Trust Me!

Trust Me!

It’s a phrase you hear bandied about all the time. But in a recent operating committee meeting, the conversation stopped cold when a VP said, “Because I do not trust you.” You can imagine the uncomfortable silence that followed her statement delivered loud and clear in the middle of a difficult discussion about a new investment. You can probably imagine all sorts of scenarios about who might or might not be trustworthy and why she brought up the subject in front of the entire group.

The issue of trust, especially on teams, is one of the most critical and least talked about subjects in business.

The first and maybe most important step in a situation like this is to understand the root of the statement. Does the judgmental statement come from someone who trusts no one, never has and never will? Or is this person taking one for the team – voicing a deep concern that every member of the operating committee has experienced but has kept to himself? Assuming that you are in the latter camp, the proverbial elephant in the room has now been acknowledged.

Trust is foundational to organizational performance, especially for high-performance teams. None of the other critical team capacities can be properly exercised if there is not a firm foundation of trust in place. So when there is distrust, or a breach of trust, it helps to understand the root cause in order to manage the organization’s response.

Trust has two components: intention and capability – often referred to as skill and will. A newly promoted director may have wonderful intentions about reorganizing operations in his business unit but may lack the capacity, authority or resources to do it. On the other hand, he may have all the resources needed to complete the reorganization but have little intention of making it a priority. In either case, the reorganization does not happen. Constructive responses will differ depending on the situation.

Low intention evokes a need for caution. It calls for constant monitoring and reporting. Low capability asks for regular evaluation, mentoring and contingency planning. When both components of trust are low, generally the organization will counsel that individual out.

Want a great example of how trust works in a successful team? Watch any of the team sports at the Beijing Olympics. Can you imagine how an eight-person rowing team would operate if the team members spent time and energy looking over their shoulders to be certain that everyone else was pulling his oar?

There are numerous cultural traits of high-performance teams. We actually recognize them most by what is missing in our highly politicized hallways. Two-person teams –such as beach volleyball – are a great example because there is so little room for inconsistency. Even in defeat, we saw no distrust, blame, second-guessing or grabbing for territory.

Just imagine how your executive committee, project team or department could run if it were that free of negative productivity killers. Even better, what if your entire team – and every member on it – was that trustworthy?

Someone on the operating committee actually stating “because I do not trust you” is rare. That the VP spoke up at all says a lot about her trust in the team. It was not meant as a personal attack and, in context, was more about the project than about any one person. Usually, gathering and communicating this kind of information requires someone from outside the organization because it is so high risk and potentially inflammatory for an employee or team member. And more often than not, the person on the receiving end of the “don’t trust you” message is completely unaware.

In this case, one VP’s courage to say what everyone was thinking opened a conversation that probably saved her company about $15 million and, just as important, improved the level of trust on the team – not a bad ROI for an hour’s detour at an operating committee meeting.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, August 25, 2008.