Trust is like oxygen. It is the essential element that drives engagement and fuels performance. It fosters inclusiveness and binds a group of diverse people together to pursue a common purpose. Too often, leaders take it for granted – until it becomes dangerously low. Then, faced with symptoms like low engagement or rising turnover, they embrace a patchwork of remedies to treat the symptoms rather than the root cause. For leaders who dare to seek out and address gaps in trust on and across their teams, the rewards are significant.
A few years ago, a Vice President at a New York-based materials science and manufacturing company contacted me. Jeff was having challenges with low engagement and increased turnover in one of his R&D departments. His human resources manager recommended a few solutions ranging from off-site team building to sending people to training courses. Jeff tried several of them, but nothing was working. When he reached out to me and described the challenge, I suggested a relationship coaching program. We started by capturing team member expectations of one-another versus their experiences. That feedback began uncovering hard-to-see behaviors, including the root cause of the issues: nonconscious gender bias on the team was eroding trust and relationships. The women felt that the men talked over or ignored their ideas and saw their input as unimportant.
Trust fosters inclusiveness and binds a group of diverse people together to pursue a common purpose.
Jeff brought the team together to address the issue. They agreed that it was unacceptable for the women – or anyone – to be subject to bias, conscious or not. As the men realized their part in the problem, they were embarrassed by their behavior. They talked about the purpose of the team and the importance of trust in their mission of innovation-driven performance. Jeff also reminded everyone of the team’s values – the ground rules they agreed to use as they work together. They spent some time discussing behaviors that could erode trust on the team, answering questions such as “What biases might I have?”, “What impact does this have on the team?”, and “What will I do about this?.” At the end of the discussion, the team voted to adopt a new team norm – the “we’ve got your back” rule. Everyone on the team had a responsibility to call attention to actions like talking over another team member or not acknowledging someone’s idea. In addition, everyone agreed to start with the assumption that people’s intentions are good, and mistakes happen.
Identifying issues, putting them on the table, and dealing with them created an opportunity for shared learning for the entire department. In the short term, that investment in repairing trust prevented the immediate departure of a top engineer. Within six months, the team had resolved the turnover issues. They saw a marked improvement in both team relationship strength and performance.
With the stakes so high and rewards so great, why don’t more leaders focus on creating and maintaining trust? Some people are uncomfortable talking about trust, while others assume that they naturally inspire it. Many managers think of trust as “the soft stuff” that doesn’t lend itself to measurement, so they ignore it. While researching my book Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams, I came across numerous managers who had an aversion to using systematic feedback and a data-driven approach to identify what may be diminishing or destroying trust.
People pay a high price for that aversion. It can mean they silently endure toxic behaviors like bias and bullying, along with a chronic lack of psychological safety. Like oxygen deprivation, a lack of trust results in commitment dropping, stress increasing, and performance deteriorating. The team and broader organization pay a high price for higher turnover and lower productivity, which hits the top and bottom lines.
The ROI of Trust
Like oxygen deprivation, a lack of trust results in commitment dropping, stress increasing, and performance deteriorating.
For conscious leaders who ask themselves, “how do I know my team trusts each other; and how do I know that they trust me?”– and then seek out the answers and act on any issues – the benefits are tremendous. In his book Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies, Professor Paul Zak talks about his research linking neuroscience, trust, and performance in organizations. Paul provides overwhelming evidence from both his neuroscience research and dozens of companies he worked with, of the powerful connection between trust and performance. His research uncovered that people working in high-trust environments were:
- 76% more engaged at work and 50% more productive.
- Enjoyed their jobs 60% more and were 70% more aligned with their companies’ purpose.
- And felt 66% closer to their colleagues, with people showing greater empathy towards their peers and depersonalizing them less often.
As teams become the building blocks of today’s most successful organizations, developing strong, trusting relationships on and across teams is perhaps the single most significant leverage point for leaders. High-trust teams communicate, collaborate, and innovate better across distances, generations, and cultures. Trust is an essential element that enables people to take full advantage of diversity, tapping into people’s full potential as they strive together to achieve a goal. When leaders don’t take trust for granted and invest in helping their people create and sustain it, they’re making a small investment that delivers significant returns across an organization.