In my years working as an executive leadership coach, I’ve come across some pretty dysfunctional teams. From office gossip to political maneuvering to self-aggrandising leaders, I’ve seen it all!
Most of the issues I’ve come across fit into the “five dysfunctions of a team”, outlined by Patrick Lencioni in 2002. In this post, I’m going to look at the foundational dysfunction, the one which underpins all the others: absence of trust.
What can you, as a leader, do to root this out and develop high-functioning teams in your workplace? Let’s break it down by looking at some of the hallmarks of a team with a high level of trust.
There’s open communication, even on difficult topics
Some people think a trusting team is always harmonious, never needing to raise concerns or question decisions. But in reality, trust often means healthy conflict and a good back-and-forth about new ideas. People in a trusting team feel safe bringing up issues early on and hashing out difficult topics. They readily participate in discussions, unafraid of being wrong sometimes, and are empowered to own up to their own mistakes in order to correct them.
A good leader enables this by working to create a sense of psychological safety, as outlined by Amy Edmondson in her excellent book The Fearless Organization. As she puts it, psychological safety is about “making it less heroic to ask a question or admit an error.”
Everyone can do their job without interference
Within a team, everyone needs to trust each other to do their jobs correctly. A lack of this trust leads to colleagues stepping on each others’ toes, managers constantly checking in on their reports, and even unpleasant gossip behind people’s backs. Not an environment conducive to good work and innovation.
Leaders must set the precedent here by not micromanaging, and by properly training line managers so they don’t do this either!
Trust is continuously earned
Of course, it’s easier to trust everyone to do their job properly when they’ve had a chance to earn that trust. And in high-functioning teams, this process is always ongoing. It’s vital to set up transparent measures of accountability – with clear deliverables and regular check ins – so everyone understands the results of their team’s work and where they can improve.
Remember that this works vertically as well as horizontally. Team members need to see that people in leadership roles are accountable, too, and also that they’re safe to approach with any concerns.
Everyone knows a bit about each other
Trusting each other doesn’t have to mean constant personal life disclosure, but some openness is key. Everyone needs to know at least a bit about each other – it’s remarkable how much of a difference it makes finding just one or two points of commonality with everyone on your team, however small or mundane.
The best thing for a leader to do here is simply facilitate people getting to know each other properly. That might mean away days, team lunches or just setting up kitchens so people can easily chat over coffee. And don’t forget about new hires – enabling them to get to know everyone (and vice versa) is much easier where there are mechanisms or cultural norms in place to support that.
The team is open to change
An effective team doesn’t only trust its existing members and ways of doing things. It’s also open to change and improvement over time, trusting its mechanisms for working out difficulties and getting to know each other. In this way, it’s a vital part of developing a more diverse and inclusive organisation. While someone may seem different to you at first, that’s no real barrier if you trust their appointment, have tools in place to get to know them, and appreciate that they’ll bring new things to the team.
A good leader supports this process by removing barriers to trusting different people, for instance with unconscious bias training or training in different communication styles.