September 30th, 2019

Trust is a powerful multiplier in teamwork. It is more strongly correlated with team effectiveness than factors such as team member talent, past performance or team leadership according to several studies. Simply put, strong trust greatly increases a team’s productivity, adding real value for the organization. At the same time individual team members experience the sense of satisfaction and wellbeing that comes from working with people they trust and who trust them.

Trust as the Assessment of Care

In The Thin Book of Trust We are in this together I distinguish four domains in which we make assessments about the trustworthiness of others – and others judge how trustworthy they think we are. One of those four is the domain I call Care. Care is the assessment that you have my best interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take action; that your intentions toward me are good.

Productivity, Psychological Safety and Trust

In 2012 Google launched an internal initiative, code named Project Aristotle, to figure out why some of the company’s teams struggled while others succeeded brilliantly. The researchers studied 180 Google teams, conducted 200-plus interviews, and analyzed over 250 different team attributes. At first Project Aristotle focused on variables like team member skills and leadership. Then the Google researchers came across studies on something called psychological safety and quickly discovered it had a far larger impact on team performance than any of the other attributes they had been focused on.

The term psychological safety was coined by Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School. She defines it as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” 1In other words, everybody on the team believes it’s safe to share thoughts, ideas and concerns without fear that other team members will reject, shame, embarrass, or punish them in some way. Edmondson further elaborates: ‘‘[Psychological safety] describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.’’

Trust as Care

Edmondson considers psychological safety to be distinct from trust but that trust is a necessary precondition for it. I would propose the assessment of psychological safety is the same as the assessment of trust in the domain of Care. It is the belief that the members of this team have each other’s best interests in mind and intend good for each other, and for the team as a whole. Therefore, it is safe to take risks, to relax and be yourself. Either way, it is clear that teams whose members trust when they speak they will be listened to, taken seriously, and supported will consistently out-perform teams in which members keep their thoughts, ideas and concerns to themselves for fear of rejection, embarrassment or punishment.

Practices for Team Care

Here are a few key practices that serve to support trust in the domain of Care.

Listen generously. Generous listening is a big contributor to the assessment of Care on teams. Listening generously is both a skill and a mindset. This kind of listening assumes the person who is speaking has something worthwhile to say. It requires being aware of and temporarily setting aside automatic judgements such as “I agree/disagree”, “good/bad”, “smart/foolish”, etc., and taking in all of what the other person is saying. Listening to understand and learn is different from listening to debate, refute, contradict, or contest. It doesn’t mean you don’t express your thoughts and concerns, just that you do so after you’ve really heard and considered the other’s perspective. Generous listening also involves asking questions to help the other person clarify and fully express what they have to say. When team members listen to each other in this way it signals trust that they have each other’s interests and those of the team at heart.

Speak up. One notable finding from Google’s Project Aristotle was that on the highly productive teams everyone spoke for roughly the same amount of time during discussions on any given topic. When team members feel what they have to say will be respectfully listened to and seriously considered it creates a space for them to speak honestly. But people do have to take the initiative to speak up. Doing so supports further trust in the domain of Care: I have enough interest in our shared success that I want to contribute my thinking to the discussion.

Disagree and commit. We’ve all experienced people who belittle, disparage or even threaten those they disagree with, none of which encourages trust that they have others’ best interests in mind. This behavior undermines safety and is highly counterproductive. But it is equally counterproductive if team members feel they can’t express disagreement and so pull back from conflict. Productive conflict is essential for innovation and breakthrough results. Trust in the domain of Care makes it possible.

Disagree and commit also means standing behind the team’s decisions once they’ve been made even if you still disagree. This also supports a sense of trust that team members have each other’s backs and fully support the team as a whole.

Create intimate comradery. In Jim Collins’ seminal book Good to Great he talks about how much members of the leadership teams in the “good to great” companies enjoyed each other’s company. “Their experiences,” he writes, “went beyond mutual respect (which they certainly had) to lasting comradeship.”2 This kind of close comradery comes with intimacy between team members.

As researcher, speaker and author Brené Brown points out, “There is no intimacy without vulnerability.”3 Vulnerability is at the root of trust in general and the assessment of Care in particular. Intimate comradery on a team happens when there is space for people to share their values, fears, hopes, disappointments, and joys – the stuff that makes us human beings beyond our roles, titles and skills.

For goodness sakes have fun! One of the surest ways to create a bond of intimate comradery is to have fun together as a team. Teams that are “all business”, it turns out, are not as productive over time as teams whose members take time to have fun, goof around, and otherwise engage with each other beyond just the business at hand. Sometimes that means scheduling time that isn’t focused on work, such as having a casual lunch together. But fun also comes from simply allowing space for playfulness in meetings. There’s another big plus to having fun: a mood of playfulness also stimulates creativity and opens team members up to innovative thinking.

1“Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” by Amy Edmondson, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 2, June 1999.

2Good to Great, Jim Collins, Harper Business, 2001, p. 62.

3Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown, Avery, 2015, p. 104.