Category Archives: Trust

Building Trust Needs A System Of Record

Let’s take it for granted that more trust in an organization leads to faster and better results; e.g., more initiatives completed on time and within budget, more innovation, lower turnover, etc.  But trust is fundamentally amorphous; it’s more a feeling than something we can quantify and measure.  So how do we improve something we can’t measure?

Boosting trust requires instantiating a set of practices and behaviors that directly contribute to developing, restoring, or extending trust.  In a previous post entitled “Reflections on the Speed of Trust by Covey and Merrill“, I discussed several of these trust-building practices including keeping commitments, confronting reality, practicing accountability, and delivering results.

But in addition to these practices, trust can also be built and sustained through the use of a simple system of record.  Operating with commitments takes more than good intentions and management support.  Adopting trust-building behaviors can be greatly aided if commitments are entered and tracked in a system of record that:

  •  Serves as a reliable remembrance tool;
  • Provides transparency of the whole team;
  • Shows dependencies;
  • Tracks the status of commitments; and
  • Records deliveries and results.

CommitKeeper was specifically designed for this purpose.

Culture Is Revealed In Conversations, Some Tips For Improvement

This post first appeared in the Huffington Post Business section on 03/02/ 2015

When we think of work culture, what do we mean? Often what we mean is the mood of the place. And there are many moods we are all familiar with that range from excitement, enthusiasm, curiosity, openness, honesty, and partnership to competitive, argumentative, overbearing, cynical, withdrawn, and punitive, to name a few. And how is the mood displayed? Through talking, i.e. how people speak with each other. The tone of voice, the specific words we use, the energy, and even the structure of the dialog are palpable manifestations of work culture. Respect and empowerment are expressed in conversations between work colleagues. Drop into any meeting, listen to how people speak with each other, and you will have an immediate sense of the culture of the organization. How work colleagues speak to each other, what words they use, what mood prevails, and the structure of the dialog have more to do with achieving reliable outcomes than all other factors.

How work colleagues speak with each other is not only evidence of the culture; changing the dialog may also be the biggest lever for changing the culture.

What people say and what they withhold matters.  Language trumps control. How the communication is initiated and conducted is often more important than what is communicated. An organization is a network of person-to-person work conversations during which information and energy is exchanged. Like cells in your body, the quality of these “work-atoms” determines the effectiveness of the whole. Attending to and influencing work conversations can help transform culture and improve collaboration.

What’s most interesting to me is that while our dialog is a reflection of all the soft stuff like trust, openness, honesty, engagement, motivation, transparency, confidence, and respect; dialog can also be viewed as a “technology” in the sense that it can be structured, measured, and guided through specific practices. One can readily observe and monitor what dialog is occurring and, in turn, what culture is being expressed and reinforced. Interventions to improve culture by changing the dialog can, therefore, be quite specific, not just platitudes like “we need more trust”.

Managers may spend 80% of their time in conversation, and making those conversations effective is by no means simple.  Rather than thinking of conversations as trivial everyday acts, conversations should be thought of as a sophisticated technology for getting things done. The starting point is the recognition that conversation is not just about sharing information. A big part of conversation is about making commitments. You ask me to do something by some date. I reply that I will do it. That kind of promise is the key to control and coordination.

One specific intervention is to use language with more precision. One example would be introducing the distinction between an assertion and an assessment. An assertion is a statement of a fact or belief. An assessment is a personal judgment or opinion. An assessment can either be grounded (i.e., backed up with some evidence) or ungrounded (i.e., just a personal hunch). Another example is to notice that a request is very different from an assignment or a complaint and that an explicit promise from a performer to deliver something by a certain date actually changes the state of things. Making our utterances more precise is a great start to improving work relationships.

Another intervention involves paying attention to the structure of work conversations. Over the last 50 years social scientists and linguists have developed, for example, a precise model for what Dr. Fernando Flores called a “conversation for action” that has four stages. In the first stage the team leader/manager/customer makes a request of a specific performer and the two parties begin the negotiation stage. Once they reach agreement, the conversation moves to the delivery stage. When the performer delivers they enter the acknowledgement/assessment stage where the requester declares whether they are satisfied and completes the conversation. Tracking conversations around this closed loop can be a big boost to better accountability and more on-time deliveries.

