Teams and Trust

A great piece of wisdom on team culture that a colleague credited it to Schmidt during Google all hands:

Trust your coworkers are smart and good intentioned.

Teams and culture break down for one primary reason: lack of trust. Trust in leadership, trust in peers, trust in the mission, trust in ability to execute. And as companies scale, this trust becomes harder to acquire and maintain. Not only are there more stakeholders and layers to navigate in a larger organization, it also feels less personal and intimate when growing beyond the initial group.

Trust often comes naturally with small teams, because you’re frequently interacting with the same people and you start to know them personally. You find common interests, share understanding and motivation, and collaborate with different skills and perspectives.

Conversely, distrust happens especially with companies going through hyper growth. Dunbar’s number suggests that people can only maintain up to 150 stable and healthy relationships. When colleagues become a name and face in a large organization, skepticism understandably becomes the first defense mechanism, and teamwork quickly wears down.

Without an intentional foundation and culture of support, effectiveness erodes quickly as teams scale. The difference between default on and default off is astounding:

  • New teammates are either met with embrace or scrutiny.
  • Cross functional initiatives either converge quickly or slog through reviews and compromise.
  • The aftermath of postmortems focus on the blame and accountability rather than learnings and future mitigations.
  • Feedback is constructive and well intentioned or destructive and ego-driven.
  • Teams are empowered to take risk rather than always mitigating them.
  • Every other team is wasting their time, but your team can execute better and faster than them.
  • Employees roll up their sleeves on a common problem or dismiss it as “not my job”.

Sound familiar?

Trust dictates the quality interactions and how collaboration unfolds. It takes tremendous time and effort, but it also yields commensurate dividends over time.

Every leader I’ve spoken to, whether they are from startups of 3 cofounders or from corporations of tens of thousands, agree that no process or authority can replace the importance of trust and relationships. High functioning organizations recognize that people are the critical aspects to driving an effective collaboration. Process and mandates are not substitute for a healthy culture of support.

So how should organizations create and maintain trust?

  • Promote an open and candid culture.
    “Every member of the team should feel like they can safely express their viewpoints, even if those views are contrarian.” (Julie Zhuo)
    Encourage diverse opinions and candid debates. People who feel heard are much more likely to listen as well.
  • Embrace mistakes as a necessary path to success.
    Organizations that punish mistakes become distrustful and breed an environment of blame and fear. Teams avoid accountability and progress slows to a crawl as everyone seeks permission and approvals. Instead, encourage people to take risk and to strive for better decision making.
  • Disagree and commit.
    Get 10 people in a room together and try to have everyone agree on a subjective topic. It never happens. An effective organization isn’t about building consensus, but to allow teams to make hard decisions despite differing perspectives, with commitment from the team (Jeff Bezos). Everyone’s commitment implies that there isn’t going back after the decision of “we should have done what I suggested.”
  • Empower leaders at every level.
    Scale with every leader embodying the right values. These values need to be cultivated downwards but also laterally with their peers. “Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part.” (Steve Jobs) Conversely, root out cynicism and bad blood.
  • Frontload the skepticism with the interview process.
    Interview processes are not perfect, but if you and the company invest so much time to vet the candidates, give them benefit of the doubt once they’re sharing in the mission. And if you don’t trust the interview process, contribute to make it better.

Build the right culture of support, and teams will flourish and execute. Otherwise, they are fending off each other and tied up in bureaucracy.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to cultivate trust and facilitate teamwork. So assume your coworkers are smart and good intentioned. It’s often reciprocal.