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What a team’s failure can teach us about trust

by Eileen Linnabery on

Many years ago I consulted to a pharmaceutical company whose most profitable patent was about to expire. They had, from their perspective, one shot to create another blockbuster drug to keep the company afloat. This put a lot of pressure on the team responsible for bringing this highly profitable new drug to market.

The team was the lifeline of the business: their success meant business success, and, in some ways, survival. All organizational leaders, resources, and strategies were aligned to support this team, which was composed of the best and brightest the company had to offer.

And then they failed anyway.

Why did a team of all-stars, fully supported by the organization, fail to meet its goal?

To be fair, the organization did develop and market a new medication that has positively and significantly affected their sales. Yet the drug did not have the far-reaching impact that was expected, partially because a competitor launched another solution more quickly.

The team missed deadlines, they pushed back file dates, they did not get the drug passed in all anticipated countries. Sure, they created a useful medication, but it by no means measured up against the expiring patent. In an increasingly cutthroat business climate, it’s hard to consider this a success story.

We can speculate a number of reasons why this team did not achieve its goal. It could be the leadership in place, the race against the clock, the culture of complacency that may have emerged when the organization was riding high…and perhaps each of these contributed it its own way. But the single most resounding predictor of the less-than-stellar results—the one that nags at me time and time again in analyzing this case—was a lack of trust amongst the team.

What is trust and why does it matter?

Trust is an evolutionary and biological phenomenon rooted in survival. Said another way, our bodies react when determining who you can and cannot trust as if the decision could kill us. Although the stakes are not so dire, the importance of trusting remains. And yet building real trust within teams is often overlooked in favor of focusing on business outcomes.

Savvy leaders understand that trust begets business outcomes, and, over time, the erosion of trust leads to a decline in team achievements. When you are dependent on someone else to get a task accomplished, open, task-relevant communication is essential, and a lack of trust complicates communication.

We have numerous examples throughout history of instances where team members were concerned about a potential problem but did not make their voice heard in a way that mattered (e.g., Bay of Pigs invasion, Challenger explosion, Toyota brake failure recalls). Some may think that this comes down to a matter of integrity—if you were a true professional you would raise the issue, regardless of the cost—but the psychological research on trust and safety would say it rarely plays out this way. If you want to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable raising critical issues, trust is an underlying requirement.

When things are going well and the team is performing, trust enables team members to anticipate others’ actions and decisions, share relevant information broadly and easily, and facilitate success. When things are going poorly, trust can be the determinant between sinking the ship and rising from the ashes.

But do you really want to wait until an emergency occurs to worry about team trust?

Trust is complicated matter. It builds over time, but can be ruined in an instant. Gaining trust varies from person to person – some trust quickly and readily, others take much longer to feel the safety needed for trust. However, the high performance required from a team is predicated on trusting relationship.

Here are 2 common ways that good leaders unintentionally erode trust, thus handicapping their staff.

 

1. Failing to consistently enforce expectations and accountability.

Trust and accountability are linked at the hip, and behaving with consistency helps others know what to expect of you. Although it may be tempting to let smaller issues slide—perhaps you assume they’re a one-off occurrence, or by the time you’re able to address the concern it seems too far in the past to be meaningful – enforcing expectations every time they’re not met creates the consistency that builds trust.

There are a whole host of reasons—excuses, really—that prevent leaders from addressing performance, yet failing to take action can make it difficult for others to trust that you’ll have their back when they need you.

Furthermore, those who do have consequences enforced and performance issues addressed may feel unduly penalized and persecuted because others do not face the same penalties. This perception of unfairness will quickly erode trust and allow in-groups and out-groups to form. When the team fragment into cliques, it create an “us vs. them” mentality which is detrimental to collaboration, trust, constructive conflict and a host of other dimensions that create high performing teams. Further exacerbating the issue, some leaders subtly play favorites or fail to communicate with transparency across the entire group.

One of our favorite sayings around Vantage is that “Leaders cast long shadows.” Be aware that what seems like a small action (or inaction) to you as the leader is likely to have far reaching affects throughout the team, even if you are not consciously aware of your impact in these instances. Consistently enforcing expectations and accountabilities will help limit unintentional shadow-outcomes of actions and create a space for trust to build.

2. Using an ineffective venue for engaging in conflict and delivering tough messages.

Tough conversations are inherently difficult – that’s why they’re called “tough”. However, creating a safe space in which to express disagreement and raise issues is paramount to building team trust. For example, delivering critical information via email may seem effective because everyone gets a record of the message, but when team members are likely to be upset with the news, this delivery can feel impersonal and aloof. And it’s hard to trust someone who doesn’t seem to care about your feelings.

Another example of ineffectively addressing team conflict is the “hub and spoke” method, where individuals (spokes) escalate their concern to the leader (the hub) who in turn shares those messages with the other relevant parties as a method of eliminating issues. However, in failing to get the parties together to address their own conflict, this approach can make you wonder, what is the boss saying about me behind closed doors?

 

The leader of the pharmaceutical team I described at the beginning of this post engaged in both the above behaviors. When, after the fact, I asked her what went wrong, she admitted that there was too much on her plate to be able to behave consistently or put great effort into addressing conflict or considering how to deliver tough messages. This speaks to the importance of making trust a priority—without it, when your team is up against stressful and challenging circumstances, they will struggle to work together to deliver.

Does your team have a trust problem? What other ways have bosses in your career eroded trust? What feedback have you received from your team about how you build, or fail to build, trust within the group? Share your insights below.

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