Trust and its relationship to Team Power

The following post is adapted from an internal newsletter I wrote at my last company in March 2015. Please only apply what makes sense for you and your context. Thanks for reading!

The road to hits is paved with team power. But don’t take my word for it: check out the Game Outcomes Project’s cogent articulation of the reasons.

Trust is the first quality we have to master to make our teams extraordinary — the type of human-to-human trust that is forged in the fire of an authenticity-based team relationship.

Why is trust so important? It builds the foundation for conflict, which in turn builds the foundation for commitment, which builds the foundation for accountability, which builds the foundation for excellence, which is the top triangle of the Lencioni pyramid where we want teams to be.

Reinforcing Existing Strengths

In my organization, we do the following things well, though I have added my opinion on how we could supercharge them as well.

1. Public Postmortems following Suboptimal Outcomes, especially when deep and fearless, give leaders the chance to show the paradoxical strength of vulnerability by reflecting courageously on mistakes, weaknesses, and failures. Recognition of successes large and small is equally important, but honest admission of imperfection, especially on the part of leaders whose responsibility it was to make a certain call, is an ingredient of organizational trust. One reason is that it constructs a bridge of empathy between people’s inner experiences.

A healthy dose of self-disclosed humanity sets conditions for the interpersonal process of bonding to happen. If I share things I am not proud of, I show I am willing to put other things above my own ego — one key trait of trustworthy leaders.

To supercharge this trust factor

Consider making postmortems more fearless and searching. Why not do them also for important, high-level organizational questions? A deep and constructive look into a failure, whatever it reveals, would increase organizational trust by creating platforms for shared authenticity. A situation where that question isn’t openly asked may lead to gossip and back channel politics. When it comes to failure, the best way to create a culture that is ok with it is to acknowledge it thoroughly and to give any critical questions their due.

2. Retrospectives. When disciplined and energetic, retros regularly build team trust through authentic communication. For team bonds to form, congruent communication needs to happen again and again. Team members need to experience what happens when someone speaks up to say something unpopular, or how leaders respond when boundaries are crossed. Are trust-testing moments addressed, or swept under the rug? Does the team live by its own working agreements, or do fear and lack of emotional attunement banish them to a backwater drive, never to be seen again? Retrospectives are a great format for constraining the team to enter the alchemical crucible of team cohesion.

To supercharge this trust factor

Check this list for ideas for interesting retro formats: switching up the program helps keep retros from going stale. Next time you have a retrospective, observe how the team behaves — is there a spirit of honest and constructive feedback, or is half the team slumped in the corner checking out? If the latter is the case, ask people in 1X1s what’s going on for them. Let people know that you rely on their full engagement in the team. Show them that you are willing to hear their (possibly upsetting to you) version of reality even if it isn’t convenient. Find out what’s really going on, and then thank them for their honesty. If they honor you with the truth, see if you can problem-solve together to come up with something that will restore their engagement in retros but still meets your needs.

3. Feedback is vital for trust in teams. In living organisms, processing feedback from the environment is part of self-regulation and survival. Feedback is how you know whether what you think you are doing is really arriving in the world “out there” the way you intend it. If it’s not, you have the chance to modulate, but without confirmation in the form of feedback, you get bogged in the limits of your own assessment. Lack of feedback creates psychological insecurity and crazy-making mental habits of second-guessing and self-doubt. Likewise, the explicit encouragement to give constructive and challenging feedback to others, especially to leaders, helps team members know that their subjective truth is welcome in the team, something which is crucial for getting employees to bring their full brilliance to bear at work. As a reminder, good feedback is constructive, candid, timely, specific and encouraging.

To supercharge this trust factor

Consider using the Core Protocols’ “Perfecter” technique, which is ruthless, specific and constructive. I play a gamified version with teams to introduce the idea. Coach your people in feedback and require them to deliver it in a high-quality format. Consider getting together to role play and practice feedback. Remember that any time you deliver accurate feedback, even if it is negative, you build trust by showing your attunement and presence.

