TRUST: the Foundation of Teamwork

Have you ever been in a conversation that has focused on trust or ended up dealing with the concept? It appears from the research and literature that trust is a very important and powerful aspect of the human relationship. In the realm of organizations and groups, trust continues to get a lot of attention. From the early work of Jack Gibb to the current work of Patrick Lencioni, trust has become a regular topic of organizational leadership and the workforce.

Within the last 2-3 weeks I have heard the word used in conversations about the workplace several times. Sometimes the word seemed to have a pretty common meaning and was well accepted. At other times the word seemed to spark potential conflict and, at times, even fear. These conversations left me wondering why the word trust is perceived so differently by individuals.

As I reflect upon this further, I don’t come to any clear conclusions. Instead, I identify some perspectives that may be based more on my assumptions and inferences about people than in any fact or reality. I do see trust as critical to interpersonal relationships within an organization and therefore, having a significant impact on the results or outcomes of that organization. I might even go so far as to predict that by measuring the level of trust among an organization’s members, we could determine the effectiveness of the organization. This may actually be an inference on my part, but one that I’m willing to put forth.

In the book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni states that the first dysfunction is the “absence of trust”. He claims that this lack of trust is the result of invulnerable team members. It is this absence of trust and the individual’s unwillingness to be vulnerable that forms the foundation for all other activity of the group. Until these team members become willing to be genuinely open with one another, there cannot be a foundation of trust. Therefore, there cannot be a team that works to any significant outcome. Thus, the effectiveness of the team, group, or organization is dependent upon the foundation of trust.

My sense of this is that it is truth. My experience working with groups is that until there is this level of trust and vulnerability developed the effectiveness of the team, group, or organization is in question. I have experienced this with a variety of groups and organizations. However, the majority of the teams, groups, and organizations I have had experience with come from the not-for-profit arena. And, here is where my first assumption comes into play. It is my assumption that the people who work in these kinds of teams, groups, and organizations are better skilled at being open and vulnerable and, thus, more equipped to build trust. Unfortunately, my assumption continues to proven inaccurate. My experience and inferences about those experiences demonstrates very few individuals are skilled at building trust.

This then leads me to another assumption. As a result of this experience and continual disappointment in the human being, including disappointment of myself, I assume this difficulty in being vulnerable and building trust stems from a basic insecurity of our own self-worth and the fear of being human. For being vulnerable means we are willing to share our mistakes and weaknesses as much as our successes and strengths. Being vulnerable allows us to put aside our ego needs and, in the words of Lencioni, “get naked.” It allows us to be human, just like everyone else; no better, no worse. In the human essence we are all equal.

How do we become more vulnerable and, therefore, more trustworthy? That is a difficult question with the answer being embedded in trust. Trust that I’m an okay person. Trust in my own essence as a human. Trust in my fellow human beings that if I am open and genuinely transparent, I will be accepted for who I am and not “judged” as lacking.

To build trust requires us taking a risk and accepting that we may not know the outcome. In fact, regardless of the outcome, we’ll still be okay. Recently, I heard someone say to me that we can’t share that information with others because we don’t know the outcome. My question is; can we ever really know the outcome when working with others? And, if we can know the outcome, are we really risking much and moving the team, the group, and the organization forward?

This leads to my third assumption. I assume that until people give up the ego needs and risk being human, there will never really be much trust. We will be caught in that trap of only committing so far because we don’t trust what others will say, feel, or do. We lose a lot of creativity because our energy is tied to this fear and the need to protect ourselves due to the lack of trust.

The next time the word trust enters your conversation with someone, consider taking the time to stop the conversation and explore what the individuals mean by trust. Ask what it would look like and how people would behave if there was trust. Then ask what the other individuals need in order to be more trusting. And finally, ask yourself, how can I be more vulnerable and trustworthy?

Until next time, spend some time in quiet reflection around the concept of trust. Then make a commitment to one action you can take to produce a more trusting environment.