A few years ago I found myself working with an executive team where the levels of trust were incredibly low.

The lack of it was thick in the air, like pea soup. Team members were guarded and defensive. Time and energy was wasted on self-protection and I noticed how each person carefully managed their words and actions.

People hid their mistakes and weaknesses from each other, no one ever dared ask for help. Team members avoided spending time together and everyone dreaded meetings. Predictably these were time consuming and ineffective.

Instead of showing boldness the team was hesitant and tentative. Conflicts and grudges simmered beneath the surface, hidden by a thin veneer of fake harmony. The effects seeped into the business. Soon more people became infected and silos began to form as turf wars flared.

The organisation was crying out for leadership but this team was unable to provide it. The company’s best people – the ones they could least afford to lose – began to leave.

Lack of trust is the most severe dysfunction a team can have. Without trust and the willingness to be open about weaknesses, failure and even fears, productive work and growth becomes impossible.

Success is difficult on teams where people distrust each other.

The source of trust is vulnerability.

Recently we surveyed senior teams across South Africa. We used a standard survey of 38 questions measuring the five vital behaviours a cohesive team should consistently demonstrate, namely trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results.

Our research showed that teams who were willing to be vulnerable with each other built trust the fastest.

Being vulnerable means people admit mistakes and weaknesses, they ask for help, they take risks in offering feedback and assistance, they offer and accept apologies without hesitation and they accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility.

They tap into each others skills and experiences and focus time and creativity on important issues not politics and sideshows.

Critically, these team members spend very little time protecting themselves and undermining each other and instead direct their energy and resourcefulness to the work and goals of the team.

What happened to the team?

Well they are not perfect – no team ever is – but they are much better.

The leader came to see that she played a vital role in building trust.

She acted bravely.

She risked making herself vulnerable with no guarantee that others would respond in kind.

She was authentic.

She acknowledged where she had made mistakes and apologized. She was sincere and the team responded to this.

Her willingness to be vulnerable allowed for new discussions to take place. It also gave her the right and the confidence to ask others to do the same. This set the scene for a genuine shift within the team and a marked improvement in the leadership they provided for the rest of the organisation.

We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences on why it’s important to build trust on a team. The first five responses on our blog will receive a free copy of Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

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