Trust is as important as it is uncommon in today’s world.
From Photoshopped selfies, misleading advertising, to large-scale business scams, trust is in short supply.
In any relationship, the absence of trust results in uncertainty, insecurity and a grave sense of vulnerability. Despite being well-recognized as the foundation of all good relationships and effective management, statistics paint a dismal picture of the prevalence of trust: Forbes reports 70% of employees in the US are disengaged or without a connect to their workplace. The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer also reported high global apathy regarding the ethics of the business world.
Once recognized simply as a “fluffy” concept, trust is actually quite a significant business driver disguised as a “soft” factor. There is strong evidence of the importance of trust in the workplace. Research confirms a positive relationship between employee trust and workplace performance. A 2013 survey of business professionals concurs: teams with high trust outperform teams that don’t trust each other. A 2002 study revealed that high-trust organizations yield a 286% higher return to shareholders than low-trust organizations. A distrustful culture leads to inefficiency and costly turnovers.
Trust is the most valuable workplace currency in creating loyal customers and employees.
Types of Trust
Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, talks about two types of trust present in teams.
Common Trust: This is the assumption, belief or confidence that colleagues will follow generally accepted laws, norms, policies etc. In driving, we “trust” others to follow driving rules such as lane-driving and traffic lights. Within an organization or workplace, common trust is that a co-worker will not steal or misuse company property like laptops and confidential data, but will follow the law of the land and rules of the workplace. Membership in a team typically grants this type of trust automatically. “Common trust” is the backbone of operations in an organization or even in larger society.
Vulnerability-Based Trust: This is a much deeper confidence in teammates or in a reference group that allows admission of vulnerabilities without fear of negative consequences. This can be related to admitting mistakes, sharing weaknesses, and acknowledging others’ strengths etc. For example, vulnerability-based trust in a team setting allows a team member to admit uncertainty in their ability to tackle a certain task, and ask for help. An effective, trusting team would help and divide tasks more efficiently considering this, without humiliating the member or retaliating negatively. As Bob Vanourek, author of Triple Crown Leadership says “Trust is built when someone is vulnerable and not taken advantage of.” Common trust is not enough for high-performing and effective teams, and the best team have a strong foundation of vulnerability-based trust. This bond of acceptance is key to successful collaborations.
Building Vulnerability-Based Trust in the Workplace
Lencioni believes vulnerability-based trust is hard to establish considering rampant competitiveness amongst successful students and professionals. It can be a challenge prioritizing team effectiveness over personal goals.
There are several exercises outlined by popular authors and leadership experts to earn and accord vulnerability-based trust and establish a harmonious, productive work culture. An individual can employ the following ways to create and maintain a foundation of trust in a team, whether the team relates to a graduate school project or project management within the workplace.
- Go first: Experts stress upon the importance of this initial step. As Craig Juengling, a Professional Certified Coach says, “First and foremost, each executive had to be honest, worthy of trust, and vulnerable themselves… without which, the teams could make no further progress.” Someone must take initiative, so start by opening-up and creating avenues for extending trust. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get trust because you earn it, you get it because you give it. Through interpersonal exercises such as offering a brief introduction, sharing a personal experience, or discussing the silver lining to an adverse situation, a ‘human’ bond is created, and others share their own vulnerabilities. One such exercise is the Personal Histories Exercise to share family background, life stories and strengthen relationships on a more human and personal level.
- Overcome conflict: It is important to setup a conflict resolution mechanism formally or informally. A tool such as the Myers-Briggers Type Indicator for personality and behaviour preference profiling can be employed for this. This is effective for long-term use, and promotes understanding and empathy amongst different personalities within a team. To circumvent conflict, a useful conflict recognition tool is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument which helps identify individual behaviour patterns that can then be worked on and improved. In the long-term, it is preferable that the team identifies and resolves conflict by itself.
- Communicate effectively: All team efforts should be supported by an underlying policy of open, respectful and effective communication. A tenet from the popular book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” encourages listening with the intent to understand rather than the intent to reply. It is important first to understand, and then to be understood. A tool such as the Team Effectiveness Exercise can help team members open-up and provide direct, actionable feedback regarding their strengths and weaknesses. A way of providing 360-degree feedback is conducting peer-reviews, which requires team members to grade each other against set parameters and provide constructive feedback. However, compensation, rewards and evaluation based on peer-review may backfire and foster politically-charged situations of distrust and uncertainty.
- Stress engagement: Trust requires engagement, which means treating others well, and understanding their needs. An important caveat of this is to make it easier for others to get work done, rather than create hurdles, dictate details and increase bureaucracy. It is important to manage direction, work, and goals rather than focus on micro-managing people. Research shows that process restructuring experienced at the employee level is associated with lower employee trust. Research also shows employees that feel more connected strive to be more invested in their work. By painting a picture or creating a visualisation of shared achievement, a sense of belonging can be instilled, along with the drive to reach targets. Achieving high-quality collaboration relies on having shared and common goals. Promoting engagement with work, such as providing access to training increases trust. By personally engaging a fellow worker in a task through discussion or instruction, you have two people working towards a goal, and an increasingly trust-based team culture.
- Utilize experiential exercises: Off-site exercises can take away the stress or pressure of the shared context or environment, and ease team members into a stronger bond. In a shared experience, treating people like people creates a “circle of safety”, a sense of shared purpose and belonging beyond the work context. With this sense of safety, they are more likely to feel cared for, and utilize their energy and exercise autonomy towards productive contributions for the team, rather than self-protection. These activities re-enforce trust and promote understanding. The idea is to facilitate the process of relating to others. A team-building weekend away, or even an informally hosted dinner with families can help.
It is important to embrace a trust-building culture top-down, as leadership determines the culture in an organisation. Being authentic and following through on commitments are important to be perceived as reliable and trustworthy. Integrity is crucial to building an environment on trust, and this includes every level of relationships in an organisation. Remember, irrespective of title, everyone can be a leader if trust is a learning priority.
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