The Absence of Trust

I recently recommended a book to a colleague of mine titled The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. It seemed the organization he was part of was struggling working together as a cohesive team. There was a lot of back-stabbing, poor communication and a lot of conflict that was nasty rather than constructive. If you haven’t read this book, I would highly recommend it.

The book illustrates a model that is built like a pyramid. There are five levels of the pyramid, each representing one of the five dysfunctions. I won’t go into each dysfunction, but it should be noted that the first in the pyramid, the foundation, is called “the absence of trust.” Just like a building, if the foundation is not strong, the quality of the rest of the building is moot since without a good foundation, the building will collapse like a house of cards. The same goes for building a team. Without trust the rest just doesn’t matter. The team will not work well.

So what is meant by the word trust? Essentially, it is the ability of the group members to show their weaknesses. They are able to be vulnerable and open with one another. Most teams do not possess this characteristic. Instead the members feel the need to be right, to be strong and competent. They are reluctant to show any weaknesses for fear of possible ramifications or negative perceptions from others. The absence of trust comes from an unwillingness to be human, and thus fallible. Team members who are not open with each other, who do not share their weaknesses, who are not willing to admit to mistakes make it impossible to build the foundation of trust.

Here are some behaviors that you might look out for when there is an absence of trust within the team:

• Team members conceal weaknesses and hide mistakes. 

• They hesitate to ask for help from others or offer constructive criticism to others. Instead they tend to point fingers when things go wrong.

• They hold personal grudges with other team members.They don’t let it go.

• They dislike meetings and getting together with the group. They will complain that it is wasting time explaining they could be doing something more productive.

• They will avoid meetings altogether, claiming conflicting appointments.

Have you ever worked in an organization where the boss had his or her favorite employees? Everyone knew who they were but it was really never discussed openly. What happens is, those in the “outer circle” form their own team. The outer circle has trust and they discuss things in the open. They bond together and help each other. But insert someone from the inner circle and everyone goes silent. Everyone’s defenses are raised. Why is this? Because there is no guarantee that the folks from the inner circle have good intentions and are focused on the team as a whole. Will they be taking tidbits from the meeting and go running to the boss with all this information? I’m sure this scenario sounds familiar to a lot of you. This is a team that lacks trust. 

Of course, with most organizational dysfunctions it starts at the top. You as the leader of the organization need to be first to show vulnerability. Can you allow members of your team to be smarter than you? Can they be better than you?  Are you honest and can you be trusted? This is very powerful. Great leaders can lead people into fires. But if there is no trust within the organization they will not follow you anywhere. The lack of trust also stifles constructive conflict.  There will certainly be a lot of tension but it won’t be constructive. For a team to establish real trust, team members, starting with the leader, must be willing to take risks without a guarantee of success. So start by building a foundation of trust . . . and then go read the book for the rest.