10 ways to prevent misalignment from eroding trust

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You’d be surprised how many trust issues on teams aren’t actually trust issues.

Well, that’s not totally accurate. They’ve become trust issues, but they didn’t start with team members backstabbing, demonstrating incompetence, or failing to deliver.

A significant proportion of trust issues are actually unresolved alignment issues that are being misinterpreted as malice and ill will.

So, next time you’re setting up a team, invest a little effort in creating alignment at the start so you don’t have to invest a lot of effort in repairing broken trust later.

I’ll give you 10 things you can do to set up a team for success. First, let’s take a quick pass at the nature of trust so you can see why misalignment becomes such a problem.

Trust comes from the ability to reliably predict how someone else will behave.

You can increase the likelihood that you and your colleagues will trust one another by increasing:

  • The feeling of connection among you that comes from understanding of each other’s moods, habits, and quirks.
  • The perception of credibility that comes from knowing that they have the skills and are taking the right approach to be successful.
  • The sense of reliability that comes from knowing that you have a strong work ethic and a shared set of priorities.
  • The confidence in each other’s integrity that comes from evidence that you are honest, transparent, and trustworthy.

With an understanding of the different types of trust, you can implement a set of practices at the start of a project and greatly reduce the likelihood that misalignment will manifest as a trust problem during the course of the project.

The Tips

  1. Formally kick off projects by bringing the team together. Where possible, have the team eat together to take advantage of our very primitive tendency to trust people with whom we eat. (Connection)
  2. Use a personality or style tool to raise people’s awareness of the similarities and differences between them. Have each person share their answers to questions such as: “One thing most people are surprised to learn about me.” “You can count on me to…” “When I’m stressed, you see…” “If I’m behaving badly, help me by…” (Connection)
  3. Be extremely specific about the problem the team needs to solve. Clarify both what you are solving for and what you are not. Define the success criteria. Eliminate the possibility that different interpretations of what good looks like will trigger concerns about people’s competence. (Credibility)
  4. As you define the problem the team needs to solve, ask what knowledge, skills, experiences, or traits it will take to do the work. Assemble the people with the right mix of competencies and be specific about who’s handling what. Acknowledge skill gaps and be explicit about how you’re going to handle them. Get any concerns about competence on the table so they don’t secretly undermine the team’s confidence in one another. (Credibility)
  5. Be explicit about where the project fits within each person’s priorities. If the relative priority of the project differs for different team members, make alternate arrangements. Either increase the priority of the project (e.g., remove other work, change out the person) or change the expectations for the project (e.g., delay the timelines). (Reliability)
  6. Where possible, create shared goals and measures. Project teams where members are rewarded for different things often find it challenging to trust one another. If each person is trying to optimize their own performance and that doesn’t add up to the overall performance of the group, you’re in trouble. (Reliability)
  7. Create frequent check points where team members get a view of all the moving parts. The earlier you spot a problem, the less likely it is to be interpreted as a trust issue. (Reliability)
  8. From the start, make room for people’s emotions and values to be expressed. Use questions such as, “This project is important to me because…” “I’m worried about…” “I’m counting on the team to…” Values and emotions are present in any project. When it’s safe to make your hidden agenda into a visible agenda, it’s much less likely to interrupt trust. (Integrity)
  9. For each major decision in the project, clarify who is the decision owner. Be clear if one person owns the decision on WHAT you’re doing and another owns the decision about HOW you’re doing it. Concerns about integrity often arise when team members over-estimate their power or control on a given issue. (Integrity)
  10. Agree in advance on how you’ll resolve disputes. Set ground rules for how you’ll deal with difficult situations and ask every member of the team to stick to those rules. Often, a simple set of rules such as: When you have a concern be proactive (don’t wait until it has caused a problem), specific (have evidence and examples to clarify your point), and direct (i.e., talk to the person you have a concern about not to anyone else). (Integrity)

The majority of teams have at least some lingering trust issues that are affecting the willingness of team members to collaborate fully with one another.

Beneath the surface, many of these issues stem from a lack of investment in getting aligned at the beginning. Use these simple steps to create connections, establish credibility, strengthen reliability, and demonstrate integrity on your team.

Want some practical tips you can apply immediately to improve trust and address unhealthy conflict on your team? Visit my website to download two chapters from my new book The Good Fight. I’ve included the “Six Conflict Strategies for Nice People.”

NYT Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Ph.D. Organizational Psychology, Conflict Doctor

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