I worked with a dysfunctional team recently that had a remarkable ability to self-diagnose.  One of the team leaders, early in the session, said, “The problem is simply that we don’t trust each other.”  Heads nodded in agreement all around the room. 

Few would disagree that a team cannot function at a high performance level without trust.  The question is what to do about it.

The first step is to name the problem for what it is.  That’s not always an easy thing to do, at least not in front of the rest of your teammates.  Political considerations will often cause team members to believe they should deny this basic fact.  But this team was ahead of the game in that respect.

The second step is to diagnose: what are the causes of a lack of trust?  There are different kinds of trust, and thus different causal factors that come into play.  I might trust that you have the competence to do your job effectively, but perhaps I don’t trust that you have my best interests at heart.  On my mountain rescue team, for example, I will only hang off a cliff on a belay from my teammate if I: a) trust that my teammate knows how to belay safely, and b) trust that my teammate does not want me to get hurt. 

Patrick Lencioni, in his excellent book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says that trust on teams comes down to a willingness to make oneself vulnerable to teammates.  If you can share your weaknesses with a teammate without fear, that means you trust that teammate to have your best interests at heart and to think well of you and represent you well to others, even when you have exposed your vulnerability.  But trust in competence, I would argue, must come first.  If I don’t believe you can do the job of  belaying me safely, then it may not matter whether you have my best interests at heart–you might drop me off the cliff even though you don’t want me to get hurt.

So what did we do, this dysfunctional team and I?  We started with an exercise in defining team performance standards and creating a training manual.  This was a much bigger project than could be finished in the scope of our session, of course, but as it continues I expect that it will allow teammates to discover areas where lack of trust in each other’s competence is being caused by a lack of agreement on what the standard is, or perhaps in some cases a lack of proper training.   Then we did some development of dialogue skills to prepare them for the tough stuff: sharing their weaknesses with each other and asking for feedback. 

By the end of our three day session, some wonderful conversations were taking place.  I’ll give you an example.  One person said to his team, “I think my greatest area for improvement is to try to be less abrasive with my teammates.  Sometimes when I’m stressed I take it out on you, and I don’t mean to.”  A teammate responded, “I always feel like you’re mad at me when you get like that, so I’m afraid to approach you.”  He said with concern, “I don’t want to give you that impression.  I don’t want to be seen as unapproachable.  I’m not usually mad at anyone in particular.”  His teammates asked him what they could do to help, and he gave them some useful tips, such as letting him get in the door and get settled before they came to him with requests.  It was a truly great conversation, as simple as it was; one that opened doors and broke down barriers.  Those are the conversations that teammates need to get comfortable having, if they are going to build a foundation of trust.

The test, however, will be in whether this team can continue that kind of dialogue without a consultant sitting in the room.  Only time will tell. 

What techniques have you used to build trust on a work team?  What has worked and what hasn’t?

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