The Secret Ingredient is Trust

TopsecretsidebarBuilding trust with another individual takes time and effort. In the workplace, where relationships are often hierarchal and, to some extent, forced, developing a culture of trust can be even more complex.
In 2011, John Gottman dedicated a book to the subject—The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples. Patrick Lencioni, who has observed the impact of trust among teams declared it’s establishment as vital to functionality and success. While Gottman and Lencioni recommend slightly different activities to promote trust, there are key concepts their approaches have in common.
The first factor is the degree to which follow through occurs. How closely do commitments made align with the results delivered. Lencioni calls this predictive trust. Gottman describes this as transparency. This factor is important, but it is not enough!
Team members need to demonstrate that they consider the success and wellbeing of those around them as important as their own success and wellbeing; and they understand doing so may come at the price of personal sacrifice or compromise. This conveys positive moral certainty, establishing one is ethical in our character. While we can control our own behavior and choices, will our co-workers do the same for us? And, what happens when we come up against a personal limitation? Could we threaten the success of the team by ignoring our own shortcomings?
This brings us to what Lencioni calls vulnerability based trust. When this trust is present, we can be candid with our peers and take emotional risks:
  • “I’m not as good at this as you are; will you help me with it?”
  •  “I am sorry for what I said yesterday.”
  •  “I don’t agree with you, but I am going to support the team’s decision.”
What we really want to feel is a certain sense of reciprocity, of pulling together.
  • “I’ve got your back. I want to know you have mine, too.”
  •  “We’re in this together.”
And yet, how many places have we worked where the person no one trusts is never held accountable for that behavior? Everyone has a story about this. Share yours in the comments below.
While you’re here, this would be a good time to circle back to the first post in this series to consider where your organization is on that conflict/productivity curve. Then, you can listen to Dr. Gottman’s advice about how to start building trust. He advocates practicing the fine skill of listening non-defensively. How do you do that? I will cover that in another post!

Staying in the Sweet Spot of Conflict

Crying womanIn my last post I discussed how holding each other accountable for behavior enables us to be most productive and healthy as organizations. One important way to remember how to be in this zone is to recognize that we all need to invest in our themes to grow them into strengths, and this includes getting feedback from our colleagues. In other words, that part of the graph that asks us to be “open to feedback/influence” involves listening and suppressing that most natural of reactions, defensiveness. Now, defensiveness is such a pervasive and natural reaction that I am willing to bet that, as you read this sentence, you are saying to yourself, “Defensive? I don’t get defensive.”

One way to grow themes into strengths is what Jim Collison and Maika Leibrandt talk frequently about on the Theme Thursday webcasts–transitioning from a “me focus” to a “we focus” in how our themes get expressed. In other words, if my Communication theme is mostly just meeting my own needs, I will end up talking all the time, expressing all the stuff that I am thinking about and using the world as my sounding board. But if want to of service to a team, I might consider that communication also involves asking powerful questions of those I work with and practice bringing a coaching perspective to my interactions with colleagues, allowing them the time a space to contribute their good thinking to problems we face.

Another strategy might be to “introduce your theme before it introduces you” (another pearl of wisdom from Maika Leibrandt). So in my case, I might share with a co-worker that I tend to think out loud – it’s just how my brain works sometimes. Then I can give them permission to slow me down if I am starting to sound like Sir Talks-a-lot. If they do, I’ll accept their cue, take a break, and share the airtime with others on the team. This way I am opening myself up to influence from peers that might help me refocus my theme on giving voice to a variety of opinions and ideas, many of which are bound to better than, or complementary to, my own.

The StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment can be a powerful tool for us to use in smoothing over the bumpiness that comes from holding each other accountable for behavior that might be holding our team back. If we adopt the attitude that “I need to be the change I want to see in the world” we can approach others with the humility to ask them for feedback about our behavior and seek to understand them and their themes.

What strategy do you use to keep that defensive reaction in check?

Navigate Conflict & Increase Productivity

iStock_000000650824XSmall copyOne of my top themes is Connectedness and another is Ideation. This might explain how some of the best ideas of other, really smart people come together in my head to make useful new ideas. Here, I will explain how a simple concept in Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, can guide our most difficult conversations in the workplace and be enhanced by Dr. John Gottman’s collective advice on forming sound relationships, based on his mountains of research on common reasons relationships fail, and characteristics of what he calls “masters” of relationships.

Patrick explains that, on a spectrum of conflict from “artificial harmony” to all out turf wars and personal attacks, teams and organizations sometimes stay in the “artificial harmony” zone out fear that any conflict in the workplace might escalate to the other end of that spectrum. But, he argues, teams are most productive when they can engage in honest, candid conflict over which tactics, strategies, and policies they should pursue.


Furthermore, teams that are in a space of “vulnerability based trust” can then hold each other accountable for behavior that might be holding the team back from generating the results they are aiming for. In my mind, that region of turf wars and personal attacks is characterized by what Dr. Gottman calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” in relationships. These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

When members of a team find themselves in this zone, which will INEVITABLY happen, the antidote is that they make what Dr. Gottman calls “repair” attempts. This is where Strengths Based Leadership (SBL) can make a real difference. The data shows that it is the receiver of the repair attempt that will make or break the relationship. If I have Activator, Achiever, and Positivity in my top five themes and a co-worker with Deliberative repeatedly raises concerns and questions about all my bright ideas and attempts to move things forward, eventually they might blurt out, “You are so impulsive and reckless!” If they catch themselves and apologize for being critical, I need to have enough Positive Sentiment Override for that coworker to accept the repair and move forward.


In SBL, we talk about the need to “love all 34 themes.” In this example, whether I view my coworker’s actions as undermining me or genuinely trying get our collective efforts to be as effective as possible, is a choice I can make. Assuming my colleague will make a repair attempt, if I can stay in a space of Positive Sentiment Override, I will be the key to maintaining a sound relationship with them. Dr. Gottman calls this developing a “habit of mind” to, as we say in SBL, “lead with positive intent.”

When we want to get better at holding each other accountable for behavior, Dr. Gottman has some more really good advice. He and his team (his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, is a co-creator of The Art and Science of Love workshops) recommend that we practice how to complain without blame, self-soothe, and be open to feedback and influence. Each of these deserve their own blog post, so more about that another day.

As leaders, if we want to increase our ability to include and engage everyone we work with in honest, candid conflict over tactics, strategies, and policies we are going to pursue, we must learn to ask key questions that stimulate those discussions. I have found the Liberating Structures to be among the most effective ways to get this started.

Where does your workplace fall in the “spectrum of conflict”?