Several years ago, shortly after I became a manager, my Senior Director lent me a book. The book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni, takes the reader through the journey of a new CEO tasked with fixing the dysfunction of their C-Suite. The CEO outlines the five common dysfunctions in any team, starting with Trust. Trust, in this sense, isn’t “I trust that you will get the job done,” but rather “I trust your character enough to be vulnerable.” It’s a problem I’ve seen in several organizations, particularly when you have folks who are ambitious. There’s a general feeling that motivations cannot be trusted because you don’t know if they are genuine.
In my own career, I’ve found it difficult to trust. As Bill McDermott, ServiceNow’s CEO, always says, “You gain trust in drops, but lose trust in buckets.” I’ve had situations at work where leaders have offered their support, only to turn on me during a meeting. They tell me one thing, then quickly say something else to their leadership. They’ve turned peers against each other by saying they are the only ones that can help them. It’s a technique that serves in the short term but damages organizations for years afterward.
Why Do You Need to Build Trust?
Trust is the foundation of constructive discussion. If you trust those in the room, you feel free to voice your concerns without fear of retribution or poisoning your career. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing your concerns and you don’t trust the decision-makers, you won’t buy into the decision. That means it won’t be held accountable, won’t have the support it needs to succeed, and in the end, will fail as so many good ideas do in poorly run companies. That, in turn, will lead to a once-promising organization falling into mediocrity; a death knell to any organization in any company.
How Do You Build Trust?
Companies have tried to build trust through team-building events by having competitions, falling backward into waiting arms, and even going on expensive retreats with team-building experts. Lencioni’s method, as outlined in his book, was pretty basic: Get to know each other personally. This can be as simple as sharing something personal that no one else in the room knows. I’ve had the opportunity to share this experience with many colleagues, even those considerably senior to me, and it’s helped me understand their motivations and values, and in turn, enabled me to place some trust in them. The key to building trust is to place everyone in a safe but vulnerable state at the same time. Being vulnerable together generates a sense of community: We are all in the same situation with the same risks.
Now, it doesn’t always go as planned, and Lencioni points that out in his story. Some people will refuse to be vulnerable or will use that opportunity to humiliate someone else. How you, as a leader, handle the situation is very important. The example in the book tells of the CEO’s first experience when she had a dysfunctional team where a high performer was very rude and condescending to the team. She made the mistake of promoting the high performer because of her performance and lost three members of the team because of that action. Shortly after she was fired for the decision, someone else took over. The high performer left the team, and the remaining folks not only compensated for his loss but for the three others who left. Supporting the team’s trust is far more important than looking at simple performance numbers.
Where Should I Start?
Start with observation, particularly in meetings. Do you have folks who are always quiet? Do you have team members who, once they voice concerns, are quickly shouted down by others? Do you have an “Us versus Them” mentality on your team? Do you (or your team) make mistakes but not own up to them? And finally, do you have a team that just can’t make decisions because they are too worried about their own teams? If you do, you have a dysfunctional team. Your next step is to look at where the dysfunction lies: Most often it is at the fundamental level of Trust.
Trust is the foundation of any and all business transactions. If you cannot trust each other, the entire organization suffers. If the organization suffers, then the company suffers, and ultimately, the customer suffers. If you have a lack of trust in the team, address it immediately! The longer you wait, the worse it will get. Trust doesn’t fix itself on its own, because no matter how many drops you put in, you won’t fill a bucket that’s missing a bottom.