Promise Cycle

Language is both the expression of culture and the lever for changing culture. The “technology of conversations” is a new domain that HR practitioners should become involved with. Organization consultants bring special sensibilities and tools for exposing, exploring, and enhancing work conversations.

Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” – A Commentary

In 2002, Patrick Lencioni wrote “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” describing the many pitfalls teams face and the fundamental causes of organizational politics and team failure.  Despite the lack of actual data to support his observations, the book has been on the New York Times and Business Week best-seller list, and it is a favorite of many organization consultants.  This is no doubt because the dysfunctions are so familiar.

Lencioni describes the hierarchy of the five dysfunctions:

  • Absence of trust — if team members are unwilling to take interpersonal risks with one another and are unwilling to be vulnerable or to admit mistakes and weaknesses; this culminates in poor trust-building practices.  (Note: See my other blog articles on Trust.)
  • Fear of conflict — when teams are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas, the outcome is that members rely on carefully crafted safe statements to avoid conflict and reprisal; the unvarnished truth is not spoken.
  • Lack of commitment — without healthy conflict team members feign buy-in; causing ambiguity about decisions. If there is agreement, it is done begrudgingly or to deflect conflict.
  • Avoidance of accountability — without commitment and buy-in, accountability suffers as it is hard to hold someone accountable for what you do not believe in.  Performance standards decline when no one is called out on their counterproductive behavior.
  • Inattention to results — if team members do not hold each other accountable, results suffer. Individual interests, such as status and ego, override the team’s agenda.

Lencioni’s model

We can all recognize these dysfunctional tendencies.  In fact, these are present to a lesser or greater degree in virtually every team.  So the question remains; how can leaders promote improvement along these dimensions?

Many organization consultants use this model in team-based interventions and executive coaching.  Recognizing the dysfunctions and understanding how they affect team performance is not difficult, the hard part is changing them.  How exactly do leaders change the norms, practices, and behaviors of individual team members?

The root of the problems and the focus for making change is in the nature of the conversations going on among team members, i.e., who is saying what to whom, on what topics, with what words, in what mood, etc.  The team dysfunctions are manifested in the dialog, or lack thereof, going on between team members.  To make improvements in team performance, managers need to focus on these conversations.

In his 2013 book Conversations For Action and Collected Essays: Instilling a Culture of Commitment in Working Relationships, Fernando Flores wrote:

“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual.  The role of the leader is to make sure the right conversations are happening and that they are being assessed by the team as being effective.  These are not one-way messages like take out the trash or do this task, but rather two-way conversations in which individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing.”

Lencioni’s model is used by many management consultants to help leaders and groups understand the roots of their performance problems and to prompt changes in the group’s conversational patterns.  For some this can be an important intervention illuminating a pathway for change.

The real challenge, however, is making the intervention stick.  It is one thing to learn the model and quite another to change a group’s behavior, their practices around the structure and quality of their conversations.  Even if this can be done during an intervention spanning a few weeks, how can the manager, leader or group make sure the new practices stick over the long haul?

This challenge is one of the reasons 4Spires developed its social task management solutionCommitKeeper. The software helps to instantiate new practices around conversations that address all of the team dysfunctions.  CommitKeeper prompts explicit responses to requests and assures that clear commitments are made and that each party maintains proper and ongoing communication throughout the entire cycle: initial request through post-delivery.  Accountability is made visible and the software keeps a detailed record of results.  Trust is built through more honest conversations and a track record of making and keeping one’s commitments.

I’m betting the interventions that yield the best long term results will include a combination of training accompanied by the CommitKeeper software.

Book Review – “Conversations for Action and Collected Essays” by Fernando Flores

First, I am impressed with how well the information in this book has stood the test of time. I might even go further and say that the material is more relevant in today’s work culture than it was 30 years ago when it was written. Our modern, technology-connected, but personally-disconnected life can certainly benefit from improving how we converse with each other. Dr. Flores offers an astute analysis of how we communicate, from the basic linguistic elements through an appreciation for background concerns, flow, moods, and trust. He deconstructs our everyday exchanges with other people into their essential elements and then constructs a compellingly simple model of the back and forth “dance” that goes on to achieve shared action. The “conversation for action” loop he developed 3 decades ago remains a powerful model for improving knowledge worker productivity.

