On Leadership: Why building trust is the core of every successful team

This is part of the ongoing blog series on leadership and management as seen through the lens of competitive sports that was introduced via the blog post: “Why Pro Sports is a Useful Analytical Tool for Business Leadership and Management”.

The Seven Optimal Functions of a Team

One of my business bibles is Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Like most of Lencioni’s books it’s a fast read told in the form of a fable — of a prototypical management team and how they move from dysfunction to high function. He presents the dysfunctions as a pyramid, each building upon the layer below. It outlines the essential elements of teamwork. In my 22+ years of building startups I’ve found these five elements to be the only items to focus on when it comes to building high performance teams.

The Five Dysfunctions — Copyright Patrick Lencioni

My preference is to work from the positive rather than the negative — i.e. the Five Optimal Functions of a Team (vs dysfunctions). It’s easy to define the optimal functions by just replacing the modifier of the main noun with its antonym (inattention becomes attention, lack of becomes abundance of). I usually replace “Conflict” with “Debate” because many humans have an aversion to the word “conflict”.

Interestingly and not surprisingly, Google did a lot of empirical work (Project Aristotle) on what separated their high performing teams from their mediocre or low performing teams and found a 5-layer cake very similar to Lencioni’s. My view is that “Trust” and “Healthy Debate” comprise psychological safety, Commitment and Accountability comprise Dependability, Structure & Clarity and Meaning comprise Results. Societal Impact is a nice addition to the pyramid and I would definitely agree that the Mission of an organization is the driving force that creates the necessary conditions from which Results are established.

So… between Lencioni and Google, call it “the Six Optimal Functions” of a team.

Google’s Project Aristotle pyramid — Copyright Google

Lastly, I believe Lencioni misses an essential aspect of high performing teams that is a prerequisite to establishing trust: Relationship. Without each person on the team being committed to and capable of having an authentic, connected relationship with the other members of their team — especially the members with whom they depend on regularly to achieve their results — it is virtually impossible to form the kind of trusting bonds that lead to healthy debate and the ability to make and meet commitments to each other.

Building meaningful relationships is the foundation of our work at Misty where we do specific workshops to enable those relationships to form in a more meaningful fashion while also doing the social work that enables relationships to flourish.

Which, ultimately, means there are Seven Optimal Functions of a Team: Relationship builds Trust that enables healthy Debate which leads to people Committing and being Accountable to owning results which achieve the Mission.

It all comes down to Trust & authentic Relationships

I personally further separate the pyramid into two sections: the lizard-brain, emotional intelligence portion (relationships, trust and healthy debate which can largely be captured under the banner “Trust”) and the pre-frontal-cortex, logical-brain portion (mission, results, commitment/ownership and accountability, largely captured under the banner “Results” — for another post, another day).

As I outlined in the inaugural post about Leadership, I love to study professional sports teams because by definition to win championships they must a) outperform their peers and b) achieve that with a high level of performance and teamwork. Whether it’s the USWNT (hockey or soccer) or professional men’s teams, when you listen to members of the team after they’ve won championships you will always hear the wisps of The Seven Optimal Functions, especially the Trust component:

  • “These are my real sisters”
  • “I’d run through a brick wall for my teammates”
  • “I’ve never hung out after practice more with a group of men than I have this year”
  • “We’re always doing things for each other”
  • “We drive each other to be our best selves”
  • “I can practically read her mind when we’re on the field”

Conversely, from losing teams — the ones at the bottom of the league or bracket — you’ll hear anti-trust words like “back-biting”, “disloyal”, “cliques”, “unengaged” and other phrases.

John Elway (among many great quarterbacks) was famous for the way he treated his offensive line. He frequently took them to dinner. He bought them gifts. He hung out with them. One of his offensive linemen, Gary Zimmerman, is still, today a personal protector of sorts. His goal was to develop deep, meaningful, long-term relationship so that his teammates trusted him implicitly and would have healthy debate on the best path to win.

Von Miller and many top players like Von regularly call out their teammates for their excellence, their work ethic or their impact on him. This generates an emotional connection for him with them; he cares for their well-being. It starts with relationship.

As anyone who has built a lasting and meaningful relationship — be that with a friend, a spouse or a colleague — you know Trust must be built, earned, constantly nurtured, often revisited and easily broken. At both Misty and companies before, I’ve asked the questions: “what factors in your colleagues / friends foster trust and which erode trust?” Ask yourself what your trust factors are — what instills trust in you from another person? What breaks it?

Trust Enablers:

  • Keeping commitments made
  • Shared values
  • Consistency
  • Has your back
  • Credible
  • Authentic
  • Shared Experiences
  • Honorable
  • Radically candid
  • Work quality

Of special note is shared values. The first piece of experience I share with other entrepreneurs at the beginning of their journeys is the importance of defining the shared values of the organization. I’ve personally seen organizations ripped apart by a lack of shared values among their founding or leading team.

