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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.

Is Your Organization Experiencing The Gap?

July 1, 2008 by Jill Geddes, Partner, Trillium Teams Inc

Without a doubt the view is different from the top of the building than it is from within - by the same token this difference in perspective is also present in the structure of an organization. This gap exists in every company. The cracks start to appear when a small company experiences growth and moves from a flat organization towards a more traditional structure.

What is the Gap?

The gap is defined by the differences in perspective between what the leaders believe to be the challenges within the organization, and what employees in the trenches are experiencing. Company leaders set the vision, goals and strategy, which are then filtered down to the mid level, or the trenches, of an organization. The trenches are responsible for executing on tasks and projects that fall in line with those strategies, within the various silos such as accounting, operations, marketing, product development, or client care.

Leaders hear grumblings of what is going on in the trenches; however, since this information is filtered up through a select few managers and higher level executives, the accuracy and validity are easily skewed. The real pain of the employees is often not felt at the top until it is too late. Employee issues naturally fall lower on the executive priority list, as their concerns are generating revenue, cutting costs, or growing the company. Executives know the value of their workforce, but having a human resources department allows them the dangerous luxury of not directly concerning themselves with employee issues.

Why Mind the Gap?

An incalculable amount of productive time is wasted in the trenches with employees discussing frustrations - manager/employee issues, job security, goals, roles, and procedures not defined, inter-team problems, salary and promotion concerns. In a typical company, time spent discussing these types of concerns averages two hours a week per employee, costing organizations billions a year in lost productivity.

The wider the gap, the greater the potential for negative impact on the bottom line of an organization. The size of the gap results from a variety of situations such as too many layers of bureaucracy, perceived time constraints, physical barriers between leadership and the trenches or executives who turn a blind eye to the real issues.

Recognizing and managing the connection between relevant employee issues and their potential impact on the balance sheet is the key to fostering a successful and productive work environment.

Issues can be qualified into one of the following three categories

  1. Normal everyday gripes to be handled within the team, such as minor personality conflicts, time management or the weather.
  2. Confusion and lack of clarity among team members regarding goals, roles, and processes. These issues need to be dealt with on a manager level, as they will affect team productivity.
  3. Lack of inter-team communication and destructive team management, which affects productivity at all levels. Issues such as these need to be brought to the attention of the executive team for change.

Impact of the Gap

The effects of the gap on the bottom line can range from minor loss of productivity to serious loss of market share. It is important for leaders to be aware of the gap and consistently address issues, so small things do not turn into losing key employees.

  • The small things: sick days being used up, employees striving for the bare minimum, longer lunches, more breaks, more appointments away from the office, or excuses of more stress at home.
  • Low employee morale: actively disengaged employees fundamentally disconnected from their work doing significant harm to both company productivity and the bottom line. Some common indicators are lack of team motivation, slipping deadlines, negative impact on other team members, producing low quality work, or developing a difficult-to-work-with team reputation.
  • Turnover of high performers: a certain amount of attrition is natural and healthy; however, a high turnover rate within a specific team or department is a clear warning signal that should not be ignored. The final blow comes when key employees who hold the heart of the company together leave.

Decreasing the Gap

It is up to leaders to work on decreasing the gap by ensuring they have the proper perspective needed to address internal issues in a timely manner. Communication between the trenches and leadership needs to be a conversation, rather than a town hall meeting. One way to achieve this has been through the use of employee surveys. Sadly, this has become a ritual rather than a tool for change. Regular employee surveys need to be acted on. The real issues need to be diagnosed and addressed, and the trenches need to be kept updated in a consistent and personal manner.

Employee surveys often reflect a lack of inter-team communication and desire for more soft skills training. Investing in appropriate employee development, both on a personal and team level is essential.

The view is different at every level in the organizational structure and it’s important for the leaders at the top, who have the benefit of accessing all levels, to synthesize these perspectives as best they can. That grand view carries the responsibility of ensuring the view is not blocked for everyone by unnecessary barriers.

How Change Affects Teams

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

The only constant in life is change, especially in our current day fast moving business world. There is an entire body of knowledge devoted to change management; the focus of this article specifically deals with how change affects team dynamics and productivity. Change is a constant part of the normal management process, not something that needs attention every once in a while. Managers without an understanding of the different ways in which their people respond to change encounter great difficulty in navigating through change successfully. When dealing with change, communication skills are paramount, as well as a solid understanding of the human issues involved. The success stories of winning companies are usually characterized by their ability to effectively exploit and manage change situations.

Teams Face Internal and External Changes

Change can come from both internal and external sources, impacting teams in different ways. Typically when change comes from an internal source, it is planned or executed in a systematic fashion by the organization. Restructuring, forming of a new team or department, the decision to hire a new manager or additional team members, layoffs or simply changing the way in which work is being done, are all common internal sources of change. Management has a certain amount of control over these internal driven changes, which can cause negative reactions towards the organization from affected employees.

Alternatively, external events that cause change, such as new legislation, the actions of competitors, or political upheaval, can trigger a different reaction to change within an organization. Teams often react more positively to these changes, as it unites employees, managers, and executives to work together for a common cause and ensure the organization is dealing with the change appropriately.

People Deal With Change Differently

Change and how it is handled can strengthen, weaken or stabilize a team. People react to change in many different ways and for very individual reasons. It is important for managers to be aware of how each of member of a team deals with change. How do you handle change? How does your reaction directly impact the dynamic and efficiency of your team? There are typically four distinct behavioural reactions to change:

  • People who thrive on change - With their direct, results-oriented approach they embrace quick decisions and changes, new products and procedures. They are usually the ones that initiate the change activity within a team and challenge the status quo.
  • People who are not bothered by change - They are the optimists, their enthusiasm and creative solutions to handling change keeps everyone motivated during flux situations.
  • People who resist change and need time to prepare - They are steady decision makers and do not like to be rushed. They will put-up with change and it may not be easy to tell how deeply they are impacted by the changes around them until much later.
  • People who are concerned with the effects of change - Cautious and careful they are the objective thinkers on the team and seek to maintain the high standards regardless of the changes going on around them.
A solid and effective team is made up of all these types of people; they need each other to keep the team in balance when dealing with change. Managers should first have a good understanding of how individual reactions will impact team productivity before they can manage the change properly on a team level.

Helping a Team Through Change

In order to suitably prepare a team for change, the first step is for the manager to take time to analyze how the change will impact the team and each individual. The next step is to involve the entire team in this process. Time and care should be taken to prepare for this team discussion.

When communicating change to a team, a manager should:

  • Host regular team meetings to communicate upcoming changes
  • Discuss positive and negative implications
  • Provide a reason to adopt the change and create a shared understanding with the team
  • Allow employees opportunities to question, challenge and propose alternatives in the change process
  • Assess potential barriers and resistance

Addressing the Challenges of Change

There will always be challenges when implementing change, such as resistance or lack of understanding of the new roles and procedures. Meeting with employees individually to identify potential issues and concerns is important in overcoming barriers and cannot be stressed enough. As well, sharing agreed upon metrics and creating a sense of urgency for the team to continue to improve will keep the momentum going.

The final stage of moving through change -- is to formalize the changes. Team leaders need to be sure they finalize a plan to anchor the changes that have occurred on the team. They should select metrics for the team to measure success by and revisit these often. Change is always easier for all concerned when those most affected have a measure of control over the implementation.

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