In particular, I found the discussion of autonomy vs. accountability very relevant in the context of our current generation of workers. Along with shifts toward less loyalty to company and increasing worker mobility, we can sense a growing demand for increasing autonomy in how (and where) work is conducted. There are obvious benefits to this trend, including increased employee engagement and innovation, but maintaining efficient coordination may be more challenging. Adherence to the conversation for action model adds clarity and a modicum of rigour to work conversations that can make accountability explicit and visible. A growing number of case studies attest to the improvements in collaboration the model provides.

The book offers valuable insights like the following:

— We all make “characterisations” of others and of ourselves. We say “he is trustworthy,” “she is unreliable,” “I’m bad with numbers.” “These features are not real; they only exist in conversation…when we forget that characterisation is a conversation, we perpetuate our competencies and incompetencies, and those of others…grounded characterisations allow us to have productive conversations; these are conversations for moving forward together rather than staying stuck in the present.”

— Our background mood affects how we perceive the world and the people around us and how we behave. A person’s mood is driven by their vision of the future. “A common belief is that the future is basically an extension of what is going on today.” To manage moods, therefore, it is necessary to create a different understanding about the future. Dr. Flores suggests “the most important key to generating moods of challenge, confidence, and ambition is to understand that people create the future in the commitments they make to each other and the actions they take together…we invent the future together.” There is key information in this section for any group leader to consider.

— “Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. A team participates in a set of ongoing conversations among people who commit to share an explicitly declared mission and to coordinate actions to fulfil the mission. The leader takes action to ensure that these conversations take place and that they are assessed by the team to be effective. The leader is the person who is granted authority by the team to take care of these conversations in an ongoing manner.”

— Language is central to being social. “We build networks of people with whom we participate in conversations.” These are not one-way messages like “take out the trash” or “do this task,” but rather two-way conversations in which two or more individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing. These are the kind of principles we should be mindful of as we design modern work management systems.

Perhaps the gem of the whole book, however, is the last chapter “On Listening.” Using examples as seemingly far apart as a used car salesman and Lech Walesa, Dr. Flores presents an entirely new approach to the practice of listening. Exhibiting keen observation skills, the author exposes the mechanics of dysfunctional conversation patterns that are immediately recognisable and then presents a new model for listening that can achieve genuine engagement between people with entirely different backgrounds. We see how the traditional training on listening skills is flawed, and we learn an observable, but radically new way of participating in conversations that any reader can utilize and benefit from.

My one reservation with the book is that I was left wanting more examples of these principles in practice. The everyday examples in the book are used only for explanatory purposes. I think the book would have benefited from the inclusion of some case studies where the ideas made a difference. I know they’re out there…perhaps in the second edition?

Trust Bestowed or Earned – Which Comes First?

In an earlier article I commented extensively on Stephen Covey’s book entitled “The Speed of Trust – The One Thing That Changes Everything”.  This article presumes the reader already has a strong appreciation for the importance of trust in improving work relations between people and its multiplicative effect on overall organization performance.  This article offers some insights into the actual practice, even the mechanics, of building trust.

When thinking about the trust-building process, I was immediately confronted with a chicken-and-egg problem: does one party earn the trust of another party first, or does one party start by bestowing trust on the other before it is earned.  I learned a lot about this dynamic from my dog, Zelda.

Zelda is black Labrador and, like most labs, she always wants to be where we are.  Wherever we are in the house she will lay down as near as possible.  In fact, most of the time she lays down exactly under foot, directly in your way, and then proceeds to fall happily asleep.  As I would get up to move past or around her I would have to step very close to her body.  Despite the very real risk of being stepped on accidentally, she would lie there completely still and serene.  It struck me that she was completely confident that I would not hurt her; she had bestowed a high degree of trust in me, and she had done so before I earned it.

