The Agile Practitioner: The Importance of Trust

As a scrum master, my role on the team is to encourage practices that make us more effective. I use the word “effective” here because performance is rarely one dimensional. Good teams not only get work done quickly, they tend to pick the highest priority projects. They execute in a way that minimizes negative impacts while maximizing positive effects.

So, what does all this have to do with trust? It is this question that I have posed to several of the teams on which I serve. They tend to come up with a very similar set of answers. Here, I will attempt to convey the thoughts of my colleagues in order to connect the dots that lead many in our industry to extol the importance of trust.

What is Trust?

There is usually strong debate about trust. For instance, some believe that trust is given then either lost or kept. Others believe that trust must be earned before it is given. In my experience, each of us decides how much trust to grant individuals and what it takes to increase or lose it.

By examining the ways in which trust is reinforced, we can start to learn more about what it is. Before we take it apart, here is a definition that one of my teams came up with that I really like:

“The ability to rely on someone based on common understanding and shared expectations”

It is likely that this doesn't get at all the nuances of trust, but it offers three important components: reliability, shared vision, and good communications around what is expected of the parties involved. While we will explore other aspects of trust, these three tend to come up every time we talk about it.

I would like to take a brief detour here to tell a story about trust. ITHAKA, where I practice my craft, did not have a defined set of organizational values before 2018. Our president, Kevin Guthrie, felt that we had gotten big enough that a clear set of values would provide guidance for new members of our staff. His biggest fear was that we would define some value statement and it would be emblazoned on a plaque and hung on the wall in the lobby for all visitors to see. And, nobody within the organization would remember them unless there was a quiz.

To avoid this, Kevin embarked on a long and multi-faceted journey that included talking with almost everyone in the organization either one-on-one or in small groups. After many iterations, he arrived at five values. One of them is Trust. I had a realization while reading a book of writings and speeches about leadership from our founder, William G. Bowen (which Kevin edited). Dr. Bowen wrote about all the traits that great leaders encourage and engender.

In trying to keep the list of values small, Kevin had some tough choices to make, and he drew on the teachings of Bill Bowen. Many other organizations have chosen from a long list of good options like empathy, responsibility, reliability, integrity, morality, accountability, and caring. These are all great words and any one of them are worthy of consideration. The thing that both Bill Bowen and Kevin understood is that Trust embodies all of them.

Here's a list of words that came from one team's exploration:

Importance-Of-Trust_fig1

If you practice all of these qualities, you will engender trust. Break just one and watch trust erode. I spoke with Kevin after reading the passage that sparked this thought and he confirmed that I had stumbled upon the same line of thinking that had brought him to his final choice.

Why Does Trust Matter?

As mentioned earlier, I have put this question to a few teams as part of a trust-building exercise. Here are some words that we collected. After each, I have added some thoughts about why the item is in the list:

  • Working Faster – to understand this one, consider the steps that need to be taken when there is distrust. Regular checking in becomes necessary and often there is additional discussion questioning various motivations and behaviors. All of this takes time away from the central tasks at hand.
  • Better Quality – given that part of trust is shared understanding, it is easy to see why teams with trust will have each other's backs and support efforts to ensure that both the best path is followed, but potential mistakes are often discovered before they are made.
  • Stability – people today are not committed to any one employer. If they can find a better situation, they will likely make the switch. Since working with a high-trust team is so rare, people are less likely to give it up for the great unknown which lies beyond.
  • Enjoyment of Work – distrust causes stress. This is well documented and most of us have experienced it firsthand. Working with people you trust brings humor and joy to the work environment and this naturally makes the work more fun, too.
  • Better Planning – as we have discussed, trust requires shared vision and common understanding. These characteristics of a team mean that the right work can be more easily identified.
  • Efficiency – this is very similar to working faster and the same reasoning applies. Better planning also improves efficiency. On top of these, trusting teams tend to be more interactive and share ideas that often result in quicker resolutions to issues that slow the team down.
  • Quick Resolutions – when teams have high trust, they are free to attack issues directly without any posturing or positioning. Trust allows trying risky behaviors and actions knowing that it will be seen as a best effort to help the team.
  • More Productive Conflict – teams have two general types of conflict: over behaviors and ideas. Conflicts about behaviors are very unproductive and while sometimes necessary to help the team gain trust, they don't move the team towards their organizational goals. However, when teams debate about conflicting ideas, better solutions almost always result.
  • Intentional Independence – this was an interesting idea put forth by one of my teammates that took a little discussion before we all understood it. When there is distrust within a team, team members tend to work more independently, but this often results in less integration of ideas and results, which creates more work later. However, when teams have trust, they can work independently when they have the right type of work for dividing-and-conquering.
  • Better Solutions – if you have read this far through the list, the reasons for getting better solutions will be obvious. This was given by a different team from the one which said Better Quality, but they are very similar.
  • Attract Good People – have you ever been with a really good team that had a high level of trust? The energy is palpable. Google historically spent a lot of time tracking down candidates that had high emotional intelligence. This gave them a much better chance of forming trusting teams and had the effect of attracting the industry's best talent. As the trust between employees and senior leadership has eroded in recent times, we have seen some of the best and brightest going elsewhere or not coming at all.
  • Ability to Raise Diverse Opinions & Have Them Evaluated – this one is very similar to having productive conflict. The idea is that with trust comes reduced fear of ridicule or personal attacks. This has the effect of people being more comfortable raising ideas that they think others will reject. Because part of trust is respect, those listening to an idea they reject upon initial hearing, may spend more time deeply considering it before forming a final opinion.
  • Being Comfortable Experimenting – every modern management book talks about the importance of learning from failure, but the reduced fear which comes from trust is what makes it possible for people to try risky things with a higher probability of failure.
  • Supports Common Understanding – people who trust one another are generally better at communicating. The comfort of probing a little deeper that comes with trust allows team members to read sometimes subtle signs that suggest that a person still doesn't “get it” even though they may say that they do. While on a distrustful team these interactions often seem like a challenge, trusting teams have more patience with each other to create the space to ensure that ideas are truly shared.
  • Requires Letting Go of Control – this item came up when asking a team why getting to trust is hard. Interestingly, this is most likely a perceptual situation rather than an actual one. Especially amongst leaders, the idea of delegating work to others and then stepping back can be scary at first. However, because part of building trust is creating a shared vision and common understanding, trusting teams delegate with confidence. While untrusting teams do this poorly, it is a mistake to think that micromanaging offers more control. In reality, it rarely works out that way.
  • Poorly Received Feedback Discourages Transparency – if you've ever been on a team in which the distrust has reached toxic levels, you know that lack of transparency that ensues is off the charts bad. Nothing foments distrust quite like becoming defensive while receiving feedback that was intended to be constructive and supportive.

