Trust Matters, But Not How You Think It Does

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While I was at Mars doing my research on teams and team effectiveness, above all else I wanted to learn what works for teams. I also wanted to know what doesn’t. One startling discovery was that relationship building, despite all the time and money teams and organizations devote to it, doesn’t ignite collaboration, and is often a waste of money and resources. At least not in the way it’s usually done.

The following scenario will probably sound familiar: Your team hits a rough patch. You call in a consultant to help. They administer a personality instrument like the Myers Briggs or DiSC. The idea is that if you get to know each other better you will improve your relationships and deepen trust. This in turn will improve your collaboration. It seems logical, but the cause-and-effect doesn’t hold up.  I’m not suggesting that trust and relationships don’t matter to collaboration. They are important but they don’t lead to better collaboration by themselves.

Several years ago I worked with the senior team at Mars Fishcare. Their business wasn’t performing and the leadership team was struggling. I did what I thought a good consultant does. I sent out a link to a personality survey. A few weeks later, I met with the team and explained the personality model at a high level. I then handed out their individual reports giving them time to review them. I presented a detailed slide deck showing them how to interpret their results. Then we did a few activities that allowed them to compare their types without making any one type seem better or more effective than another. We talked about likely points of friction and how their types might be contributing to them. They earnestly engaged with each other and were interested in changing for the better. The workshop ended with a shared sense of hope. That’s as far as it went.

Six months later I got a call from their HR person. Instead of getting better, things had gotten worse. Team members were complaining about each other and straining to work together while the business continued its decline. So, we scheduled a follow-up workshop.

I decided to come at their trust issues more directly this time. I dispensed with the personality instrument and facilitated a series of structured “trust conversations”, built around the tensions among them. Despite employing my best facilitation techniques, instead of tackling the thorniest issues they talked around them. We all left the workshop feeling incomplete and frustrated. Within a year, Mars corporate mandated a leadership team shakeup as they tried to right the Fishcare ship before it went under.

This team was not the only one disappointed by the results of its work on relationships. There are countless others I’ve worked with or know of through colleagues where attempts to deepen trust and relationships had no lasting impact on team effectiveness or business outcomes.

If you’ve been listening to my podcasts or reading these blogs, you know that before anything else, I encourage teams figure out which work requires collaboration and which doesn’t. This simple act enables teams to focus their collaborative juices on the high-stakes tasks and initiatives that requires them to work closely together, either as a total group or in subsets, leaving the rest of the work to competent individuals, This instead of the whole team trying to work together on everything all the time.

There’s an added benefit to this less-is-more approach to collaboration: When you identify the work requiring collaboration, you are also shining a light where solid relationships will contribute most to success. When teams are intentional and peg their relationship building to specific collaborative tasks, instead of taking a blanket approach as I had done with Fishcare, their relationship related efforts are much more likely to stick and pay off.

The process is simple. It can benefit from personality surveys but is equally useful without them. The key is to treat your relationships just as you might treat your budget or timeline - as an essential variable in the project, one that you discuss and attend to along the way in service of your intended result.

It’s no more complicated than this:

  • Set aside time to share with each other, who you are, what you are good at, what motivates you.

  • Sign up for the parts of the work that you most enjoy or find most interesting and therefore motivating.

  • Dedicate time along the way to check in with each other on how things are going on all fronts, budgets, timelines, and your relationship.

  • Adapt as circumstances dictate and keep moving things forward.

Let’s say I’m collaborating on a big project with my teammate Janet. We learn through conversation – no personality instrument required – that she’s a strong extrovert who loves being in front of groups, while I am strong introvert, fascinated by numbers and data. This project will involve presenting a detailed investment recommendation to a senior team in our organization. Based on our personality preferences Janet and I agree that it makes sense for her to take the lead on the presentation. I will use my strengths and my preference for solo work to do the deep analysis and to turn the data into easy-to-read graphs and charts. We check in with each other regularly, make adjustments to our work as required, and end up delivering a boffo presentation.

I’m a big believer in using insight into ourselves and others as a way to strengthen trust and relationships. But I’ve learned that doing it productively means leaving behind generic trust or relationship building. Instead, focus relationship building efforts on specific work people are doing together. In the end, this leads to better outcomes, as well as deeper, more productive and more lasting relationships at work. Isn’t that what teamwork is all about?


Carlos Valdes-Dapena