Thursday, April 02, 2009

Five Ways that Team Members Build Trust with Each Other

Building trust may seem mysterious... something that just happens, or grows through some unknowable process. Like many things, there are concrete actions that tend to build trust (and concrete actions that are almost guaranteed to break trust down).

First, a definition of trust in the workplace. We all know that trust is the foundation for teamwork. But to hear some people talk about it, you'd think team members were getting married, not creating software together. What we need in the workplace is professional trust. Professional trust says, I trust that you are competent to do the work, that you'll share relevant information, and that you have good intentions towards the team. Taken broadly, that's trust about communication, commitment, and competence.

1. Address issues directly

It's inevitable that some person on the team will rub another person on the team the wrong way. Maybe it's they way he cracks his gum, or listens to voice mail on speaker phone. Maybe it's using your laptop and changing all the preferences. Maybe it's breaking the build and then leaving for lunch.

These frictions are inevitable. When a team member speaks directly to the person who is bugging him, he builds trust. Raising an issue says, "I value our working relationship, and I'm willing to have an uncomfortable conversation to make it better." It says, "You'll know where you stand with me; I won't be talking behind your back."

These conversations aren't always easy. Sometimes people delay the uncomfortable discussion until the situation becomes intolerable, letting anger and resentment build.

Sometimes people try to avoid the difficult conversation by telling their manger about the problem. And sometimes the manager falls into the trap of carrying the message. Seth had just started a new job and hadn't really made friends with anyone on the team yet, so he spent is lunch hour alone. On his second week on the job, his new manager called him in to inform him that another team member resented the amount of time he was taking for lunch, since 45 minutes was the unspoken rule.

(I do wonder why no one bothered to tell Seth this, and why no one invited him for lunch in his first week on the job, but that's another issue.)

When his coworker talked to the manager instead of talking directly to Seth, he broke
trust. When I talked to Seth, he'd been at that job for over a year, and still didn't fully trust his coworker. No one likes a tattle tale.

When people don't know how to have difficult conversations...or think it's not their job to navigate working relationship, trust erodes. And that's why people need a framework to talk about interpersonal feedback.

2. Share Relevant Information

If you don't support an idea or approach, say so. (Of course, there are more effective and less effective ways to do this.)

When someone on the team withholds and opinion or concern when a topic is under discussion and then comes back later to say "I thought it was a bad idea from the start," other team members feel blindsided. That breaks trust.

Relevant information is about the task, but it's also about you. People tend to trust people they know as individuals and can identify with. Shared experience, shared interests and identification form solid ground that people can land on when there is friction and conflict. You don't have to share your deepest secrets, but letting other people on the team know something about life outside work makes people "real." It's hard to trust a cipher; much easier to trust and be generous with someone who shares some of the same challenges and interests that you do.

In order for teams to function, team members need to believe that their co-workers are reliable. Without the confidence that others are reliable and will carry their share of the load, few will commit to a shared goal.

3. Follow Through on Commitments or Give Early Notice When You Can't

No reasonable person expects that every person can meet every commitment all the time. We know that sometimes a piece of code turns out to be more complex than anticipated or we discover we didn't fully understand the task when we made our estimate. But when you wait until the moment the task was due to let people know it's going to be late, it breaks trust. So let people know as soon as you know, and renegotiate.

4. Say No When You Mean No

Sometimes you just can't take on another task, or do a favor that someone asks for.
But most of us are programmed from an early age to please other people. If we say no, we're called selfish or "not a team player." But if you really can't do what's asked, it's more respectful to say No and let the other person get on with getting his need met elsewhere.

Saying Yes without follow-through leads others to doubt your word. If you can't say No, your Yes won't mean anything.

It may seem paradoxical, but building competence trust sometimes means admitting that you don't have all the answers.

5. Show What You Know and What You Don't Know.

Be generous in sharing your knowledge (without inflicting help). But also be willing to hear other peoples ideas, build on them, and help others shine. Admit when you don't know the answers; there's nothing worse than a know-it-all who is wrong. Ask for help. That helps other see you as a real person, and people generally like to be helpful.

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