Individual Responsibility Solves Team Trust Issues

February 11, 2021

Individual Responsibility Solves Team Trust Issues

Several years ago, a district sales manager called me. “Carlos, we have a trust problem in our team. Can you administer one of those personality tests with the letters? We can do some fun exercises where people draw pictures or make up songs about their types. Then I’ll take everyone out for beers so we can get to know one another and build trust.” I can’t count how many requests like this I still get from teams of different types asking for a range of “good time” trust building events: ropes courses, orienteering, murder mystery nights, etc. As different as the teams and exercises are, one thing is always true: research shows that the lasting effect of typical trust building events is nil, and sometimes negative. Yet, companies and managers keep spending money on good-time team building. But bowling isn’t like building a budget that cuts 15 percent of overheads. A ropes course is decidedly different from reengineering a fulfillment process. The stakes at work are always higher than what happens in a corn maze or escape room. With this pandemic still raging the stakes are even higher. Trust is so important it’s time we stopped playing games with it and started doing what will make a difference: fostering individual responsibility for emotions and relationships.

Mistrust Is Personal

Imagine you came to me saying, “My team’s unhappy. Would you run a happiness workshop for us?” I jump at the chance and suggest a rocking dance party complete with a DJ and decorations. Nothing makes people happy like dancing. Some people, anyway. Others may not care. Still others would be miserable thrown suddenly back to that disastrous junior prom. Happiness means different things to different people. The same is true for mistrust.

Like happiness, mistrust is a feeling experienced differently by different people. It might mean anger for one person, anxiety for another and fear for someone else. It all depends on the person and the circumstances. Yet, typical trust workshops treat mistrust as one condition the whole team is experiencing similarly. Got low team trust? Get to know one another’s personality types. Climb a rock wall or head out for a paintball war. It’s trust building as panacea where everyone participates but no real problems get solved.

If you are willing to dig one level deeper, to understand the feelings behind the mistrust, you can make powerful choices about how to address it where it resides: within individuals. There’s just one catch. When it comes to feelings of mistrust, few people are ready to own them.

Showing Up as Adults

I was working with a pet supply company’s leadership team described as suffering from “systemic mistrust.” During a confidential interview, Matt, the head of supply chain told me, “I’m sure Tim, our Sales VP, is a great guy. But he always has to have the last word. I just can’t trust him.” Sounds simple enough. But dig a little deeper in how he’s expressing his mistrust. Matt’s saying, “My feelings are caused by Tim’s behavior,” suggesting that if Tim would change his ways, then he, Matt, would feel better. Matt has put his feelings in Tim’s control. There’s a word for this way of handling feelings: childish.

Typical, healthy adults manage their feelings. Even when emotions overwhelm us we recover, we get a handle on our feelings and move on. But feelings of mistrust we treat differently. Matt didn’t say, “I recognize these are my feelings. I’ll find a way to work through them.” Like many of us, he deftly shifted responsibility for his feelings to a peer much like a whining child ascribes their feelings to an annoying sibling. “It’s Sally’s fault! She took my giraffe.” We expect this of kids. Too often, we tolerate it in ourselves. If we didn’t, teams might avoid a major source of team mistrust—the “trust stand-off”.

The Trust Stand-Off

A trust stand-off plays out in the minds of team members but ends up affecting everyone. Matt’s thinking, “I’m angry with Tim but he’ll have to change before I feel better.” Tim, meanwhile, is either feeling the same way and waiting for Matt to fix something, or he’s clueless, unaware of Matt’s anger or that anything is expected of him. Either way, it’s an emotional stalemate where no one is making any moves. The feelings of mistrust persist. Before long, people talk behind one another’s backs about the tensions between supply and sales. Soon, the whole team is affected by a vibe of mistrust.

How do you break a trust stand-off? Not on a ropes course. Christopher Avery, author of Teamwork is an Individual Skill, makes this simple, radical suggestion: act as if you are 100 percent responsible for the quality of your relationships. It’s counterintuitive. Of course, responsibility for relationships is shared. But when that assumption governs our choices, we end up in a trust standoff as one person waits for the other to take the first step. When I own my feelings and choose to behave as if I were 100 percent accountable for the quality of my relationships, a shift occurs. I try to see how I have contributed to the ill will between us and then take the first steps to heal things. It’s a small mind hack with powerful benefits. This approach has one other gift to give: it brings out the best in us by tapping into our innate courage.

The Courage to Confront

Let’s say you’ve stepped up, taking responsibility for your feelings towards a colleague and committing to be 100 percent accountable for the relationship. Confrontation is unavoidable. You have two options. Option one involves confronting yourself, figuring out what in you is triggered by the other person and identifying ways to disarm your triggers. The second option requires confronting another person. The good news is that while most of us fear confrontation, all of us have access to courage. 

Remember, courage doesn’t mean acting without fear. It means acting despite fear, despite feeling vulnerable. All of us have that potential. Brené Brown, professor, author and speaker, tells us that vulnerability and courage are two sides of the same coin. Vulnerability is a call to courage, to act despite perceived risks.

It helps if you think of courage not as a lofty trait, but as a choice. When an interpersonal confrontation is required, you needn’t feel or be courageous. Courage is in the choice to engage. If you’ve come this far, committed to be accountable for your emotions and your relationships, deciding to engage is a choice you can handle. What’s more, courage is contagious. Take that first step and teammates, seeing what’s possible, will follow suit. Your team goes from trust stand-off to a band of courageous collaborators. 

Act Now

I’d like to tell you how to have these conversations, but Brown is better at that. Nor will I pretend challenging conversations are easy over videoconference where body language is hard to read and tone of voice obscured. I can suggest two things when following this advice virtually:

  1. Have these conversations one-to-one, not with the team. It lowers the sense of risk and increases your ability to focus.
  2. If using a video app, you may prefer to turn off the picture and just listen to each other.

Finally, don’t wait. If you’re feeling mistrust or any of the myriad human emotions that arise when we work with others, confront yourself and figure out what’s causing it. If you must confront a teammate, get clear about your feelings and how you contributed to the strains. Then set up a time to talk. If you’re resisting, ask yourself, “What’s more important? Harboring these toxic feelings or the well-being and success of our team?” and let your answer guide your choice.

With coronavirus still raging, dispersed teams are hungry for ways to heal and strengthen relationships. The usual feel-good team building exercises are out of the question. But that’s okay because they never worked to begin with. Team trust isn’t out on a zip line or tucked away inside a personality survey. It’s within each team member but it needs encouragement to emerge. Whether it’s a team you lead or one you’re a member of, encourage team members to take responsibility for their feelings, for understanding and working through them. Recognize and reinforce small acts of emotional valor that serve as inspiration to other team members. Forget old-school team building. Instead, foster responsibility and courage and team trust will take care of itself.

The Authors: 

Carlos Valdes-Dapena is Founder and Managing Principal of Corporate Collaboration Resources and author of Virtual Teams: Holding the Center When You Can’t Meet Face-to-Face and Lessons from Mars: How One Global Company Cracked the Code on High Performance Collaboration and Teamwork.