective proactively, to reach out in advance of making important decisions, and to give each other the benefit of the doubt when failures inevitably happened. Over time (about a year), we lowered the frequency of the standing meeting and then removed it.
Complexity Adds Cost
In practice, you will find that every situation where you may apply this framework is a little different. In particular, the line representing our objective in this framework may move or change shape depending on the complexity of the objective and the structure of our team.
For example, on a relatively small or simple project, the slope of the line is flatter. In a team with high trust, a small or simple project may be completed with almost no communication.
On the other hand, very large, long, or highly-complex initiatives may not be possible at all without a modest amount of communication (even among high-trust teams). In addition, the relationship between trust and communication may not be linear. When this is the case, a decrease in trust would require outsized communication gains to accomplish the goal, and there is a much higher risk of failing to accomplish the objective.
The most important lesson to understand here is that these lines differ both because of complexity of a project, and also based on the complexity of your organization. As your team grows, as ownership areas overlap more, and as technologies get more complex, you will be consistently moving the line for any given task outward. Those of us who manage at large companies often talk about these as “coordination costs”, and assume that we will pay these costs with increased communication. In doing so, we overlook building trust as a mechanism for handling coordination at scale.
We also must understand that what worked before won’t continue to work as the conditions change — even in teams with high trust. If we apply an approach that worked in a simpler organization to a more complex organization, we will fall below the line. Over time, we will see interpersonal conflict arise, execution will slip, and we will fail to achieve our goals. The way back requires us to first build communication pathways, then build trust, and then remove communication paths and processes when and where they become inefficient. In addition, we have to recognize that this will continue to be a never-ending process for as long as the size and complexity of our organizations grows.
Applying the Trust-Communication Trade-Off
If you’re reading this and wondering how you might apply these concepts to improving your team dynamics, the first step is to figure out where your team sits on this diagram. As you saw above, there are four corners of this graph, and movement between them happens in a specific path. Read through the definitions of these four areas below, and try to identify where your team sits.
- The Conflict Zone — In the bottom left of the graph (below the line), your team is not delivering results. Miscommunication abounds and people are frequently missing important information. Teammates find themselves in dust-ups and turf battles.
- The Burnout Zone — In the top left of the graph (top of the line), your team is delivering results, but they seem burnt out and anxious. They are moving slower than you would like and it seems like it takes multiple meetings for the group to make any decision. You have to exert top-down influence frequently to keep things moving.
- The Bureaucracy Zone — In the top right of the graph (above the line), your team is delivering good results, but doing so slower than you expect. They are often complaining about the number of useless meetings they attend, but generally seem to enjoy their work and each other. You worry that they are getting comfortable and not pushing hard enough.
- The Innovation Zone — In the bottom right of the graph (bottom of the line), your team is delivering clear, consistent results. They are meeting tough problems with creative solutions and driving projects with little oversight. Furthermore, the team seems well connected to the company and to each other. Turnover is at an all-time low.
Identify which zone your team is in and focus on the next step:
Once you’ve identified where you think your team sits, remember that movement to the Innovation Zone requires travelling a particular path. At each stage, you will be focused on a different goal.
- For teams in the Conflict Zone, invest in adding communication. Make sure team members know what everyone else is working on, understand the goals of that work, and are being updated regularly on progress and decision making. Make sure to be as transparent as possible from the top-down to encourage open communication. As you move from the Conflict Zone into the Burnout Zone, your team will start producing better results, but at a high cost in time and energy.
- For teams in the Burnout Zone, invest in building trust. How to effectively build trust is one of the questions I get asked most frequently. This is a big and meaty topic that I can’t do justice here. As I said above, implementing additional communication ends up being a decent forcing function because it creates opportunities to exhibit the elements that trusting relationships are made up of such as credibility, reliability, and empathy. It also creates a mechanism for people or teams in active conflict to build mutual understanding.
- For teams in the Bureaucracy Zone, subtract communication. Remove roadblocks to progress as aggressively as possible and empower teams to make quick, autonomous decisions.
- For teams in the Innovation Zone, beware!! Teams in the Innovation Zone are at risk for falling backwards into the Conflict Zone. This may happen because trust erodes over time (for example, if there are a few miscommunications that go unresolved or there is turnover inside the team). It can also happen because of increased complexity in your product or team that moves the “line” outward. In either case, the amount of communication you had will no longer suffice. Conversely, teams that contract or who move onto a more straightforward project may find themselves in the Bureaucracy Zone where the amount of communication previously needed is no longer necessary. You must always be vigilant in how you manage communication and invest in building trust over time.
As you have seen, trust-building in an organization helps us move faster and lower cost by reducing the amount of communication needed to meet our goals. This is because, to accomplish any goal that requires two or more people, the amount of trust among the group and the amount of communication required are inversely related.
It is important to recognize this relationship and actively manage trust and communication on our teams. This is never a one-time investment, but an ongoing task that requires continued effort to balance well. The benefits of active management increase as the complexity and size of organization grow, making early investments in a trust-based culture all the more important.
About the Author: Emily serves as Director of Product Management at Wayfair where she builds teams that build products in the core shopping funnel (browse, product details, cart, and checkout).
Graph & matrix illustrations by Jake Carter.