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Team Trust in Uncertainty: Five Hard Won Lessons

by Cijaye DePradine

Wild Card of Uncertainty #2 - Category: Leadership, Trust

Why is it so hard to nail down in organizations? Oh the elusiveness of this blasted thing we call trust.

It is on every leader’s mind and presumed to be one of those magic bullet’s that will make everything else fall into place for a team. Yet, it keeps showing up as “lacking” among many teams.

Now, Patrick Lencioni did place trust at the foundation of his Five Behaviors pyramid in his infamous book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team. With over 3 million copies sold world wide, his concepts have clearly left an impact and helped shape trust in teams where it wasn’t effective enough before.

Perhaps you too have witnessed it first hand? Perhaps then you have also witnessed trust build as well as decline - even within the same teams?

So then, why is it so difficult to secure and maintain trust in teams?

A possible twist on the norm here, might be to view trust differently than you have before.

To follow are five lessons about team trust that I have come to understand after 25+ years of developing, mentoring and coaching Leaders and their teams.

Lesson #1 - Trust is a human factor, and humans are inherently complex.

Trust does not come in a specific cookie cutter shape. One cannot easily explain what is is, nor how it comes to be or disappear (not without adding a number of caveats or situational exemptions).

Some people grant it to others before engaging with them, others need to earn it.

It’s an organism unto itself. It is also deeply entangled in and around our lives, our environment, and our actions. What happens in our lives or our environment can easily shift trust and therefore our actions, and reactions to others that we thought we could trust.

A simple example of this is trauma. One can experience a trauma that instantly changes who they trust - even if they deeply trusted those persons before.

An impactful life event or series thereof can cause us to retreat and narrow our circle of trust, taking it away or reducing it in part - from where it once was with others.

A negative exchange with someone at work or home - or worse a pattern of negative exchanges can retract trust momentarily.

These are just a few of MANY human responses that we use to protect our souls from additional hurt, distractions, frustrations or otherwise that our trust might be impacted by.

This means that trust is context based. Therefore, as one’s context changes, so too might their trust levels in others.

Let us explore some of those examples - through a workplace lens next.

Source: The Fragility of Organizational Trust Steven C. Currall, M. Epstein

Lesson #2 - Trust is context based.

If our work team has clearly identified deliverables and there is little to no gray area associated, it’s safe to assume that everyone should be trusted to get the work done easily and to spec. This is a perfect world scenario. Right? (We will touch more on this in the next 2 points.)

If, however, the context is a little more complicated and multiple team members could provide varied approaches to accomplish the same deliverable - that gray area might start to create fractures in the team. Questions might arise such as:

  • Are these all the best possible approaches?

  • Are there others we should also consider?

  • How do we know if we are choosing the right one?

  • What happens if we choose an approach that doesn’t pan out as expected?

  • Should we ever trust this person’s suggestions again?

  • Could they steer us down the wrong path in the future?

  • Or do we just joke about the situation for years to come, whenever it comes up?

  • How good is that for creating lasting trust?

Now what if…no one on the team can confidently say that they know exactly what to do, nor how it will work out. What if, when asking external experts, the same is true? The team in this case is facing complexity. They need to explore and experiment in innovative ways, adapting a little bit of this and a little bit of that - while also being very open to what unexpected or unintended consequences emerge from any actions they do take.

Dialog and narrative are paramount in complex situations and yet those “human factors” as previously mentioned can both prevent dialog from happening or make a mess of dialog if not engaged in effective ways. Again, resulting in more fractures in this thing we call trust.

Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2020

Lesson #3 - Trust is dynamic.

As alluded to in the previous two points, trust can change at any given moment. Change in context can certainly change it, and what else changes it for one person, might not be the same for another.

Let us however look at the dynamics of being human for a moment. We know from many psychological studies that no two people will be having the exact same experience of the same moment, meeting, or similar. It is a simple fact.