How Do You Get It?

I alluded to Google's hiring practices in the last section. The importance of emotional intelligence cannot be understated here. People with high EQ acclimate to new groups more quickly. They are generally more trusting to begin with. I also mentioned an interesting debate with a coworker about whether trust is given or earned. We ended by agreeing that some people start by giving their trust to others, but quickly take it away when it is not earned, while others start with no trust and build it as people make deposits in the trust bank account with their good behaviors.

We both felt that regardless of which end of the spectrum a person starts on, deposits and withdrawals from the trust bank can often go up and down quickly. Simply recognizing this can be a big help. Even with the best of intentions, we all find ourselves doing or saying things that unwittingly erode trust. When trust is low, it is unlikely that these incidents will be reported to the perpetrator. The bank account deduction is silently transacted.

There are many team building exercises out there, and it is not within the scope of this column to detail these. However, I can share some suggestions based on working with teams that have started at various levels of trust.

If a team is starting with a very low level of trust, this usually means that there are individuals on the team that need individualized support from their manager. It is very important to identify the person or persons who are the main contributors and make sure they are getting proper coaching. At the same time, the team needs to reckon with the situation. Even the most untrusting souls often have a few people they trust. How do we get team members to be among them? The answer is to build close personal relationships. Sometimes, chemistry is a problem and that may be hard to overcome and could benefit from team member swapping if that's possible, but usually even this can be overcome by creating opportunities for people to get to know each other as whole people.

This means having exercises that get people to get into their personal lives. Some may see this as a frivolous use of the organization's time, but it is most assuredly not if the situation warrants it. As we learn about each other as individuals, we start to see each other as humans, doing our best and falling short of perfect. This creates some space for tolerance and forgiveness — an important first step to building trust. Remember, if every contrary behavior or action is deducting from the trust bank, it will go empty pretty quickly.

If trust is higher on the team and individuals are working well together, the next major step to building trust is to focus on shared vision and common understanding. This means exercises should focus on building these things together. Some ways to do this are not necessarily around meetings. Getting the team to work more collaboratively by pairing (when two people work on one thing together) and/or mobbing (when the whole team works on one thing together) can help. Some teams have discovered that they actually get more and better work done using these techniques and don't go back to working individually (unless they are practicing Intentional Independence).

So…

If you've taken anything from these words, I hope it is that trust is a critical element of team success and building it, like so many things, is not a destination, but rather a continuous journey. No matter how well a team seems to be working together, they can always do more by increasing their understanding of each other, the work the team is doing, and how they work together. Regular practices that reinforce this understanding will pay huge dividends. History has shown us that it takes a great team to build and do great things.

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Tom Bellinson

Tom Bellinson

Mr. Bellinson has been working in information technology positions for over 30 years. His diverse background has allowed him to gain intimate working knowledge in technical, marketing, sales and executive roles. Most recently, Mr. Bellinson finds himself serving as a Scrum Master for ITHAKA, a global online research service. From 2008 to 2011 Bellinson worked with at risk businesses in Michigan through a State funded program which was administered by the University of Michigan. Prior to working for the University of Michigan, Mr. Bellinson served as Vice President of an ERP software company, an independent business and IT consultant, as chief information officer of an automotive engineering services company and as founder and President of a systems integration firm that was a pioneer in Internet services marketplace. Bellinson holds a degree in Communications with a Minor in Management from Oakland University in Rochester, MI and has a variety of technical certifications including APICS CPIM and CSCP.
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