The Edelman Trust Barometer provides just that, an international perspective on the levels of trust in our society globally. Its most recent report reflects the fact that trust has declined markedly in our institutions, in our governments, in our politicians, four out of five people believe that the system isn’t working and 67% of people are worried about fake news.

And this report was produced just before the onset of the pandemic. Trust, it would appear, to quote O Casey, is definitely in a state of chassis, and it’s certainly in short supply. Whilst we might bemoan the decline in trust generally in our society, what’s of more control or interest to us, may be, how do we affect trust amongst our teams?

Interestingly, trust, everyone can agree, is a key ingredient when it comes to high-performance teams. There is any amount of literature out there that researches trust in teams. And whether you look at Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team, which identifies trust as being one of those dysfunctions when it’s absent, all the way through to Covey speed of trust, there is any amount of research out there that supports the fact that trust is essential or one of the key ingredients to high-performance in a team. Indeed, if you just simply reflect on the most relevant piece of data, which is your own experience, anytime you’ve ever worked in a team that has been high performing, if you reflect upon it, you will, I am certain, conclude the fact that there was a high level and high degree of trust amongst the team members. So, I don’t think I need to take any more time in selling you the idea that trust is a key ingredient. Even intuitively, we know this to be true.

There are two clients that I’m working with currently, in the space of organizations coming back and resetting and trying to realign and rebuild their teams. One is in the wealth management space in Asia. The other is in the brand management space in Europe. And in both cases, when we’re discussing and exploring how the team needs to reset and realign itself, both have identified trust as being an issue that needs to be focused on and needs to be repaired, rebuilt, or reinstated.

The third client, based in the UK, has a new CEO who, to begin the rebuilding of the team, has decided to replace existing team members, as the new incumbent CEO, with people that the CEO is already familiar with and has worked with in the past. Again, a nod to trust because these are people that the CEO is confident they can work with.

So here’s the odd observation. In 30 years of working with leaders and teams in organizations all around the world, I’ve hosted and facilitated team discussions about practically every topic along the line. Everything from strategy to operations, to vision, values, mission, to ways of working for the team, to competitive advantage and beyond. And in 30 years, I’ve never, ever sat down with a team to discuss trust. Certainly, trust has been a component or part of a discussion related to any, or some of the discussions I’ve had over the years, but to actually sit down and have a conversation about trust, where we are with trust, what’s working, what isn’t, how we need to rebuild it, what we can do to change it, it has never happened in my experience.

Isn’t it curious then, that something that everybody can agree is a key ingredient in the performance of a team or a high performance of a team, something that is full and central in the rebuilding of teams in the present moment, that nobody in a 30 year span of work has ever said, we need to talk about trust. Let’s sit down and have that discussion.

It’s like a taboo subject. It’s like fight club. The first rule of trust is we don’t talk about trust. Or perhaps more accurately, like the specter of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, a presence that everybody knows is there, that nobody dares talk about ,that nobody’s ever seen, but everybody’s got their own version of the story.

And in an era, where moving towards hybrid working, where we’re no longer gathered under the same roof and under the beady eye of the manager and the leader, trust in remoteness, wherever that pendulum finally finds itself settling, trust is going to be even more critical and more important from a leadership perspective than it ever was in the old world of working.

The challenge for leaders is going to be, do you engage with it? Do you work with it? Do you try to develop it? Do you have conversations about it? Or do you expect that the trust fairy is suddenly going to magically sprinkle it’s fairy dust across all of your direct reports?

Here’s the first reason why people don’t have a conversation about trust. There is no commonly accepted or understood definition about what trust really is. And like the Keyser Soze example, everybody’s got their own version of the story. Trust by definition is an abstract; you can’t touch it, feel it or smell it, but we are all very aware of its existence and also moreover of its impact.

But everything comes back to definition. There are many, many ways to define trust, but I’ve found very useful in this context, a definition, which is, based on the work of Richard Fagerlin and Trustology, and he defines trust as very simply our confidence in our relationship with others.

When people say blankly that I either do or don’t trust this person, they know what they mean by that. But actually it’s a catch-all reference for things that are actually more specific in terms of what people are referring to when they say they do, or they don’t trust people. And what’s very helpful is to break down trust into three different areas or three different components. And they’re like three competencies of trust. Imagine trust is like a stool, where there are three different legs of that stool. And we refer to trust in the context of sometimes all three legs, but more often than not, when we’re talking about trust, we’re referring to one or other of those legs.

It’s a very useful exercise to consider our relationships and our confidence in our relationships individually, underneath each one of these three headings. And the three legs of the trust stool are, the first one is competence, the second is compassion, and the third is integrity.

What I mean by competence, the first leg, is when you ask somebody to do something, you ask them to do a task, are you confident that they will execute and deliver on what you’ve asked them to do? So if you ask somebody to do a report and have it finished and ready by Wednesday morning, nine o’clock, are you confident? Do you trust that they will do it? That’s a competence trust issue.

The second leg of the trust stool is about compassion. So if competence is about your confidence in their ability to do the task, the compassion leg is whether this person in their affairs, is considerate of other people, as they execute their affairs. Do they consider other people’s points of view? Do they consider the impact on others? Do they think in win-win outcomes or win lose outcomes? Do they consider the whole and prioritize the whole over their own personal agenda in the situation? This is really characterized by how much I care as opposed to how much I know. And ultimately the compassion one is are you confident that the person will do the right thing, given the situation.

The third leg of the trust stool is integrity. And what I mean by that is the word integer is a number which is whole in and of itself. So is this person whole meaning, are you confident that this person is the same in all contexts? Are they a person who says what they mean and means what they say? Do they show up the same way in all contexts and with all people? Or, the reverse of this would be somebody who we would typically label as political, a political person who runs with the hare and hunts with the hounds and just says to people what they think they want to hear at any moment in time.

What’s most interesting about the three legs of the trust tool is to think of your key relationships and think of it through the barometer or the lens of each one of those, in isolation. I’ve got one individual who is very high on integrity. So I trust absolutely that they say and are consistent all the time, in every context. I trust their competence because they’re very good at doing what I asked them to do or need them to do, or I see them execute, so from a task perspective. But on the compassionate side, I know that they’re always playing for themselves. What’s helpful about this, is that instead of the blanket, I trust, or I don’t trust, what it does is it breaks down into more specific categories or areas where the issue might be, and where the positives might be, because not everybody fulfills in all three legs of the stool.

As well as it providing a useful mechanism to reflect upon our confidence in our key relationships, it also helps to spotlight the area where we need to address, but also what’s good about the person, and what you can rely on, and what you do trust, in terms of confidence about the relationship.

Of course, this podcast is about leadership and leading teams. So we’ve talked about you putting the spotlight on others. Let me turn the spotlight around briefly and momentarily and put the spotlight on you. And I’m going to end this episode with a quote from Colin Powell. He said, the day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you’ve stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded that you don’t care. Either case is a failure of leadership.

What’s interesting about this is that it’s about leadership. And if they’ve lost confidence you can help, it’s lack of trust in your competence. Or if they’re concluded, you do not care, it’s lack of trust in your compassion. So when we say we’ve lost trust in somebody, what are we actually saying specifically? And what’s the conversation we need to have in order to try to bridge that gap or rebuild it? That’s what’s going to be the focus of our next episode to follow on from this, which is part two of Building Trust in Teams.

Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected.

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