On teams, distrust degrades performance. Distrustful team members withhold information from each other to avoid looking bad or prevent someone else from taking credit for their ideas. Communication shuts down, cooperation crumbles, and teams render themselves increasingly ineffective.
For IT professionals, distrust is often a default mindset thanks to the scammers, cybercriminals, and others who constantly threaten the company’s people, data, reputation, and livelihood. To improve performance then, team leaders in IT and elsewhere must actively cultivate trust on their teams.
In Build Trusting Teams, Rich Diviney leads a class that draws on his book, The Attributes, as well as Simon Sinek’s book, The Infinite Game, to teach others how teams can build trust. Significantly, the class closely aligns with the team building approach—and overall spiritual capitalism philosophy—practiced by ManageEngine and our parent company, Zoho Corp. Turns out that Rich builds teams the ManageEngine way. You can, too.
Teams, trust, and inspiration
Let’s make sure we’re speaking the same language and on the same page. A team is any group of two or more people working together toward a common goal or objective. So teams are everywhere in your IT department, your organization, and the world at large.
The inspiration that spurs teams to work together is not the same thing as the trust that’s needed to actually do the work. This is an important point because too many leaders think that cheering is all their teams need. It’s not. To perform better and successfully reach their goals, teams need trust.
Rich highlights the difference with an analogy: For a sailing crew, inspiration is the wind. Trust is the boat. Without inspiration, there’s no wind and the crew is left sitting in the boat, motionless on the water. Without trust, there’s no boat and the crew is left sinking in the water.
He drives the point home with personal experience. A Navy officer in the SEAL teams for over 20 years, Rich says that military missions are not always inspiring. But trust enables the teams to perform at high levels anyway. They have a seaworthy boat.
Teams are surrounded by threats, obstacles, and opposition that stand in the way of their success, from changing market dynamics to competitors, bad actors, and other adverse factors. For teams to operate at their best, leaders need to eliminate the counterproductive stress that impairs progress by creating a space that makes every team member feel safe rather than feel endangered.
Creating a safe space shields every team member not only from threatening external forces but from harmful forces within the team, too. In particular, team leaders need to foster an atmosphere wherein team members are willing to engage in frank discussion that might include otherwise embarrassing questions or admissions, e.g., “I don’t know,” “I need help,” or “How do I do that?”
Without safety, teammates won’t ask questions or disclose information that would make them look weak, even if the question or disclosure would ultimately lead to greater team efficacy overall. Moreover, without safety, teammates misunderstand constructive criticism that’s offered to improve the team and mistake it as destructive attacks intended to tear down individuals.
Before moving on, let’s highlight a key operating dynamic that applies not just to safety but to the trust building process overall. Rich emphasizes that people experience trust as a feeling, but it’s established as a belief. Trust is an emotion that we decide to believe. You can’t make others trust you. You have to behave in ways that allow others to make the decision to trust you.
Behavior breeds trust, especially behavior that demonstrates your authenticity, honesty, humility, transparency, reliability, integrity, and interest in listening to and caring for the members of your team. But those attributes can’t be learned like coding, UX design, or other skills. They develop over time and become the manner or spirit in which we exercise our skills and engage teammates as well as others in the organization and world at large.
Being vulnerable is commonly understood as a liability in a corporate setting. It means you’re easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally, or emotionally. You’re weak, open to attack. But in a team environment, being vulnerable means showing weaknesses and strengths so that the team can understand and adapt to them. It also means exposing yourself to new ideas and diverse points of view—especially those that promote win-win outcomes or encourage cooperation without compromise.
Vulnerability is vital to trust and performance because it accommodates the change that is constantly taking place all around and within your team. It communicates to your team that you’re willing and able to pivot, course correct, and adapt to new circumstances and insights.
A team’s structure—how it’s organized—can affect its vulnerability and thereby its ability to adapt and respond to change. Hierarchical, flat, and even reverse hierarchical structures place leaders at set points in the team, which limits their view of events taking place at the periphery.
To overcome those limits, Rich introduces a structure called dynamic subordination whereby leadership is fluid, and the team leader is whoever is needed to lead in the moment, based on current conditions. So team members adopt the leadership role when they are best situated and equipped to handle the task at hand.
In action, dynamic subordination would have a CIO effectively yield leadership to an IT manager who discovers a critical network breach or failure and then initiates response and remediation efforts. The IT manager is closest to the situation and the most informed on the appropriate countermeasures. The CIO resumes leadership, later, after the situation stabilizes.
The dictionary defines candor as unreserved, honest, or sincere expression. On a team, it means telling your teammates hard truths, things that may be difficult for them to hear but will lead to improvement.
As suggested earlier, creating safety within the team is a prerequisite to candor. Otherwise, teammates can easily misinterpret your intention, thinking you’re trying to beat them down and make them look bad rather than trying to build them up and help the team perform better.
Similarly, without team safety, whoever is telling the hard truths may sugarcoat their words to the detriment of the person hearing them. The feedback loses its impact, which squanders opportunity for the team member to grow and for the team overall to improve.
To use candor with care, Rich advises leaders to ask better questions of themselves and their teammates. Questions focus the mind, so to move forward toward your objective, you must stop asking questions that keep you and your team focused on the negative and stuck in past mistakes. “How could I be so dumb?” is a wrong question. Instead, ask “How can I improve?” or “What do I need?” or one of Rich’s favorites, “What’s a better question right now?”
Finally, candor encourages team members to actively seek the lessons to be found in the challenges and low points they experience. It encourages them to ask better questions about those challenges and low points so that the team as a whole may improve.
Living the culture
In an unexpected nod to ManageEngine/Zoho and our values-driven approach to management, Rich presents the final element of trust building as a familiar equation: values + behavior = culture. It’s a simple, no-frills point that merits stating nonetheless: You have to know your values and behave in alignment with them to create a culture of trust. You have to live it, on your team and off. At least that’s how one Navy SEAL and ManageEngine do it.