Building trust in ever-changing teams

Seven tips to enforce the trust equation
This article was originally co-authored by

13 March 2018

As organisations evolve, we see the emergence of more and more teams with informal and unstable structures. This way of working means that team members need to speed up the process of building trust. But how do you gain trust quickly in a team setting? This article provides seven tips to speed up trust building in ever-changing teams.

But first, a short story about the early development of attachment theory. After the Second World War, British psychiatrist John Bowlby was asked by the UN to write a paper on postwar traumas for orphan and homeless children across Europe. The work led Bowlby to become interested in how the loss of a parent during the war seemed to affect the child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Lack of attachment seemed to have a major influence on the way the child was able to deal with relationships and the uncertainties of new situations.

Four basic attachment styles

Several years later at Johns Hopkins University, Researcher Mary Ainsworth, who had worked with Bowlby, designed an experiment that would underline the importance of attachment in human development. Ainsworth’s experiment, called The Strange Situation Procedure, consisted of eight different episodes lasting three minutes each. The first episode always started out in the same way. The child sitting on the floor playing with a caregiver (often the mother) for three minutes in Ainsworth’s laboratory. In the following episodes, the caregiver left and re-entered the room several times while a strange entered the room and tried to comfort or connect with the child. In the last episode, the mother re-entered and was instructed to pick up her child.

And what did Ainsworth extract from this sequence of events? Well, it seemed that the children often behaved in one of four different ways towards their caregiver – either in a secure way (able to connect and regulate emotions adaptively), an anxious-avoidant way (avoiding or ignoring the caregiver, showing little emotion) or in an anxious-ambivalent/resistant way (showing resentment or signs of helpless passivity). In the fourth category of attachment style, the child seemed disorganised towards the caregiver and the stranger (active displays of fear or freezing and apparent dissociation) – not being able to connect with the mother or stranger.

The importance of psychological safety in teams

So, how does all this relate to teams and trust? Being in a team involves making attachments to other members of the team — for a shorter or longer period of time. Some of these attachments might develop to become secure and safe, while others might be characterised by tension, avoidance or insecurity.

Sometimes we might even disengage totally from the team or from an individual team member, making us unable to form constructive relationships. We know from the research of Psychologist and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson (1999) that the level of trust and psychological safety in a group can separate the great teams from the rest.

In her early years as a researcher (around 1991/1992), Edmonson was a Ph.D.-student under Richard Hackman at Harvard. Hackman had, through his research, found that airplane cockpit crews that performed well as a team (in simulator training), made fewer errors in the cockpit and hence were less likely to make fatal errors on the job. One day, Hackman was approached by to prominent physicians and researchers who wanted to perform a study on medication errors. They wanted Hackman to answer a “side question” relating to whether the better medical team also performed fewer medical errors. That would make sense, right?

Edmonson was given the mission. She looked at different teams across a selection of different hospitals, and more specifically on the degree of potential and preventable errors on adverse drugs events per 1000 patients. Basically: how many medication mistakes or potential mistakes did each team make per 1000 patients. Her data showed a large variation between teams and with a significant correlations……but…..the correlation was going in “the wrong direction”. Better teams made more errors, not fewer. So was Hackmans theory wrong? In a flash of clarity, Edmodson thought to herself: “What if the better teams make more mistakes because the are able to talk about them and report them?” This hypothesis was later confirmed when her colleague Andy Molinsky went out to the same hospitals to observe how the same teams cooperated and talked to each other about their work. Molinksy — blind to Edmonsons “secret hypothesis” — found that some teams were more “open” than others. When Edmondsons original data were filtered through Molinskys observations, the results were staggering. Indeed. The more open teams reported more mestakes, but were also more open about them and treated them to a larger degree as leaning opportunities. These teams had a climate that made it safe to say “Whoops! I made a mistake”, because knew that the team was likely to respond with a “Thank you! Let’s make sure we learn something from it.”

Jody Gittell (2005, 2009) found similar results on the importance of trust in her research on relational co-ordination in both the airline industry and health sector – trusting those you co-operate with greatly improves effectiveness. And when Google did a study trying to pinpoint the dynamics of their superior teams (see “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”: NY Times, 25 Feb 2016), they were amazed by how important a role trust played in accelerating team performance.