We can debate about whether dogs are instinctively trained to trust humans or whether she was bestowing “blind trust”, but what was more interesting was seeing how I behaved in response to receiving this gift.  Seeing, and feeling, the trust she had placed in my behavior, I felt an extraordinary responsibility to be careful to not step on her.  It was very important that I not betray her trust.  I wanted to validate her trust and “earn” what was already given.  It struck me that this is the opposite of our common conception that trust needs to be earned first.

In addition to earning trust, one party can ask for trust, i.e. the performer saying, in effect, “trust me”.  This was the case the first time my son asked to borrow the car keys.  I notice, however, that while my teenager son is constantly pushing the boundaries of our established trust level, he does not ask me for a new level of trust that would be way beyond my comfort zone or the parameters of our existing trust level(s).  We are engaged in the process of building trust.

More precisely it is a reinforcing cycle – a cycle of action and reaction that either builds, maintains or diminishes trust.  The acts of bestowing and earning trust are present in virtually all human interactions.   The result of this cycle of behavior with Zelda is that she and I have an amazing degree of trust in each other.  The actual cycle mechanics are that each person implicitly attempts to match the level of trust either bestowed or asked by the other; i.e. one expects to be trusted to the level of what they have earned in previous interactions, and one bestows trust only up to the level of what they expect the other party can earn.  It goes without saying the cycle is not always smooth and forward.  The cycle with my son is not linear; he is granted more trust the older he gets, but, as with most teenagers, there are also setbacks where trust is damaged and requires rebuilding.

We do not typically bestow trust way beyond what we think is justified based on our expectations of the other person’s response, and, conversely, we do not expect to be granted trust way beyond what we think the other person can accept.  The one who initiates the trust-building cycle limits the strength and dynamism of the cycle by trying to anticipate and match the expected response from the other (i.e. they limit their level of trust based on pre-judgments of the other).

Imagine if this were not the case.  Imagine if the cycle started from within without regard for pre-judgments about in-kind responses, such as Zelda bestowing way more trust in me before I had earned it.  I propose that people who bestow more trust than is “warranted”, or who ask for more trust than they have previously “earned”, build higher levels of trust very much faster.

This is not the same as blind trust.  It would be naïve to overlook the risk associated with such behavior.  In fact, risk is the special ingredient that propels and energizes the whole cycle.  Trust need not be blind.  Having bestowed a great trust does not mean you can not follow up and stay deeply involved in the execution by the other party.  Asking for frequent progress reports may still be appropriate, but the quality and mood of the dialog is entirely different.  Conversely, asking for more trust does not mean you perform in isolation from the stakeholder.  Having taken on more trust, you are obliged to be even more communicative about progress and concerns.

This discussion would not be complete without mentioning the preeminent importance of outcomes.  The trust cycle ultimately depends on whether the performer earned the trust they were given or asked for.  As Stephen Covey says, the performer’s pattern of meeting commitments is the “Big Kahuna” for building trust.  The point of this article is to suggest that managers who bestow trust on performers before it is earned can accelerate the cycle.

Trust – What’s It Worth? (Reflections on “The Speed of Trust” by Covey and Merrill)

In 2006, Stephen M.R. Covey and Rebecca Merrill authored the book “The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything”.  The authors make a compelling business case for the real and quantifiable effects of building trust in organizations.  They state “When trust goes up, speed will also go up and cost will go down.”  The inverse is also true.  “When trust goes down, speed will go down and cost will go up.”  High trust organizations demonstrate less bureaucracy, lower turnover, enhanced innovation, and better execution.   Our modern global, knowledge worker economy revolves around partnering and relationships.  Covey goes on to assert that the ability to establish, grow, extend and restore trust with all stakeholders is the key leadership competency of the new, global economy.

The book discusses how trust can be built, or rebuilt, by improving thirteen relationship trust building behaviors.  The following are my comments on four of them: keeping commitments, practicing accountability, confronting reality, and delivering results.

