“In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.” Leading With The Heart ~ Mike Krzyzewski
If the winningest coach in the history of college basketball says trust is a prerequisite for successful teams, then I stop to listen. But beyond the wisdom of Coach K, there is plenty of research that supports the critical role that trust plays in teams. High levels of trust can propel a good team to the level of greatness, fulfilling the old adage that the sum is greater than the parts.
Yet trust doesn’t happen by accident. The team needs to openly acknowledge that trust is a business requirement, vital to its success, openly discuss issues of trust, and put forth intentional effort to build and nurture trust in the team’s operations.
When I reflect on the study and research of teams that I’ve conducted, as well as my own experience leading and working in teams inside and outside the workplace, there are four key pillars of high-trust teams that stand out.
Safety—Sometimes the best way to describe something is to look at its opposite. The opposite of safety is fear. In a culture of fear, team members don’t take risks, innovate, or use their creativity out of fear of recrimination. Self-interest trumps the good of the team and secrecy, gossip, and poor morale are the norm. To develop a culture of safety, the team needs to encourage responsible risk-taking and eliminate the fear of repercussions. Mistakes are treated as learning moments and personal accountability is celebrated. A team leader taking ownership and admitting her mistakes is perhaps the most powerful act in creating team safety. Safety is also developed when leaders encourage healthy and respectful debate and transparently share information. To a person, members who feel safe in a team believe the team leader has their best interests in mind and personally cares for them. Simon Sinek’s popular TED talk video, “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe,” expounds on this truth of high-trust teams.
Dependability—High-trust teams are characterized by team members who keep their commitments. Dependability, or following through on commitments, is one of the most widely recognized traits of trustworthiness. It doesn’t matter the context or type of team, dependability is a must. If you’re part of a football team, your team members count on you to run the right play and be in the right position at the right time. If you’re building a house for Habitat for Humanity, then your team is expecting you to finish your part of the job so they can work on theirs. If you’re part of a project team at work, your colleagues are depending on you to complete your assignments on time so the team meets its deadline. High-trust teams have a “no excuses” approach to working with each other. They follow the mantra of Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Team members have a sense of personal ownership and communicate openly and quickly if obstacles get in the way of meeting their commitments.
Competence—Don’t make the mistake of thinking high-trust teams are composed of a bunch of folks who like to hug, hold hands, and sing Kumbaya around the campfire. High-trust teams are filled with people who are highly competent in their roles. They take pride in extensive preparation and strive to always deliver their best work. Team members expect each other to bring their “A” game each and every day. If people slack off, then direct conversations occur to get that team member back on track. I like to remind my team that everyday at work is a job interview and each of us should bring our best effort to the table. Team members who value competence know that learning is a life-long pursuit. They constantly develop their expertise and are willing to share their knowledge with team members because it makes the team stronger as a whole.
“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” ~ Michael Jordan
Character—The best teams, those with high levels of trust and productivity, are filled with team members of high integrity. They exhibit a personal code of conduct that compels them to choose the right path, even if it’s the harder one. These kind of team members exhibit a “we, not me” mentality. They consider the needs of the team a higher priority than their personal desires. In sports, this is the team member who comes off the bench and gives her all, even though she feels like she should be in the starting lineup. In the workplace, it’s the team member who has the courage to confront another team member who isn’t acting in alignment with the team’s values or norms. High-character team members have the mental and emotional fortitude to stand for what’s right, knowing that in the end, it’s better to come in second place having gone about their work the right way, rather than lying or cheating their way into first place.
“I look for three things when hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is high energy level. But if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” ~ Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
Trust has been described as the “magic ingredient” of organizations. It is simultaneously the glue that holds everything together, while also being the lube that allows all the parts to work together smoothly. In order to make that magic a reality in our workplaces and take our teams to the next level, we need to focus on creating safe environments where people can fully commit to bringing their best selves to work, build systems and processes that encourage personal dependability, commit to continuously developing the competence of team members, and demand ethical behavior as the ticket of admission for being part of our teams.