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Trust - The Foundation of a High Performing Team

September 1, 2008 by Ruth Gmehlin, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

Consider the example of a new product development project at your organization. In order to be able to make some critical decisions on how to proceed, insight is needed from various stakeholders. A group of cross functional managers is assembled, meetings are held, but no progress is made. After some time it becomes clear to everyone that there is animosity between some of the managers, simply put, a trust issue. The group cannot come to a consensus, has little confidence in each other and does not speak their minds - making these meetings a waste of time and energy. Clearly there is an economic cost, production cost, and efficiency cost associated with trust, or the lack thereof. As Stephen M.R. Covey states; trust always affects two outcomes, speed and cost. When trust is low, speed and efficiency decrease and costs go up. When trust is high, speed and efficiency increase and costs go down.

Defining Trust

Trust is viewed as something intangible and undecipherable, a concept that is nice to have, but too difficult to capture in metrics. Trust between team members, employees and managers, trust in the leadership and trust in the organization is important, but trust happens as a result of other variables such as strategy execution, communication, and business success. Or does it?

From an organizational perspective the skill to be able to establish, grow, extend and restore trust with all stakeholders (customers, suppliers, distributors, and investors) is critical. From an individual perspective, trust is part of the foundation of all high performing teams and by extension high performing organizations. Trust is at the heart of establishing team context, structure and process, leading to greater team effectiveness.

Is There Trust on Your Team?

A recent Watson Wyatt survey states that only 39% of employees trust their senior leaders. Is your organization perceived as trustworthy internally and are they aware of the cost of this lack of trust. There are indicators that trust may be an issue within your organization or on your team, and this may be a great opportunity to establish or restore trust. Some suggestions on how to address the trust question:

  • Ask - Look at any relationship you have at work and ask What is the trust level here? and What can we do to improve the trust level here?
  • Measurement tools - Employee surveys, 360s, organizational surveys. Companies ask their employees this simple question: Do you trust your boss?
  • Facilitated Workshops - Having a neutral third party facilitate an open and honest team discussion is an effective way to ascertain how much trust exists on your staff and team.
The feedback when employees are asked these questions can be extraordinary, exposing all kinds of blind spots. People may not be aware there is no trust but wondering why decisions are taking so long to make, consensus is difficult to achieve, deadlines are missed and meetings are unproductive. Low trust impacts speed and cost in every dimension of the organization.

Trust is a Skill

The concept that trust is a skill, not just some intangible may be a surprise. Trust can be quantified and measured, it is possible to look at its components, understand the dimensions and the behaviours that build trust. It is possible to establish and grow trust in any relationship. On an individual level, whether we trust someone, how fast and how much is as much part of our behavioural profile, as our surroundings. What a team needs is a framework so they can think about trust, a language so they can talk about trust and a process so they can work on trust. Trust is the confidence people have in each other, and must be a combination of character and competence.

Steps to Establishing Trust

Trust as a combination of character and competence means that one cannot be severed from the other. The first step is to ensure we ourselves are trustworthy, our character, our behaviour, our language, our actions and the competency level we display at work; then to extend this trust and confidence outwards to our team members.

When trust is extended people will thrive. Consider the simple example of the overly distrustful and skeptical manager. There is evidence that this will affect the way she behaves towards her employees; small indicators such as less eye contact, less expressive language, closed body position and measured speech. The employee will pick up on that uncertainty and distance, making him a little less confident, a little less friendly and a little less certain of his competency. This in turn makes the manager doubtful about the character of the employee and competence, throwing the work relationship off course and diminishing trust.

There is a risk in trusting, but there is even more risk in not trusting. If you do not have the belief you can trust your team members, managers and employees, you will lose them, and bring in all kinds of new costs. Extending a level of trust to people until they prove themselves unworthy of that trust allows more possibility to happen.

What You Can Do

It is important to understand what you can do immediately to increase, grow and establish trust within your organization and team.

(1) Action item what you want to establish first, with a clear understanding of what it is that you can work on personally and immediately. Think about how you can become more trustworthy and how you can extend more trustworthiness to someone on your team; which behaviours of yours inspire trust and which do not.

(2) Be responsible. No matter what situation you are in, you can always be responsible for your own level of trustworthiness.

As Covey states, trust is an extraordinary lever, it's the hidden variable that affects the trajectory of everything else; your relationships, your ability to innovate, execute, collaborate, and communicate in a positive or negative way. When trust is present relationships thrive, efficiency and speed increase and costs go down.