On Trust

Trust has become a word that is so overused that it has almost lost all meaning. Trust is a key foundation of successful teams, so important in fact, that without it, teams will never reach their productive potential. Traditionally, we think of trust as predictability—a person has been dependable in the past, and I “trust” that they will act that way in the future. In this sense, trust has become more about predictability and reliability, which is necessary, but not sufficient to develop a truly high performing team.

In, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” Patrick Lencioni defines trust in a different way—as a vulnerability. Trust is achieved when team members are able to make their vulnerabilities known to others—their weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, and help requests—and are confident that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them or jeopardize their status within the team.

However, this goes against our human nature; the job of the ego in all of us is to protect us from being hurt, and exposing weaknesses and vulnerabilities does just that—it places us in a position where we can be judged, humiliated, etc. It is difficult to turn those instincts off for the good of the team, but that is exactly what needs to happen. One of the things we constantly ask our teams is, “Are you giving everything you can to the team, and are you taking everything you need from the team?” We have found that people really struggle with asking for help for many reasons, but failing to ask for help when you need it, failing to be vulnerable with your teammates, can lead to catastrophic failure on a mountain climb or on a team project —from how long it takes, how you feel about your teammates, and whether or not you reach the summit.

So how does a team go about developing this kind of trust? It is not easy, but it requires the team, especially the leaders of that team, formal or informal, to demonstrate genuine vulnerability first. This helps to relieve the burden of all other teammates who are feeling the same way, but are afraid to speak up due to fears of being exposed. Essentially, it establishes the norm that it is both acceptable and desirable for teammates to ask for help. And once this happens, teams can truly perform at an optimal level.

Darrin Kass is a Professor of Management at Bloomsburg University and occasionally partners with LEEP in trainings.  His area of expertise is leadership and team development.