1.)  Keeping commitments is what Covey and Merrill call the “Big Kahuna” of all trust-building behaviors.  While that may be self-evident, what is less obvious, and more interesting, is how rarely real commitments are actually formed in most business relationships.  In place of real commitments most people substitute loose, mostly implicit statements of  “Well, I’ll do my best” or “I’ll try”.  The reasons for this behavior are also obvious – the person being asked to do something wants as much “wiggle room” as possible within which to make the delivery so they will not disappoint the customer; and the customer, knowing this, does not want to press for a firm commitment.  Each of the parties is complicit in the vagueness: the performer fears non-completion and the customer fears confrontation.  The truth is in our modern business culture we stink at making commitments.  Most of the time commitments are vague or never actually made in the first place.  This is not to say that performing “best efforts” does not build trust, but forming and delivering on real commitments builds trust a lot faster and a lot better.

2.)  Practicing accountability is much more than honoring due dates.  Yes, practicing accountability entails saying what you’re going to do and doing what you said, but underlying the obvious is the nature of the dialog that is going on between two people.  A complete conversation between a requester and a performer with the power to really build trust depends on factors such as:

  • how well the request was formed,
  • whether the intended performer was given the opportunity to negotiate the terms of the delivery,
  • whether an explicit agreement was made,
  • the degree to which the dialog continued throughout the delivery, and
  • whether the delivery was formally acknowledged.

The quality of the dialog between the two parties is even more important than recording the assigned due date.  (See other posts that expand the discussion on Accountability)

3.)  Confronting reality often means sharing “bad news”.  The performer has the burden for demonstrating this behavior right from the start of the conversation with the requester.  While the request is being formulated and an agreement to deliver is being crafted, the performer is bound to forthrightly relay their concerns, problems, and contingencies so the requester has a clear sense of the expectations of the performer.

The performer should not accept a task they do not believe can be achieved.  Standing up for reality at the outset builds trust.  Must of us have run across counter examples of this – a work colleague who always agrees, although he knows he cannot do everything to complete the request.  Some components of the request will not be completed, not fully completed or completed on time and to the expectation of the requestor.  Sadly the requestor or customer will often not know this until very late in the game.  Through fear of being viewed as not a team player, or of losing his job, he believes he cannot say no up front.

Once an explicit agreement is forged, the subsequent delivery of “bad news” is even more important.  The project is properly planned, tasks have been assigned, and then, as we all know, s- – t happens.  It is common knowledge and more or less taken for granted that we learn more about the nature of the task after it has been taken it on.  That new information comes to light is not the issue.  The key to building trust is how quickly and clearly the new information is shared with the requester/customer.  Waiting to report problems until the Friday staff meeting builds far less trust than a private communication on Tuesday.

Effective software design can facilitate sharing “bad news” during the delivery stage.  Simple tools like red/yellow/green “traffic lights” enable the performer to quickly and easily signal concerns to the requester.  The goal is to prompt earlier and earlier notice of problems when working around “bad news” or changing plans is easier.

The manager/requester is as important to the entire process and shares the burden of confronting reality when it comes time to acknowledge and assess the delivery.   Performers learn very fast how much they can trust their manager by the consistency and honesty with which deliveries are assessed.  If it is good work, the message should be clearly and succinctly delivered – at the right time; conversely if it is not good work, the requestor/manager should provide in a proper dialog what was not satisfactory and how to improve on delivery and possibly help in the delivery for the next set of deliverables.. Trust is not built, and the organization does not learn, unless clear feedback is provided on whether the requester was satisfied with each delivery.

4.)  Delivering results is the natural outcome following from the above three behaviors.  The performer and requester have made a clear agreement, accountability is palpable and shared in the conversation, and each of the parties openly discuss in a straightforward manner any problems or concerns as they come up.

Note, however, that this behavior is about more than just completing the task by the agreed due date.  Sure, the baseline for measuring results is tracking that the task was completed on time, but one should consider a broader definition of what constitutes results.  In the context of this discussion, an additional result is the degree to which your “trust account” was added to or debited during the entire conversation.  There is also a virtuous cycle of trust – those you trust are monitored less closely (i.e. management productivity gain), their confidence builds, they feel more empowered, they perform better (i.e. staff productivity gain), and they earn more trust.

Delivering results on a consistent basis builds a reputation for trust.  The requester as well as the performer benefit from having a robust historical record of past deliveries.  Reputations should be built as much as possible on objective data, not subjective and imperfect memory.  It is surprising to note how few task and project management applications actually save records of completed deliveries that can provide this objective, historical view of deliveries.

