“Working with my top team feels like trying to skate through mud”. That’s quite a dramatic image, isn’t it? So not surprisingly, I have a clear memory of when my client shared these words with me in a coaching session. We’d just started working together, so I asked him to tell me more.
“They sit on their ideas all the time,” he said. “One or two of the team might speak up in meetings but most stay silent. So, we never get brave new suggestions being thrown around which is what we really need right now.”
I’ve heard this type of comment before from leaders in the sector (although never quite so creatively described) and in my experience there’s a fairly straightforward diagnosis – the team doesn’t trust each other.
Success begins with trust
Trust is absolutely fundamental to working together successfully. It’s the glue that holds the team together. In my years of coaching non-profit leaders and their teams, I’ve clearly seen that members of the top team don’t have to like each other, but they do need to trust one another to get anything done. When there’s no trust, people spend their time protecting their own interests and avoiding open, honest communication.
Trust is key to being a successful and effective team because it gives the all-important sense of safety. When your team members feel safe with each other, they feel comfortable to open up and share, to take risks, to be vulnerable, to collaborate – which is absolutely what’s needed in the challenging environment the sector finds itself in today.
According to business leader Frances Frei there are three core elements to trust.
- If you sense I know what I am talking about and there is rigour in my logic – you are more likely to trust me.
- If you sense that I am being authentic in how I show up – you are more likely to trust me.
- If you sense that I care about you and that my empathy is directed at you – you are more likely to trust me.
When any of these elements is missing, or as Frances Frei puts it, when you have a wobble in any of these areas, trust begins to wobble too, with catastrophic results. (Take a look at Frances’ wonderful TED talk here for more.)
Over the months we coached together, my CEO had to get really brave about his behaviour and identify what might be causing trust to collapse within his team. It wasn’t easy but slowly, slowly things began to improve.
What to do when the trust is gone
If this is familiar, things can improve for you too. I invite you to get really brave about what might be going on in your team, using Frances Frei’s framework as a basis for exploration.
Ask yourself two questions for each of the three Trust Elements.
1) What specifically am I doing that builds trust with my team? Notice this positive behaviour.
2) What am I doing that could be depleting trust in me? Notice this less useful behaviour.
I encourage you to get down into the details. You’ll want to look at yourself through the eyes of your team. What might they be seeing that you’re missing which is undermining trust in you?
You might, for instance, notice that you said one thing to one member of your team in the morning and then contradicted yourself to someone else in the afternoon because you changed your mind. If you get ‘exposed’ you’d be creating a major wobble in the authenticity element of trust.
If you criticised someone harshly in a meeting or hauled them over in public, however fair the point seemed to you, in all likelihood you depleted their trust in you because you failed to show empathy.
Once you’ve noticed what’s going on, for each question ask yourself:
What can I do to address or fix this?
Very often a simple acknowledgement can be enough to re-establish trust. You’ll also want to explore new behaviour. For instance, when you change your mind, openly explain why. And instead of balling someone out in a meeting, use a non-confrontational approach to privately point out what you were unhappy about. These behaviours are trust builders, not destroyers. (For more on avoiding conflict, take a look at this previous blog.)
Getting your team on board starts with you
Once you’ve looked at your behaviour and identified changes you want to make, invite your team to explore the same set of questions. Of course, the challenge with this work is that if the team doesn’t trust each other, they won’t want to do it! It will make them feel unsafe and vulnerable. But start with yourself, show you are willing to explore your behaviour and you will gradually bring others on board. The culture of your team starts with you.
When you do this brave work, I promise you will reap the rewards. You’ll find your team coming up with new innovative ideas which lead to great results. You’ll find ambitious goals being met. You’ll have a much more productive and, importantly, happier set of people in your team.
Skating through mud will soon be a thing of the past.
Doing this important work to rebuild trust takes real courage and can be hard on your own. If you know there’s a trust issue in your team and you’d like some support working through it, please do get in touch. I’d love to help you, so let’s talk. Simply fill in the form below, and I’ll get back to you right away.