Trust, the lynchpin of leading teams
Rising to a height of 830 meters, Burj Khalifa, one of Dubai's iconic buildings, has been the tallest structure in the world since 2008. Millions of visitors have been awestruck by its architectural beauty and it even featured as an important character in one of Tom Cruise's Mission Impossible movies. 110,000 tons of concrete, to support over 192 steel piles were required to lay the foundation for this master piece. This post is about human structures and not concrete structures. However the parallel of having a strong foundation is relevant to build an iconic team that lasts the trials and tribulations of human emotions, desires and conflicts to achieve outsized shared outcomes.
Trust is this foundation. Leading any team successfully requires deep investment to build trust and great leaders are especially skilled at this. Building trust manifests differently at the individual and team level and the latter in organization research is referred to as psychological safety. You can't build trust at an organization level, if you don't have the right ingredients at the individual level, so like most things, it all starts with you.
As a leader, it is first necessary to examine who you are and align that with how you show up at work. The motivation for most successful leaders is to ensure that team consistently achieves stretch outcomes and individuals experience high growth and satisfaction. Good leaders draw strength from seeing their teams excel and from seeing individuals flourish. Their focus on others is higher than their focus on themselves. In other words, they are givers who come to work to see how they can serve.
Where is the math?
As this post is about leading engineers, we need at least one equation. The think tank at Trusted Advisors posit that Trust can be expressed as a function of credibility, reliability, intimacy and self orientation where each of these variables is scored on a scale of 1 to 10. Succinctly, they suggest that
While it is unclear if the above equation was verified by rigorous research, it is intuitively appealing. For instance, Self Orientation is how much are you focused on what is in it for you vs. the other. If you are excessively focused on yourself, congratulations, you get high points for this. But sadly, this is in the denominator and it dilutes your trust score. Intuitively, we don't Trust people who are in it for themselves.
Credibility manifests in what you say, Reliability in what you do and Intimacy in your willingness let your guard down and be who you are. To get a high trust score, you should be credible in your communication, reliable in your actions, transparent as you build relationships and someone who equally considers needs of the the other as well.
Let's go a little deeper in each of these.
People first experience you through your communication. As humans we are trained to judge people for their credibility. Following behaviors promote credibility
Clarity of thinking and communicating. Ramblers are almost never credible as they unleash their mental diarrhea on unsuspecting victims. When people listen to a rambler, they are not listening to what the person says but are instead furiously thinking about how they can get out of their current predicament. On the other hand, people who are clear in their thinking and precise in their communication are credible.
Honesty in acknowledging when you don't know. Often when we are asked a question, we assume the mantle of a wise sage and are loathe to admit that we don't know. This is especially acute when you want to impress the other person in the interaction. However, this behavior of making up stuff on the fly when you don't know damages your credibility. On the contrary, acknowledging that you don't know and are willing to think it through with them, significantly increases your credibility score.
Intellectual depth to substantiate your statements. In this age of information overload we are quick to form opinions, actually we are programmed by the incessant flow of information to adopt someone else's opinion. When we don't pause to think about why we know what we know to be true, then we tend to dish out opinions and use emotions to support them. These behaviors erode our credibility. Of course, it is impossible to find the time to substantiate all your opinions and we are not suggesting that you stop sharing your intuitions. Instead, in areas that are core to your work and your team, ask yourself how strongly, you believe the thing you are advocating. If you have strong conviction on a topic, ask yourself why you know it to be true and seek contrary views as well. Through that, your thinking deepens and manifests as enhanced credibility in your communication.
Humility to accept when you are wrong. Humans make mistakes, credible humans recognize and acknowledge them. When you have the awareness, humility and openness to talk about your mistakes, people experience you as real, someone who is just like them.
Measured emotions, most of the time. Hyperboles are good, they serve to motivate and to galvanize people to action. However, they should be used sparingly as even if it is tad overused, it is highly damaging to credibility. Individuals who are measured in their emotions are experienced as credible as the receiver does not need experience the cognitive load of separating the emotion from the truth.
All the above behaviors promote credibility but if it is not backed by action, as in if you are not reliable, then your credibility falls like crypto currencies. Reliability in fact is the single most important factor to increase your credibility. People who are highly reliable, share few characteristics
They do what they say. As you are reading this, if you are thinking of someone in mind who did not deliver on his or her promise, then you are not alone. All of us experience, people falling way short of their commitments. It is an experience that either sours the relationship or at least takes some shine off. Conversely, we are all guilty of doing this to others. Follow through is the biggest contributor to reliability and if you are someone who does not follow through and feels bad about it, it is likely that you have a hard time saying No, a common characteristic of over committers. So, to increase your reliability, don't compensate by working harder. Instead, be very selective about commitments you make. In other words don't keep the ones you make, just make the ones you can keep.
They have a system for getting things done. The human mind is amazing. It can fathom ideas, concepts, day dream, solve complex problems, create even more complex ones and do so much more. Despite its enormous versatility, it makes for a very poor “to do” tracker. If you don't already have a reliable system for tracking your commitments you will not be reliable.
They communicate where things are. This is another hallmark of reliable individuals. Like a well manufactured Swiss watch they are very consistent in communicating where things stand. You don't have to second guess and follow up with the annoying “any updates?” email. They proactively tell you what is happening. A useful practice is to have a “to communicate” list where you list what needs to be communicated, how frequently and the recipients.
They don't delay sharing bad news. Things often don't go according to plan. Reliable individuals recognize that and don't get flustered or delay sharing bad news. While this behavior is a subset of the previous point, it warrants being called out as humans are wired to be pleasers and hence loathe to be the bearer of bad news. Reliable individuals not just share bad news but also share how they are thinking through the options.
Being credible and reliable will take you far when it comes to building trust. However, machines are really good at these two as well. What makes us human is a layer below that and that's where intimacy comes in. Intimacy is the ability to let people in your space, it is the ability to listen to them with deep empathy and the integrity to hold on to their secrets without judging them. Intimacy accelerates the deepening of any relationship. This does not mean you watch few Ted talks on being vulnerable and open your heart out to everyone but it is about being a relatively open book. People who excel in this dimension share few characteristics
They are open with their shortcomings and fears.
They are very comfortable letting their guard down, in fact this is their default state.
They solicit advice and opinions.
They have high integrity and will keep your secrets.
They don't bad mouth or gossip about others.
Even if you score really well in the above dimensions, your self centeredness, which is in the denominator of the above equation has an oversized effect on Trust. For instance, you could be highly credible, reliable and intimate but also highly self centered. With a score of 10 in all four factors, you end up with a very low trust score of 3/30. While the mathematical rigor behind this equation is questionable, it serves to illustrate the point that if you are very self centered, nothing else matters.
Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton has been one of the foremost researchers on benefits of building an organization of people with low self centeredness, people who approach situations with the mindset of contributing and value adding as opposed to one of taking. He calls this category Givers, people who more than often search for how they can help. Takers in contrast engage in a situation with the motive of being helped. Givers increase trust and create a culture of Pronoia a culture where people believe that a conspiracy exists for their benefit.
From 1 to N
A group of high trust individuals don't automatically make a high trust team. Trust in applied to the team setting is referred to as psychological safety and that will be the next topic in this series.