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119. Unraveling Team Trust Issues: A New Leader's Guide to Success

You've just landed your dream leadership job and can't wait to build a team of trust and innovation. But what happens when you discover your team is already plagued by a lack of trust? In this episode of the Strong Leaders Serve podcast, learn the key steps to building trust with your team, and hear a painful story of what can happen when you assume trust will come naturally. This episode will help you:

  • Understand the significant impact trust has on the success and teamwork of a group.

  • Find out vital tips that new leaders can follow to foster trust within their teams.

  • Explore the Trust Triangle's key elements, consisting of authenticity, logic, and empathy.

  • Identify the need for constant assessment and reinforcement of trust amongst team members.


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While it's not perfect, we offer this transcription by Capsho for those who prefer to read or who are hearing impaired.

00:00:00 Hey there. Imagine this. You just got that leadership job that you've been working toward. You can't wait to meet the team and start leading in a way that makes your workplace more compassionate and just. You just know your team is going to be a beacon of inclusion, diversity, and psychological safety where innovation and wellbeing thrive.

00:00:24 You walk into that first team meeting excited to get started, full of energy and motivation, but then you notice something is off. You kick off the meeting, sharing about yourself to try to start building trust right away. And then you ask questions to learn about others on your team, but no one seems to want to share. You see two of your team members, we'll call them Pat and Maria smirking at each other. After trying in a few different ways to get people to share something, anything, you decide to move on to business, talking about, for example, what the new team meeting schedule will look like.

00:01:10 And then you close the meeting. Afterwards, you see Pat and Maria walking down the hall, chatting away and laughing. In other words, they're having a meeting after the meeting. Something definitely isn't right. And although you didn't create it, it's clear you have a team trust problem to solve.

00:01:33 That's what we're going to tackle today. How do you, as a new leader, deal with an existing lack of trust between individuals or on a team? What are some steps you can take to get started? I'll even share some painful experiences I've had in the hopes that you can learn from them. Ready to go?

00:01:53 Let's get to it. I'm Teri Schmidt, leadership coach and founder of Stronger to Serve Coaching and Team Building, where we launch leaders past overwhelm to careers of courageous impact. And this is the Strong Leaders Serve podcast.

00:02:24 Okay, so since we started with the team example, let's go there first. What do you do in this situation? After all, you know that trust is the foundation of any successful team. Without trust, people don't feel safe to share their ideas. They don't collaborate effectively, and they don't take risks.

00:02:45 Low trust can lead to poor communication, disengagement, and a lack of accountability. So where do you start? And let me say these are just starting points. They're definitely not the entire trust building journey, but they will be something to get you started. Well, I know I said we were going to start with the team, but please don't jump right into organizing some team building events.

00:03:11 Team building exercises generally only work if there is at least a seed of trust growing that the exercise can cultivate. Throwing team building on top of a team where that's not the case is like watering infertile dirt and expecting a beautiful plant to grow. It just doesn't work. And although I'm a fan of clear expectations and boundaries, trying to establish and enforce team norms right away can have an effect similar to telling a rebellious teenager not to do something. Usually you get the opposite outcome from the one you want.

00:03:49 Plus, it likely won't do much for your relationship with the team members, as they'll likely see you as a power hungry boss who has a my way or the highway attitude. Team building and setting team expectations and norms do have their place and they're incredibly important, but just not at this time. So what do you do? Well, first, you need a short period of deep observation and assessment. In other words, you need to collect some data.

00:04:18 Why do I say short? Because the longer you let the team operate without trust, the more toxic the work environment will become during that period. Get curious. Take these two steps first, pay attention to who's talking to whom. Remember those smirks you observed, take note of those behaviors and others.

00:04:41 See where the unspoken alliances are, where there might be even a tiny bit of trust between people. And second, meet one on one with people to learn about them, learn their history and their goals. Express your commitment to the team's wellbeing and performance, and do what you can to get to know them. You may want to use the key questions to use during your first week job aid that we talked about on a couple of episodes before I'll link that in the show notes. When you do that, notice are they opening up with you?

00:05:17 If not, hold on just a minute and we'll get to some upcoming tips about how to build trust. You may also want to collect data by talking to your peers to see if there's any team history that you should be aware of. So after this period of getting curious, before you do anything to act on the data you just collected, see if you can plant seeds of trust between you and each member of the team. Doing so will make addressing the trust issues of the team much easier. So how do you do that?

00:05:53 Well, it comes down to those one on one meetings I was talking about. As Francis Fry and Anne Morris discuss in their book unleashed the Unapologetic Leader's guide to empowering everyone around you. Trust comes when three things are true. They call this the trust triangle and reference the beginnings of it way back in Aristotle's writings. You can summarize the trust triangle in this way when people are talking to you, do they think that they're interacting with the real you?