What do we do with these at Misty? We talk about them. We identify, for each leader on the leadership team, which are the most important trust enablers and how are each of us, as colleagues, doing on the “trust meter” for that enabler? We go on walks to talk about these areas of trust. We check in with each other on how much trust we do/don’t have. We talk about our shared values and, again, we individually describe which values are the most important to us and we understand that when one of us experiences a violation of a strongly held value in that particular area, that’s a critical moment / transaction to evaluate for both parties. Violated party: did that person really intend to violate that value or did they simply do something that’s perceived that way? Most people can’t hold all of the strongly held values of their colleagues in their minds all the time, so usually an experience of a violation is often accidental. Which, upon giving the benefit of the doubt, leads to a less emotional interpretation? Violator: did you notice the person’s experienced a violation in a strongly held value and did you do something to recover (acknowledge it; apologize it wasn’t your intention, etc…)?

Trust Breakers:

  • Not keeping one’s word
  • Talking poorly about each other behind their backs
  • Not delivering results you committed to deliver
  • Violating a core value of another
  • Keeping your true thoughts to yourself

It’s fairly easy to see from these lists of both enablers and breakers how important an authentic, human, connected relationship with each other truly is. If you don’t know your coworkers well enough to know their values it’s pretty easy to violate them. If you don’t have a strong enough relationship to be able to speak your mind it’s easy to withhold information and sow doubt in your colleague.

The Trust Equation

While at Google, an executive coach there shared with me another fun tidbit about trust called The Trust Equation (from the book The Trusted Advisor):

From The Trusted Advisor by David Maister, et al

It’s not surprising that all of these elements have a great / deep connection to The Seven Optimal Functions of a Team.

Credibility: is both a lizard-brain and a pre-frontal cortex brain word. At an emotional level, how credible is this person? My view is that “credible” in this context is “to what extent does this person share my values and, therefore, do I give this person credence?” At a logical level, credibility is about the experience, expertise, demonstrated skill and overall capability that an individual on the team brings to the role played on the team. In other words, a really tall, strong-handed basketball player who rebounds well and dribbles poorly has very low credibility as a point guard.

Reliability: this one’s pretty simple. When you make a commitment do you keep it? Can I rely upon you to do your job and to deliver the results upon which I rely to do mine? Can I rely upon you to think about the information needs I have in order to do my job well and that you’ll deliver that information to me?

Intimacy: again, pretty simple — do we have a relationship? Do you know me the human being? Or just my work caricature? Do you care about me and my well-being? Will you be 100% candid with me? Or will you let disagreements go unstated, only to be subversive in your actions? Will you keep your critique of me to yourself and starve me of the opportunity to become a better teammate or will you help me in all facets of my work?

Self-orientation: Notice that this is a trust-breaker. It’s also pretty simple: is your world all about you? Or is it about us? Do my needs, concerns, perspective, emotions, hangups, goals enter your mind and cause you to act differently to enable and fulfill them? Or are you oblivious to these needs? The more self-oriented the harder it is to be trusted. One of the foundational characteristics we look for in anyone who joins Misty is: “is this person a me-person? Or a we-person?” We don’t hire me-people.

Going back to each individual’s “trust style” (different values, different foremost trust enablers/breakers), so too is there individuality to the trust equation — each component of the equation will have a different weight for each unique individual. One might substantially weight credibility where another substantially weights reliability. Yet another might care supremely about credibility, reliability and intimacy and completely overcome the self-orientation if enough of the first three are demonstrated.

Working on Trust is Constant

Trust is the foundation of every great, high-performing team. By its nature and because of all the factors we’ve explored in this blog post, it can also be fickle, fleeting, temporal. It’s why some championship professional teams can’t repeat their championship despite having a large majority of the same players. It’s why companies can ebb and flow in their ability to perform at their peak.

Again, anyone who has known any significant and deep relationship knows this: it requires constant attention. At Misty this means:

  • constant attention to relationship
  • constant effort to be vulnerable, authentic and candid
  • frequent socializing
  • repeated group introspection on our contributions to our teammates and where can we improve
  • constant coaching on the enablers and breakers of trust
  • constant vigilance for the creation/erosion of trust

Like every team team we’re not perfect. We’ll never “get it right”. We’ll never be 100% on all Seven Optimal Functions. And we sure do strive at every turn to hire the appropriate people, equip them with the appropriate knowledge and tools, provide constant opportunities to develop relationship, trust and healthy debate. We’ve even hired a head of human performance (Adam Reynolds): an onsite executive coach. Trust is largely what he concentrates on, and he’s constantly on the lookout for where it’s improving, where it’s eroding and the techniques each of us can implement to improve.

It’s hard for me to imagine why every business, knowing the importance of trusting relationships, does not have an Adam Reynolds on staff.

It’s that vital.

And he’s our secret weapon.