Think about it for a moment: two different people from two different lives bring into their day-to-day their own programming or beliefs, as well as understanding of the simplest of things such as words (and so much more). If we know this, then let us get real about how likely it is that these two people will leave that meeting with the exact same perspectives? Even if these two find a vast amount of similarities between them, each of them are still looking at the world through their own lens. It just is what it is.

Chris Argyris demonstrates this well with his concept of the Ladder of Inference. We are simply observers of this world, and we filter in and filter out 70,000 data points a day from the world around us. We have to filter or our heads might explode! (LOL). With the filtered-in data, we assign the meaning we make of it, along with the assumptions, conclusions, beliefs and actions that result. It may not be that linear at all times, and there are many other cognitive load concepts we could use to explain this - but the Ladder of Inference is a powerful metaphor for how we can be on different pages even within the same team.

If you ask any leader or team member in uncertain times what the % of time the team is not entirely on the same page, the % might be quite high. Again, it’s no wonder trust is elusive in uncertain times.

Ladder of Inference: Source Chris Argyris and Peter Senge

Lesson #4 - We cannot trust our own thoughts (100% of the time).

It is possible that this headline might strike controversy for some, though reading through to the end may shift that. At least that is the hope.

We have all heard the phrase “we are our own worst enemy”, right? Much of this phrase is derived from how we think our way into acting or act our way into thinking.

It has been said that we cannot trust our own thoughts entirely because most of them are automatic. Same goes for our body’s reaction to things. We have a automatic response system called the autonomic nervous system that reacts before we have time to think about the efficacy of the reaction.

In fact Shirzad Chamine, author of Positive Intelligence has built an entire language set around how quickly humans are able to self-sabotage. We also know from the countless experts and studies on emotional intelligence that some of us have to learn how to interrupt our initial responses if we want to get along better with others and have a more positive life.

We can act out in sabotaging ways without even being conscious we are doing so. These actions can impact how others perceive us and how our relationships unfold.

If we are honest with ourselves about these saboteurs, we too should be able to recognize that others we aim to build trust with may also have their own saboteurs directing their lives.

The point to be made here is that humans are not without fault. We shortcut our way through life with all kinds of unconscious biases and saboteurs as well as many other mental models. There are times when these shortcuts serve us well, and others where they do the absolute opposite.

If we approach ourselves and others with a little more compassion knowing this, we can be more at ease about this idea that “trust should be easy” even though it’s not.

Being human is not easy!

Lesson #5 - Trust may not be the answer we seek at all.

Now this brings me to the last point and that is, with all that we know from the above, such as:

  • Humans are inherently complex, therefore trust will be also

  • As context changes, so too will the dial on trust

  • Out of the 70,000 thoughts per day we face on average, we might filter something in or out that could impact how others trust us. We do it unconsciously - and we do it well.

  • We cannot trust our own thoughts entirely. As a result, a little more compassion will go a long way in this trust building narrative.

If we are still looking to “build trust” we may be seeking the wrong thing altogether.

As quoted in the movie Frozen 2, and requoted for good reason by Dave Snowden (founder of Cynefin - the sense making and decision making framework) - “what we need to do” in complex situations “is the next right thing”.

If trust cannot be deemed the right thing because it is too elusive in times of uncertainty - perhaps some adjacent possibles such as openness, willingness, empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding that humans are going to further complexify things if we don’t cut them a little bit of slack in tough times.

Maybe, just maybe - these will be the nudges you need to find more team trust in uncertain times.

This article was contributed by Cijaye DePradine valued Grey Swan Guild member. Cijaye is the host and founder of the podcast and the new Context Based Coaching Program (focused on Coaching Leaders, Teams and Groups through complexity). She is a senior lead for a National Leadership training program at one of Canada's Fortune 100 companies and is the author of 8 niche books and two children's books. Her foray into Complexity Sciences (over the past 5 years) have resulted in panel interviews and training contributions with Cognitive Edge and The Flow System. Her passion is in helping Leaders and those they lead Untap the Goldmines in the complex problem space.

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