6 Steps to Sustainable Teams: Safety and Trust


It is amazing how most teams are brought together and asked to accomplish extremely complicated goals without taking steps to develop trust among team members.  

I understand that factors beyond our control will often require leaders to quickly assemble teams without much notice.

This is a reality of our professional lives.

However, I have found that supervisors can anticipate this need and work proactively to develop foundational safety and a level of trust for their core team.

Having No Tools

While skepticism is often an obstacle to this process, the logic behind it makes sense and tends to turn skepticism into curiosity (and often acceptance).

If we think about the way most teams are assembled we realize that, all too often, teams jump into difficult projects without tools to learn about each others strengths, how to share feedback or how to avoid conflict.

A question for every leader:

Can we really expect people who don’t know each other well to support each other during unexpected challenges and pressure situations in order to accomplish outstanding results?

This is a tough position to put our most valuable resources, and we do this all the time!

Decreasing Turnover

In my experience,  teams will perform well for a short period of time before costly staff turnover or complicated conflict situations arise.

Of course, not all turnover is related to staff conflict and negative relationships, but in my experience, most turnover occurs as the result of staff dissatisfaction with the work environment.

This is a costly problem for any team and a serious blow to its ability to consistently deliver results.

If the goal of the team is to consistently exceed expectations and deliver great results, low turnover and diffusing conflict are critical goals for management.

Doesn’t it make sense that we invest time in our team’s relationships and prepare all staff members to manage conflict?  Even if our answer to this question is “yes,”  we still don’t make the investment, do we?

Instead, we often allow cynics, who feel that trust-building is a bunch of nonsense, to wrongfully lead us into rushing into tasks, time and time again.  Why do we let this happen?

Another question for every leader:

Is getting to know each other and our commitment to the team’s success truly a waste of time?

Somehow, it is deemed better to leap carelessly into projects and handle conflict when it arises. Inevitably, conflict does arise and management then spends countless hours trying to remedy situations that are often full of rancor and beyond repair.

This simply does not make a lot of sense to me.

A Step Ladder for Building Teams

Team Building

The graphic above, credited to Rod Napier, and widely used by my colleagues at Cornell University’s Organizational Effectiveness, provides a good starting point for the safety and trust process.

Although this is difficult and requires careful facilitation, team members can use this model to ask the very important questions:

Who am I?” (for step #1) and “Who are you?” (for step #2) as a way to start developing productive relationships.

I add a very tough and personal question to step #1.  I ask myself this:

“Will I seek to do anything that may hurt another person’s reputation?”

By this I mean doing things like talking about someone instead of having the courage to give honoring feedback  directly or publicly discredit someone I disagree with or may not like.

This is a key breakthrough in my experience.

Do Unto Others

I know how it feels when others belittle me in public and I also know, very well, how it feels when I find out others are talking about something I can do better instead of telling directly.  Therefore, I must avoid doing any of that to others.

If I can do this, I can tell others they can trust me.

If we have enough courage to ask this of ourselves and check our own intent, we may find that the answer we uncover is not a good one.

If this is the case, we are presented with an excellent opportunity to build safety and trust.

Think about it.  If we can honestly say that our intent is to help all other team members, even when they do something that frustrates us, then when others ask us, “who are you?” in step #2, we can honestly say:

“I am someone who you can trust because I will work hard NOT to hurt you or your reputation in any way and I will do my best to always be straight with you.”

Once strengths and personality traits are identified and the process of building safety has begun, supervisors can proactively work on expanding the team sphere of influence and establishing the concept of the safety zone.  This is the focus on my next article, “6 Steps to Sustainable  Teams:  Growing the Sphere of Influence.”


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Al Gonzalez is Founding Partner at GIVE Leadership
He helps clients develop trust and leverage the strengths of all team members
Email | LinkedIn |  Twitter | Web 

Image Sources:  actlikeaman.org

One response to “6 Steps to Sustainable Teams: Safety and Trust

  1. The development of trust among team members is the most overlooked and yet most crucial part of successful team-building. And the most treacherous, if the facilitator of the team is unaware of past issues affecting trust. Those can range from a history of territoriality with respect to job responsibilities to unresolved conflicts left over from previous working relationships. If I, as a team member, cannot honestly say that I believe every other team member (and the team leader) has my professional best interests at heart as well as his or her own, or if others can’t say that about me, it is unlikely that I will submit to being held accountable for my contribution or spend a lot of energy in service of understanding how what I accomplish (or don’t) impacts other team members’ ability to perform.


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