Whether your team is a startup partnership, annual fund drive committee, you and your siblings working together to make caretaking decisions for your parents, or the exec board for a Fortune 500 company, understanding trust is a cornerstone of getting the job done well.
A treasured mentor and colleague once told me, “There is no such thing as trust.” That one comment has had me puzzled and searching for answers for years - in a good way. What have I found, in respected organization culture research and in my own work with teams? Trust is the biggest factor in the mix. In Patrick Lencioni's work on teams, trust is considered to be the foundation of everything else a team experiences and does. A vast number of other work about teams focuses on this topic as well.
So, I believe a first step in working on trust within your team is to understand what you are dealing with. In my experience there are three basic types of trust operating within a team: Mechanical, Predictable, and Vulnerability Based.
These are the hard rules with which a group of people operate. Most of the time these rules can be counted on to control behaviors and expectations. An example of this is a company policy stating zero tolerance for sexual harassment. The line is clear, and for the most part team members can trust that the line won't be crossed. Everyone understands the consequences if the line is crossed. There is comfort and safety here.
These are the set of behaviors someone exhibits over time that become predictable by those who have interacted with this person. This type of trust is operating around a team constantly, often unconsciously. Examples: (1) the boss who, when overwhelmed by deadlines and heat from above, predictably will lose his temper and lash out at subordinates; or (2) the boss who, when overwhelmed by deadlines and heat from above, predictably will call a team meeting to celebrate accomplishments and collaborate on how the team will come together to meet mission. Both people are different yet predictable, and there may be comfort in that knowledge in those who work with them.
Vulnerability Based Trust
I believe most people are referring to this type of trust when they toss around that word; however it’s both the most elusive and complex of all. It is found in the team relationships themselves - the relational environment where team members feel comfortable being themselves, and can be vulnerable about their feelings and emotions. Over time this shared vulnerability creates a bond and a "having your back" attitude that becomes harder and harder to break. Members count on this space as a safe haven. Example: a project team is confronted by a sticky ethical challenge which would have most teams running away from each other. But this team has worked, laughed, cried, failed, succeeded, shared, and exposed themselves to each other in below-the-surface ways. So, instead, they pull together and decide the trust relationship is the most critical part of the team and that the issue must be resolved as a matter of team survival. There is a nearly undefinable comfort that results from this.
Moving to a Deeper Understanding of Your Team
The highest-performing teams include all three types of trust. Rules to count on and predictable behavior are basic trust-builders. A High level of Vulnerability Based Trust, however, makes the difference between a functional team and a highly productive, innovative, harmonious team.
I encourage you to set aside 10 minutes and answer these questions:
What type(s) of trust exist for your team? What are some examples?
Is the team strong in one and not the others? What are two things you think may be causing this?
If your team is strong in one type of trust, what is one way the team can use its strengths to improve the weaker types?
Think of your most Vulnerable-Based good-feeling trust relationship, inside or outside of work. What enabled this to happen for you? Are there ways in which you can express that to your team?
What is one action you can take to support the team at becoming even higher performing from a trust perspective?
Is this important enough to you that you will take action? If so, what? By when? What will stop you from taking that action?
If you are looking for more evidence that trust is important to your team culture, read more here “How Trust is Essential to a Productive Workplace.”