You’ve been asked to take over the leadership of a struggling team. The lack of trust within the team sticks out like a sore thumb.
Your current team exudes trust, and it has made quite a difference—morale and productivity are high, ideas and the information everyone needs to be successful flow freely, and team members help each other without taking over. In other words, it’s a cohesive, collaborative team that delivers results.
So how do you help a struggling team become a trusting team? This article is not about how team members develop trust in their personal relationships; there are many articles written on that topic [1, 2]. Rather, I address how leaders can create a culture where the building of trust between team members is fostered, flourishes, and thrives—where people who have not begun to trust each other can discover the possibility.
What Does a Team Without Trust Look Like?
How do you know that a team lacks trust? There are several signs of a non-trusting team:
It is quite a challenge to take on such a team and lead team members to trusting each other, especially when you are faced with the fact that, as a leader, you cannot change people. Ordering members to trust each other just doesn’t work.
Still, you want to take on the leadership of this team. You respect many of the team members. They are a talented group and have produced great results on other teams. The project they are working on is important to the company, and you figure you can help. But there is one question you need to consider: Can I trust everyone on this team? You may not know all of them well, but you must make sure there is no one on the team you distrust.
As Ricardo Semler asks in his book, The Seven Day Weekend, if you don’t trust the people on your team, why are they on your team? For that matter, why are they in your organization?
If your answer to the question, “Can I trust everyone on this team?” is yes, then accept the leadership role for this team. Now what do you do?
Creating a Culture of Trust
“Just pick people who are trustworthy.” I get this answer at times from colleagues.
“And, how often do leaders actually get to do that?” I reply.
You are assigned a project. You pick people you know are good, competent, and trustworthy; give them responsibility to deliver within the constraints and they become a trusting, high-performance team, all within fifteen minutes. You may have this experience once in your lifetime—or not. Realistically, we are given our team members with all their foibles, shared history, and excess baggage.
Can Team Members Trust Each Other?
I’ve been asked, “What do you do, Pollyanna, when there is one person on a team that no one trusts?”
“Are you sure they don’t trust him?” I answer. “Is it a lack of trust or has trust been broken?”
Broken trust is like a cut rope. There are many strands, wound together, that give the rope its strength. Once cut, repairing the rope requires matching each piece, strand for strand. Not only does it take time, but the rope will never be the same and will not have the strength of the original rope. Can a distrusted person repair his relationship with the rest of the team? Does he want to? And does he have the skills to do so? Possibly, but the time and effort to do so is very high, and the results might not be optimal or even acceptable.
However, there may be no broken trust in the team, just lack of trust, which is an easier problem to solve. Trust can be developed. Take the time to observe and assess to see how deep the lack of trust might be and identify some possible causes.
Interview team members individually and in confidence. Ask them how they like their work on the team, what’s working, and what’s not. If they could fix what’s not working, what would they do and why? Ask what obstacles are getting in the way of their individual success and their team’s success. Do they feel like the team can deliver the expected results? If not, what can be done to improve their chances? Check to see if they feel the right people are on the team and that everyone has the knowledge, experience, and commitment to complete the project. Most importantly, ask if they trust everyone on the team. Team members may be uncomfortable answering such direct questions from their new leader, so listen for the “ring of truth” in what people say and make note of what they leave out of the conversation.
Walk the floor. Watch and listen to how the team works. Is one person talking all the time? Are people ignoring one or more of their fellow team members? Are there constant put-downs or dismissals of one person’s ideas? Spend time in the break room. How do team members interact there? Do they avoid someone? Do they talk about ideas? Do they avoid eye contact with some of their team members? Listen to the interactions within the team and with people outside the team, and look at their results and progress.
Look for trends or threads in your conversations and observations. Did you sense any red flags or unauthentic answers? Did one name come up again and again as someone who did not deliver as he said he would? Did one person consistently withhold information? Was he constantly noted as hard to get along with, never listening, or saying one thing and doing another? If the issue of distrust seems to point to one person, you face a hard decision.
You have two choices: Keep this person involved with the team at some level or remove him. What is your first response? Your intuitive answer may be the right one, but, before you act, answer a few more questions. How valuable is he to your team and to your project? Can your team succeed without him? What are the negative impacts if he leaves? If he stays?
