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The Most Important Thing You Need to Know to Build a Successful Team

Amanda Silver

A few years ago, I worked with a team in which everyone disliked each other. Themes that surfaced when I spoke individually with the team members included: 

●      “I feel disrespected on a daily basis. It’s toxic. I’d be better off without the team and just doing my work alone.”
●      “No one values my work or really understands it. And they don’t care to find out.”
●      “Our meetings are terrible – we get nothing done. No one listens to anyone else. We just talk over each other and the loudest voice wins the day.” 

One thing was unanimous - the number one priority that people on this team identified was “We need to learn how to trust one another.” Team members intuitively identified the heart of what helps successful teams thrive, a sense of safety and trust.  

It’s great to see this team’s wisdom validated by recent research. In Project Aristotle, Google’s study of 100 of their teams for more than a year, researchers found that the #1 key to an effective team is psychological safety. In another study of 195 leaders from around the globe, the number one competency identified for effective leadership was strong ethics and the ability to create a sense of safety.

This is not rocket science – to some degree we all know that trust is important! The real question is what are we doing as leaders (and team-members) to increase trust-building in our organizations?

Take a little assessment for yourself – have you or your team done any of these?

❏     Believed that because you are all incredible people who care deeply about your organization’s mission, you will just naturally trust one another?

❏     Assumed that because you trust everyone and get along with folks well, they feel the same about you (or each other)?

❏     Organized a team building retreat or meeting to build trust with employees, and then failed to follow through on action items to maintain trust after the retreat ended?

These are common mistakes that I see in my work on team building with organizations and social change leaders. We assume trust will take care of itself, or we invest a little bit in trust building activities through a meeting or retreat, but we don’t reinforce the work or breakthroughs in our day-to-day environments. Finally, we make faulty assumptions about the degree of safety on the team based on where we sit in the organization. This one is particularly common if we happen to be the team leader or the supervisor. 

So what can we do? Here are three things you can start immediately to build trust. 

1) Check your Assumptions.

One of the best ways to do this is to think about where you sit in the organization. Are you in a position of privilege or power that might make it difficult to gain honest feedback from team members? One of the best ways to check your assumptions is to use an anonymous team survey to get a sense of how people feel.  One that I like to use is the Team Performance Inventory, developed by Robert Gass of the Social Transformation Project.

2) Evaluate and create productive group norms.

Project Aristotle at Google found that understanding and influencing group norms is the single most important thing that you can do to create safety and build trust within a group.  Norms are often the unspoken and unwritten ways that guide how a group of individuals behave with one another. One of the best ways to influence team values and behaviors is to bring these norms out into the open and evaluate them together. Invite your team together and ask people to share responses to these questions:

●      What do I need from this team to do my best work?

●      What kind of behaviors does our team need to let go of to build trust?

●      What kind of new behaviors does our team need to strengthen trust?

●      What might get in the way of practicing these new behaviors, and how can we address those potential obstacles?

 As a group, identify a set of norms that you want to practice with one another. Print these out, put them on the wall, and make the practicing and evaluating of them a standing agenda item at your team meetings.

3) Model transparency and vulnerability to help guide your team members.

Social researcher Brene Brown talks about the importance of vulnerability in leadership as a foundation for connection, trust, and safety. What does this mean in practice? We need to be willing to take risks and not pretend that we know everything. When confronted with something new, challenging, or uncomfortable on our teams, it is our responsibility as leaders to be transparent and communicate honestly. For example, instead of pretending that everything is okay on your team when people are clearly not working well together, you can say instead, “I want to acknowledge that it’s been really challenging to work together. I see us fighting with one another and I have personally experienced the lack of trust. It’s not fun. I want to do better as a group to figure out how we can work together. I am not sure what to do, but I’m committed to figuring it out with you”.

One of my favorite quotes is “Hope is not a feeling, it’s a practice we need to engage in every day.”

The same is true for trust and safety. The two are critical for creating thriving teams. And the real work for creating trust happens in small actions on a daily basis. Trust building happens through the way we listen to one another, speak to one other, through how we see others and allow ourselves to be seen. Checking assumptions, creating group norms, and modeling behavior for others to see (not just talking about them) are three concrete ways to begin to break down the walls that might be inhibiting successful collaboration in the workplace.

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