4. One on Ones. Employees need attention, time, and the personal touch of a check-in with managers. While in large teams the reporting structure makes weekly one on ones with everyone infeasible, some regular rhythm of individual check-ins should be considered unskippable. The chance to bond one on one with the leader is part of weaving a strong and supple social fabric in the team.

To supercharge this trust factor

Mix up your questions. For new ideas, this post listing 101 questions to ask in a 1 on 1 may be helpful. Resist the temptation to skip one on ones even if there are “no topics to discuss”. If there are no topics, it is better to spend the face time together anyway, building relationship in the in-between-times so that the bond is strong when something important does happen. Just hanging out together when there is nothing important that needs to be discussed right away gives space for more relaxed, right brain and exploratory bonding to arise.

Missing Trust Factors

Here are a few elements of trust that I feel are largely missing in my organization, and some ideas for how to introduce them.

1.Role Clarity continues to be a challenge in my company, who grew up out of start up stage not too long ago and has a strong attachment to its self-organizing and flat-hierarchy culture, at times to its own detriment. Without role clarity it is very difficult to have a solid grasp of the mission you are meant to fulfill.

To use a metaphor from film, if I am not sure which part I am playing in the movie, how important that part is, and what end of the emotional spectrum I am meant to fill out, so to speak, my performance will be inconsistent, confused, and fraught with miscommunication between me, the director, and the other actors. Consequently, I and arguably the whole film will be held back from excellence.

To feel secure enough to perform above expectation (and help my team become top-performing), I need to know a lot about my purpose with respect to the others. Once I know the requirements very thoroughly, I am freed up for creative interpretation and unique expression of that mission. If I don’t have clear constraints I am condemned to spending my time finding out what those implied or hidden constraints are, postponing high-performance in my role until such time as I am able to figure it out.

The primary way I will find those constraints, if they are not explicit, is through engaging in boundary testing, power struggles, and storming in the team until role differentiation emerges that way. There is no way to skip the step of differentiation in teams, but you can force your team to get stuck in that stage, damning them to unnecessary conflict, storming and differentiating activity just by ignoring the need for role definition.

To improve this trust factor

Get precise about what each person is meant to do in the team. Just because you articulate it doesn’t mean that it can’t be changed. Write it down and talk about it. Over-communicate it. Guide the team out of the murky realms of the unspoken, where misunderstandings and insecurity breed.
Write a clear team charter from which you can derive a simple but explicit agreement about which areas of the product should best fall under whose ownership. Tie the charter and the roles to the product vision, from which the team purpose derives in large part.
Generate delegation agreements within the team, so that everyone is crystal clear how decision making happens. For each role, have a clear understanding of what successful role performance would look like, and explicitly describe what underperformance in the role would be. Guide the team in some task role self-reflection processes as well as personality profile reflections.
Many of these steps are simple, but shouldn’t be skipped — the discussions that are prompted by going through these exercises will drive unspoken role definitions and latent role conflicts to the surface, thus giving your team the gift of fewer months spent in the storming stage.

2. Courageous Communication, by which I mean having the right discussions with the right people at the right time, is a topic under construction at my company. The key barrier here is a tendency in our culture to avoid difficult conversations, such as “this outcome is not acceptable, what happened?”.

I notice a well-meaning fear of hurting feelings that leads to important information (such as a statement like “I don’t think you are showing yourself to be qualified to do this job and I am considering replacing you unless you improve”) to not be delivered directly and on time, which leads, over time, to far greater pain to the individual and to the team than the truth would have incurred.

This is the workplace equivalent of wanting to break up with someone but not telling the other person for several years because you are afraid it will hurt their feelings. More often than not this kind of well-meaning but avoidant behavior comes from feeling overly responsible for the behavior and feelings of others. Another way of thinking about this concept is “saying what needs to be said”, letting the others handle themselves even if it is uncomfortable to witness.