“Apply the ‘vacation test,’” advises my colleague Niel Nickolaisen. “See how the team does when the ‘problem’ team member goes on ‘vacation’ for a few days.” Take this person off the team and give him something else to do. Place him somewhere where he cannot interfere with the day-to-day functions of the team. What happens to team productivity? To motivation and morale?
If you come to the conclusion that the team benefits from his not being there, then remove him from the team as soon as possible. But what if you need to keep him involved with the team at some level?
Again, you have two choices: Ask the team to integrate this person in some way into the project, or create a “one-person island” inside the team. Both are difficult and will take time and effort to make happen. Without this person present, sit with team members and ask them how they can work with him. What team norms would have to be established to make it happen? What would they need to be successful with him on the team? What do they need from you to make it happen? What does the team want you to do when the disruptive person interferes too much with the other team members? Come to an understanding that, while the team must work with this disruptive person, he does not have to be viewed as a team member. The team can collaborate without him and make decisions with this person only when it involves his work.
Everyone must understand that sabotaging the disruptive person is not acceptable and would be seen as sabotaging the team’s efforts. Ensure that the team will be measured as a team, not as individuals. While team members can’t control the disruptive person in their midst, they can use his knowledge and experience to succeed as a team.
You have resolved the situation with the difficult person, and now your team issues are solved. You have a trusting, productive team, right? Not yet!
Steps to Build a Culture of Trust
As the leader, your role, style, and behavior will lay the groundwork for building a culture of trust. There are a few things you need to pay special attention to about yourself. Authenticity is essential. Your team members will see right through you if you are missing your own “ring of truth,” and their lack of trust will continue. Be trustworthy, and own up to your own foibles, history, and mistakes. Share all information with the team, and, when you can’t, explain why. You first have to show you trust your team.
Give up command-and-control leadership, and stop micromanagement. Telling people what to do and how to do it shows a lack of trust. If you trust people, you know they will do what they say they will do—and that they know best how to do it. Micromanagement sends a message that you do not trust those you are leading.
Trust me, your leadership will be tested by your team. Team members will come back several times to see if you will rescue them or fix it for them, if you will tell them what to do and how to do it, if you will really accept mistakes, and whether you genuinely trust them to deliver. They will watch carefully and test your trustworthiness. Will you listen? Will you give them the information they ask for? Will you admit your mistakes? Will you be honest?
Now focus on creating a culture where team members can build trust among themselves. Use the following steps:
Helping the Process Along
The team’s efforts to build trust will have their ups and downs. Here are a few things you can do to help that process move forward:
The Lack of Trust “Price Tag”
Why should you expend the effort to create a culture of trust? Look at the transaction costs—the number of decisions and actions you make interacting with someone or something. How long does it take you to get a task done by someone you don’t trust? There is the preparation time, during which you figure out how to approach this person and how to clearly state your request. In the conversation, how many times did you say the same thing in different ways to ensure you were heard? How many times did you check to make sure that he correctly heard what you said? How often did you check to see if he will deliver what and when he said he would? The transaction costs of distrust are high. In a non-trusting environment, people spend a lot of time protecting themselves. It’s no wonder teams without trust exhibit low productivity.
We know teams deliver great results when they take ownership. After working with a team on setting goals and objectives, leaders must step back and let the team work. You can’t do this without trust. It is essential in engaging teams, retaining talent, fostering innovation, creating great working environments, and delivering results. When the trust goes out of a team, what can a leader do?
Hard as it may be, you must decide what to do when one member of the team has broken trust with the others. It really does not matter how it happened. To keep such a person on your team is costly. You must decide if it is better—or not—to take the person off the team. If you keep that person, you and the rest of the team must decide how to work with him.
As the leader, make sure you trust or can build trust with everyone on your team. Be transparent and show you are open to new ideas and different ways of thinking. Practice collaborative leadership; give up micromanagement and command and control.
Leaders cannot make people trust each other, but leaders can create not only a culture that encourages trust but also one in which trust flourishes and thrives.