Few would argue with the statement “trust is important to building teams”. At the same time, there are a variety of definitions of trust and different theories for how to best produce it. It is difficult to resolve these differences definitively because trust is difficult to measure. So what should you do if you need to build trust on a new team with no previous history, or even more difficult, if you need to recover trust in an environment where it has been lost?
What we’ve learned over the last 20 years is that a fundamental condition for building trust is that team members, including the leader, are making and managing commitments to each other in a regular rhythm. This means the most effective place to build trust is right in the work environment, applied to the work at hand. There are several concrete steps to bring this about.
The first step is to turn your plans and obligations into personal commitments – not just action items but actual promises between team members. Depending on the work to be done, people might be operating from a set of goals or from a project schedule or process indicators. Effective commitments describe how and when the performer will satisfy the customer. For example, “I can get the one page report you requested (including last week’s accomplishments, issues and future plans) on your desk by noon tomorrow. Teams typically have a handful of things due each week or so. This sets up a rhythm of commitments.
It is important that the team agree about how they will manage their commitments. For example, one ground rule that should always be included is that an early warning will be given as soon as someone realizes they may not meet a specific commitment. We have some starting ground rules we offer to our clients, but it is ultimately up to each team to define and commit to their own rules.
The rhythm is set by making and reviewing the commitments in a regular team meeting. Commitments due are assessed as done or not done by the performer not as a “percentage done” (e.g., I’m 90% complete on this). When a performer says they are done the customer (often another team member) needs to declare if they are satisfied or not. If the ground rules are being followed, surprises will be rare. Then team members make or affirm upcoming commitments. This is an ongoing opportunity for any team member to speak up if they have concerns or need help to meet their upcoming commits.
The team as a whole should be tracking commitments made and met. This provides a snapshot of the status of any project, and provides regular feedback to the team – to what extent are we doing what we said we would. This quantitative feedback, along with the team’s own assessments about the extent to which they are following their ground rules, becomes an ongoing conversation about how the team is taking care of the commitments made to its customers.
Teams who use this commitment structure and rhythm for managing their work are not only learning to perform more effectively as a team, they are learning what it means to build and be in trust with each other, for the sake of creating a sustainable, winning team.
The next part of this three part blog will go a little deeper into some of the key conversations that are required to build trust, and how to know if you are having them effectively.