Trust is essential for the high-performing team. In the long run, no team will survive without it. Team dynamics will instead turn into the dynamics of a “team theatre” in which each actor is more focused on his/her own lines and ambitions, and where many of the most important alliances and decisions are made backstage. The team meets and talks about what is on the agenda, but everyone knows that core issues are avoided or silenced.

Teamwork of future organisations will be characterised by constant onboarding of team members and subsequent farewells to those who leave. Is it possible to accelerate the formation of secure attachments in teams?

“Teaming” and the trust equation

Amy Edmondson (2012 and HBR article) describes the phenomenon of “teaming” – the process of doing teamwork “on the fly”. Teaming refers to the dynamics informal and unstable teams, where the work cannot be separated and solved in bits and pieces. Instead, the work is highly interdependent, although the team might be scattered all over the organisation or even in different countries and time zones. Teaming requires something else from team members than before. They need to secure attachments in a fast manner, be willing to share knowledge and be vulnerable in both giving and receiving feedback long before they might feel quite ready to do so. For the team members, it means jumping in at the deep end, trusting that your new team will support you.

Basically, team members have to – more rapidly than before – work their way through the trust equation, as described by former Harvard Business School Professor David Maister and his co-authors, Charles Green and Robert Galford (Maister, Green and Galford, 2012). The authors say that trustworthiness equals the sum of credibility plus reliability, plus intimacy (in the nominator) over self-orientation (in the denominator). Credibility refers to whether you are talking about something you know and understand well. Reliability increases when you “walk the talk” – when people see that you do the things you said you would do. Intimacy relates to whether you provide a secure and safe relationship that enables people to be open and honest. In the denominator, there is self-orientation – how much you are focused on yourself versus the other person. This variable is even more important than the other three according to the authors, because an ego mindset takes away the reciprocal aspect of the relationship to begin with. Team members need to leave the ego at the door, engage in the teamwork and genuinely care about the people around them.

If future organisations were to learn anything from the basics of human dynamics, attachment theory and teaming, it is that the early phases of team formation are crucial. This includes the processes of taking on new members. Here are a few inspired tips on how we might speed up the trust formation in ever-changing teams.

Seven tips to speed up trust building in ever-changing teams

These tips are not exclusive for fast-changing teams, but can be examples of tools and practices that can accelerate trust building in teams.

Here we go:

  1. Curious enquiry. Questions are often an effective trust builder. Asking questions about your team members’ ideas, thoughts and even private life will help you get to know each other faster.
  2. Self-disclosure. Encourage and role model self-disclosure. Share concerns and be respectful and present when team members do the same. Remember that most people are highly aware of other team members’ reactions when self-disclosing. So as a listener, looking on your phone or zooming out when another team member is sharing something important might have a much more negative effect next time around than you’d like to think. They might think “why should I bother being open in a team meeting, and not just with Tom and Lisa afterwards, since they are the only ones that seem interested in what I have to say”.
  3. Give feedback, not only on results, but also on effort. Focusing only on results might work for some members, but can raise defensiveness and fear of failure in many.
  4. Deal with different “team states”. If team members are happy, frustrated or insecure, make sure that the team recognises it, comments on it, if appropriate, and deals with it as a team. Going into “meta” – commenting on what is going on in the team from a bird’s-eye view might be the most helpful tool. Acknowledging different states in the team can help the team realise how they can regulate these states in the future (e.g. how should we handle periods of intense stress in the team?).
  5. Align expectations within the team on a regular basis. Clarify expectations at the outset of an onboarding, a team task/project or a new calendar year and revisit them frequently. It is always easier to feel safe when expectations are clear.
  6. Show respect on and off the pitch. Talk well of other (and former) team members or hold your peace. Negative talk can spur fantasies like “So, what are they saying about me when I’m not around.” Positive team talk fosters a more strength-based orientation for team members.
  7. Show a genuine willingness to learn. Discuss mistakes, “near misses” and learning opportunities at every opportunity. Let the arrivals know that you want to learn from their prior experience. Stimulate a climate of continuous improvement, for example by implementing evaluations as a part of every team meeting or project completion.

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