Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Are you prepared to be vulnerable?

Over the past few weeks I have conducted a number of teamwork programs. One of the activities that I enjoy facilitating is asking the participants to form small groups and to identify the characteristics of the effective and ineffective teams of which they have been members.

Examples can from from any team experience and I encourage participants to broader their thinking about their definition of a 'team'. Some examples of this definition include:
  • A workplace
  • A family
  • A university study group
  • A sporting team
  • A community group
  • Travelling with friends or family

After providing the participants with enough time to share their stories, I collect the results.

An interesting characteristic that always comes up for effective teams is trust. Similarly, a lack of trust is always raised as a characteristic of ineffective teams.

Trust. Easy to say. Hard to give.

Why? It is my view that trust involves a willingness to be vulnerable. In a team concept, to trust your team members means that you have faith that they will do what they say they will do to the best of their ability. When I ask program participants to describe what it was like to be trusted, they say things like:

"He never looked over my shoulder. Even though it was the first time I was doing this task, he asked if I needed any further help and I said that I didn't. He told me that I could contact him at any stage if my circumstances changed. If I were him I'm not sure that I could have trusted me like he did. And that was special. I think I actually did the job better because I was trusted. I found it really motivating."

"She was the leader, there was no question about that. But when we allocated tasks and she was clear that we understood what needed to be done, she let us 'go for it'. Her door was always open and we knew that, and from time to time we would go to her for assistance, either physically or via email or on the phone. She was always available when we needed her. But she never, ever behaved like she didn't trust us. It never felt like she was looking over our shoulder making sure we did it exactly how she would. And this was an important project. And we knew that, and we respected that. That's why we created such a wonderful result. We were a real team and she trusted us!"

You can't fake trust. It is either genuine, or it isn't. In today's complex world it is nearly impossible to 'go it alone'. Leaders have to trust their team members to do their job, even if the leader could do parts of the job 'better' on their own.

To trust, however, requires the leader to be okay with being vulnerable. Trust can't be broken if it isn't given. So, by nature genuinely trusting someone means that you are prepared for the possibility that they might break your trust, which in turn makes you vulnerable.

In our world of accountability and responsibility, trust can become very hard to 'give'. If I'm the leader, the 'buck stops with me.' If this project fails, then it's my fault. It's complex, isn't it.

I doubt there is any golden rule with regard to trust. I am a trusting person, but I am not prepared to trust 'just anyone'. I use all my 'three brains' (I'll explain what that term means in a future blog) to determine whether I will trust someone or not.

Each time I trust someone I am conscious of the choice that I have just made. Trust is behavioural, so saying, "I trust you" means nothing, if (in a work example) all I do is look over your shoulder every step of the way. Being prepared to be vulnerable is a tension leaders have to grapple with.

Are you prepared top be vulnerable?

What are your experiences of trust both as a team member and as a leader?

How have you managed the 'vulnerability' tension?

The chances are that if trust is not present then high performance will be a long way away. So what is the bigger risk, the preparedness to be vulnerable or the preparedness to under-perform?

Please share your experiences, thoughts and comments.

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