00:06:26 That's authenticity. Do they have faith in your judgment and competence? Or in other words, do they believe you can do it? That's the element of logic. And do they believe that you care about them and about their success?

00:06:41 That's the element of empathy. So the three parts of the trust triangle, again, are authenticity, logic and empathy. Authenticity is about being true to yourself, your values and your beliefs. It requires vulnerability and honesty in your communication and actions. Authenticity builds trust because it shows that you are genuine and reliable and it allows others to feel safe and secure in their actions with you.

00:07:11 Logic refers to your ability to demonstrate competence and expertise in your field. This is sometimes a tough one for new leaders because the expertise that you need to show is not just about what you were doing when you were an individual contributor, it's also about your ability to lead. It involves being clear and concise in your communication, demonstrating your knowledge and skills, and providing evidence to support your ideas and decisions. Logic builds trust because it shows that you are knowledgeable and competent and it allows others to feel confident in your abilities. And finally, empathy is about understanding and caring about the feelings and perspectives of others requires active listening, putting yourself in others shoes, and responding in a way that shows you value their thoughts and feelings.

00:08:03 Empathy builds trust because it shows that you are interested in others and care about their well being, and it allows others to feel respected and understood. There's a lot we could dig into here, but for the sake of simplicity and time today let's talk about two steps that you can use to support each of the elements of the trust triangle when you meet one on one with each team member. First, authenticity. So the first step, and yes, you've heard this one many times before from me know who you are and ground yourself and your decision making in your values. You can't show up authentically and build trust if you don't know who you are as a leader and you're acting more like a chameleon based on how others react.

00:08:50 Believe me, I learned that the hard way. Instead, when you are grounded, you provide stability and people know what to expect from you. Step two act consistently and model vulnerability with your team. But that doesn't mean you share everything. Remember what Brene Brown has said vulnerability without boundaries is not being vulnerable.

00:09:14 If you are sharing something about yourself, think first what's my intention here in sharing this? Is it just to work out something that's going on in my life? Or is it to make a connection or a relationship move forward? If the latter is true, then it is powerful vulnerability. But if it's the former and you're just trying to work something out in your life by sharing it with someone else in the spirit of being vulnerable, it's not actually being vulnerable.

00:09:43 The workplace really isn't the place for that. Remember, you don't have to share everything. There's a great podcast episode with Adam Grant that Brene did that I will link in the show notes. Or of course, I'd be happy to talk about this more with you if you're not sure where your boundaries with being vulnerable should be set. Next, when you're meeting one on one with your team members, there are a couple steps that you can take to help with the logic part of the trust triangle.

00:10:13 First, you yourself have to believe that you can do it and you need to talk about your strengths with them and what you do bring to this role root what you say about your strengths and evidence. It's not bragging about yourself, it's just showing that you have the competence to do what the role requires, but also be clear about what you know and what you don't know, what you're working to learn and what you could use their support with. This will not diminish their belief in your competence, but instead will help them to feel valued. You can also use this time to get a sense of their view of the team and what could be improved. The second step to help with the logic part of the trust triangle in these meetings is to make sure you share your ideas clearly, get right to the punchline and then offer evidence or your reasoning behind your idea.

00:11:07 Then ask them for their feedback and their ideas. And finally, with empathy, pay close attention to how you are acting in a group setting. Are your nonverbal cues showing that you're bored or disengaged with what someone else is saying? You may in fact be bored, but as Fry and Morris discuss, if you can change your objective in a meeting from getting what you need out of the meeting to instead giving others what they need from you in the meeting that can make all the difference. Focus on being truly present and second, to work on empathy in these one on one meetings, find out what your team member views as success for their work and ask what they need from you to reach that success.

00:11:56 If you get started with meeting with each member with conversations that focus on laying the groundwork for authenticity, logic and empathy, you will start to build trust with each of them. This will give you greater leeway to lead the difficult team experiences and conversations that will be necessary to start building trust between the members of your team. And before I go, one final experience. This is for those of you who have high trusting teams but may have a new employee coming on board. This is the painful experience that I promised that I would share.

00:12:30 I was in this situation and made the fatal flaw of assuming that since I tend to trust others until they give me a reason not to, that would be the case for my new team member. I thought that they would also see the trust that the team had for me and the trust that they had for each other and naturally develop that same trust. And although I tried to dedicate time to showing empathy and getting to know them as that is my natural state as a leader, I didn't worry too much about it. When they didn't open up or seem to appreciate it, I got lazy and it led to one of the most painful experiences of my professional life, and it wasn't pleasant for them either. So regardless of your current situation, don't take trust for granted.

00:13:19 Focus on activities that continually assess and build up the three components of the trust triangle for you and your team. If this is an area that you'd like to put more work into, don't hesitate to reach out. It will make all the difference in the performance of your team. I'm here for you.

Until next time, lead with this quote by Seth Godin in mind: "Earn trust. Earn trust. Earn trust. Then you can worry about the rest."


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