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Exploring the Real Meaning of Trust at Work

Anyone who has ever been asked to lead a team knows something right away. Steering, guiding, leading, or managing people can be very difficult. It can feel like herding cats. Individual minds don’t fall in line very easy.

As the manager, you know where you want to go or at least you have some idea. Whether you are managing a team at a large corporation or guiding your happy little band of employees in a small business, having a team can be hard to do.

Gather a group of unrelated human beings, give them a task, and soon you have people veering off in various directions. Some are crushing it; producing amazing work. Others are hiding in plain sight, trying to scam the system. In between are souls who give the work a try, but often find ways, whether consciously or subconsciously, to make it look hard.

As a manager or leader of this cheery little assembly, you go home at night and bang your head against the wall.

Therefore, the really big question is ‘what can you do to make a difference?’

Introducing Trust

The longer I work with businesses of all sizes, the more I am convinced that TRUST is a big deal. Unfortunately, I don’t know any company owner or executive that starts with the idea of building trust as a key element of their team building effort.

Instead, managers usually focus on process. They have a vision and a plan that drives the idea of the right process to make a profit. Making money is the chief idea, right? Producing some meaningful product or service is the ‘thing’ that causes customers to pay us. It makes good sense to have a solid, robust process to produce that ‘thing.’

Designing the process then teaching it to your team requires a great deal of time and effort. Yes, we recruit people to join our teams who know things about our process. CPA firms will hire accountants. Engineering firms will hire certified engineers. Manufacturing companies will hire people who know something about the steps in the process or the equipment used.

To talk about hiring a little further, I am also convinced that if you are somewhat successful with your hiring, the people you select will want to do the right thing. The hiring process is a very big “if”, but if you have figured it out, you will generally have a team that is there to do the right thing.

Enter Trust

This is where trust appears, right at the start. As soon as that new employee is inserted into your team culture or situation, they will begin questioning things. The questions may not be outward. But internally, they are screening, evaluating, and judging what is going on. Why?

Why does someone do that? It’s human nature. To be safe in our surroundings, we must build trust with the people and things around us. It’s really pretty simple once you stop to think about it.

When you meet a stranger on the street at midnight, what are your first thoughts? Likely, you’re very afraid. All your defenses go up. It’s fight or flight time. We’re wired that way. It’s about our basic need to survive. We test and question the moment. We look for signs that a threat might exist.

Stranger Danger

If the stranger responds with a willing gesture of open hands, visible face, and cautious movement away from us, we feel just a little bit more secure. Once they speak our language and express apologies for frightening us, we feel even more secure, still on guard, but less afraid. Then, if they act true to that message by walking around us, never closing in, we feel more trust about believing they mean us no harm.

All of the observing, evaluating, testing, and questioning is exactly what a new hire will be doing. The team leader must be the one directing the effort to answer the questions, demonstrate safety, communicate the expectations, and deliver on actions that are consistent with the messages.

The Google Study

In 2018, Google released the findings of Project Aristotle. The basis of this project was the question ‘why do some teams perform so much better than others.’

Google has a rigorous hiring process. In fact, it is considered by many to be the most rigorous of all large corporate hiring programs. Yet when these best-of-the-best employees get assigned to work teams, not all teams perform as well as others. How could that be?

Google’s study took two years to complete. In the end, what they discovered is that ‘psychological safety’ was the number one reason high-performing teams exist. When you read the complete findings, you realize the term psychological safety is really nothing more than TRUST.

The Leader’s Secret Weapon

If you are new to leading teams, you likely struggle with confidence. You may even go so far as to think of yourself as suffering an “impostor syndrome.” You doubt your own ability to manage and lead.

Rather than focusing inwardly on those doubts, start by focusing outward. Talk to your team. Learn what makes them tick. Build an understanding of their strengths. Find out about the basic questions they may be asking as they search for ways to trust you and the rest of the team. They might even be questioning the company (if it’s big enough). You can help sooth those concerns.

Be more of a problem solver for the issue of whether your employees trust the team situation. Focus your time and effort solving that and you will discover you will rapidly become a leader people respect.

The respect you receive will be less about the technical skills you have and more about the ways you made your team feel connected. You too can build trust at work.

Ways to Be a More Effective Team Leader

Above all, the best way to be more effective in your leadership effort to influence and impact the trust factors within your team, is to look at the Team Trust Culture Model. My friend Roger Ferguson and I collaborated to write about this model in our latest book “Trust at Work.”

Team Trust Culture

By following this model, you can become a Trust Builder. The model tells us we can organize all those questions people ask into six logical, connected areas. As a leader, you work your way through the areas helping your team get more comfortable with their understanding of all aspects of the company, the work, their fellow workers and YOU.

Therefore, Leaders who proactively attack these areas find tangible results. Teams do more because they want to do more. Once they elevate their level of trust, they become willing to give more at work; more effort, more energy, and more contribution to the outcome.

Google’s Six Steps

In addition, the six steps of the model address all the factors Google identified in high-performing teams.

Psychological safety: Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.

In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.

Moreover, the Model exists to help leaders and their teams achieve high levels of psychological safety. It is the overall focus of the Model.

Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time (vs the opposite – shirking responsibilities).

The Model has delivered tangible results. Successful implementation of the Model within work teams has produced an environment where people want to work, take pride in the work, and desire to do more. This is called discretionary effort. The book talks about this in detail.

Structure and clarity: An individual’s understanding of job expectations, the process for fulfilling these expectations, and the consequences of one’s performance are important for team effectiveness. Goals can be set at the individual or group level, and must be specific, challenging, and attainable. Google often uses Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) to help set and communicate short- and long-term goals.

Steps two, three, and four are ways leaders can address concerns and questions about clarity, expectations and results.

Meaning: Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the output is important for team effectiveness. The meaning of work is personal and can vary: financial security, supporting family, helping the team succeed, or self-expression for each individual, for example.

Step five in the model addresses performance and an individual’s sense of purpose for participating in the team.

Impact: The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference, is important for teams. Seeing that one’s work is contributing to the organization’s goals can help reveal impact.

Step six is where we explore impact and significance of the team contributing to the greater good.

In Summary

Trust has been identified as a key driver for high-performing teams. Leaders can work on building trust at work by answering key questions all employees ask. To clarify, the more you do as a leader to respond to the questions, the more likely it will be to see trust grow within your team.

Trust is so vitally important. Why not add trust building to your goals as a leader? If you need help doing that, you can schedule a free consultation call to talk about your team and your company.

trust at work

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