To improve this trust factor

Practice saying the uncomfortable truth. This may come through a better mastery of boundaries, and/or exploration of our fear of conflict. We have a harmony-driven culture, and even though they are nice, harmony-driven cultures may sacrifice excellence for pleasantness and may require getting more comfortable with disharmony in order to move forward. Easier said than done, so it’s good to take time to practice getting better at speaking the truth.

3. Employee Recognition is an area of potential development. Attuned recognition of the value of individual contributors and departments is missing to some degree in many organizations and mine is no exception. In spite of exposure via weeklies and so on, a recurring theme in one on ones with me is that employees feel unseen.

They report feeling unrecognized in their actual area of expertise; collectively we are not doing enough to say “hey, I noticed you did an above-average job on that design doc and you really know what you’re doing with that stuff — great job!”

Efforts are in some cases unrewarded, unacknowledged and even just plain invisible. Statements like “no one knows what I do or why” are not uncommon, especially in larger teams. While formal feedback processes have greatly enhanced this aspect of the employee experience by building in a structure that prompts recognizing conversations to happen, I think we could do a lot more.

To improve this trust factor

Consider using tools like a Kudo Box, and/or introducing a “kudos round” into retrospectives. Remember that everyone needs to be recognized for slightly different things, but that recognition is basically a fancy word for noticing. To be able to do this, we have to have the time and presence of mind as well as the extra effort to verbalize what we notice. Each employee can also be encouraged to take charge of their own need for recognition.

4.Facing the dark stuff, like many of the above changes I suggest, is a lifelong practice and far easier said than done. The idea here is related to many of the concepts above, about being able to look an unwanted aspect of the culture in the eye and acknowledge its existence. All organizations have an organizational shadow cast by its ideals. The only problem with this normal psychological process occurs when the shadow traits that inevitably continue to exist inside the organization in spite of our wishing them not to be there are so reviled that they are repressed completely out of our conscious awareness.

Shadow aspects of an organization typically flourish and gain strength and power in the dark and diminish or transform to their better sides once in the light of awareness. This is the key reason why I am always trying to flush the “not so nice stuff” out into the open where it can be engaged with head on.

Since in my company and many other from the tech world have a big investment in being a nice, literally “feel-good” culture, there is strong collective pressure to drive the not-so-nice side of the group underground, causing it to come out “sideways”. Some examples of how our collectively disowned aggression comes out include passive-aggression, “quick and dirty” firings, or emotionally-charged anonymous questions in the AMA coming from people who might only say nice things when asked directly.

Another example may be that we like to think of ourselves as non-hierarchical, banishing our “bossyness” to the shadows. From the shadows where it has to stay hidden, our bossyness can express itself as micromanaging, controlling, or manipulative behavior.

How does shadow relate to trust? Quite simply, we are not trustworthy until we know ourselves well enough to know our aggression, fear, and other socially-unacceptable sides well enough to be sure that we are not unconsciously ruled by them, and that we don’t act them out destructively.

Typically people who are not able to tolerate conscious awareness of darkness in themselves will project and see it in the others, which they take as justification to treat them with aggression or underground tactics to “get rid of them”. While this is human behavior and cannot be changed overnight and isn’t something any of us are exempt from, we can still try to be better about it, learning to welcome the shadow so that it blesses rather than curses us in our daily endeavors.

To improve this trust factor

Reflect on ourselves as a collective. As we acknowledge what matters to us as a group we may be able to see where banished aspects of the organizational psyche are asserting themselves. Upon finding expressions of those repressed qualities, we can attempt to integrate them by recognizing their idealized forms.
For example, “destructive anger” is bad, but the same quality when recast as “anger about poor quality fuels constructive pressure towards improving the product” we can see that anger in and of itself may be a desirable trait, without which we may not get where we need to go. Consider what the cost of not allowing this aspect to exist at all may be for us, and explore the idea of integrating some of our repressed qualities into the collective for the greater good.

In sum, trust is a topic of oceanic dimensions with fathoms well worth the time and effort of exploring. I invite you also to discuss, argue, object to, ignore, or find out more about my recommendations. Anytime, for any reason, you are always welcome.