In summary, work management applications that are sensitive to the issue of trust can effectively facilitate and encourage the practice of these trust-building behaviors.  Software can help individuals and organizations build trust – the one thing that changes everything.

Accountability (2 of 3): How is it Achieved?

This is the second in a series of 3 articles dealing with Accountability.  The first article Accountability: What Does it Really Mean I noted how the real meaning of accountability has been hijacked and replaced with a simplistic emphasis on recording delivery dates, and I proposed that real accountability has more to do with the quality of the dialog between people.

This article keys in on this dialog and lays out four specific tactics for how accountability is actually achieved.

While most everyone acknowledges that accountability is a good thing and want more of it, most people really do not know how to get more.  All too often we fool ourselves into thinking we have more of it by emphasizing the other roots of the word – counting and accounting – which leads one to pursuit of monitored assigned due dates.

Below are recommendations for building real accountability:

  • Begin a conversation, not a delegation. The proper start to a conversation that results in real accountability is a request (e.g. Can you get this done by June 1st?).  The requestor / manager assumes the persona of a customer instead of “lord and master”.  The requester begins with a different tone of voice, and acknowledges that the performer is already working on other tasks.  The phrase “Will you please…” gets someone ready for a response; the phrase “You need to…” raises hackles.  Having started the conversation with a question, instead of a statement, the requester must then wait for an answer before proceeding.  A measure of control is relinquished over to the performer.  It’s a dialog after all, not a monologue.
  • Acknowledge mutual dependency and build partnership. There is no accountability without negotiation.  The performer must answer including sharing their capabilities and concerns regarding the request.  Commitments that evidence real accountability involve a level of disclosure, and indeed intimacy, that is typically not present when just assigning tasks.  Most managers assign tasks and expect accountability to follow along as part and parcel of the assignment.  In effect, they are saying “I am assigning you this task and am holding you (the performer) accountable for getting it done on time”.  This is a one-way statement, not a dialog.  The performer has not actually “answered”.  The performer has made no personal, nor public ownership of the task.  The manager has created a workflow / action and expects tacit acknowledgement and agreement.  In a subtle sense, the accountability for completion of the task still rests with the manager who then must spend his time closely following up the assignment.  In order to accept accountability, the performer must be afforded the opportunity to negotiate, or even to decline, the request.
  • Shift accountability squarely to the performer. The result of a proper dialog should be an explicit agreement, a specific commitment by the performer to satisfy the requester’s concern by a certain due date.  In so doing, the performer [willingly] takes on the accountability for timely and successful delivery of the request.  And having done so, it is now the performer’s responsibility, not the manager’s, to closely track and follow up the task. The ownership of the task has shifted to the performer.  Of course, the manager / requester is still concerned with an on-time delivery, but rather than relying on frequent reviews of task due dates and the weekly “how’s it going” query of each performer, the manager now relies on the performer’s ownership of the task to prompt update reports.  If the delivery is on track, the manager need not ask.  If the delivery is threatened, the manager relies on prompt notice of a problem by the responsible performer.  The key is to shift the dialog from the requestor saying “I am holding you accountable” to the performer saying  “you can count on me”.  Underpinning all of this is the notion of trust, which leads to the next practice.
  • Provide metrics that support reputation and trust building. Accountability and trust go hand in hand.  Trust is the soft underbelly of accountability. [Note: See the related article on Trust.]  The greater the amount of trust, the greater is the shift of accountability to the performer.  Requestors who have low trust that the task will be delivered on time spend a considerable amount of time monitoring and following up many times during delivery.  Those with a high level of trust will spend relatively little time following up, and will instead rely on the trusted performer to alert them if and when concerns arise.  There is also a virtuous cycle of trust – those you trust are monitored less closely, their confidence builds, they feel more empowered, they perform better and earn more trust.

Trust is built up over time.  Repeated performance builds a reputation.  Both the requestor and the performer need to have specific historical records that are shared so that trust can be built and maintained using actual documented records.  The record keeping that is most helpful is historical delivery patterns such as percent of on-time deliveries over the past year.  Reports like this are surprisingly rare in today’s performance conscious work world.

The next article in this series talks about how accountability is actually shared between the requester and the performer.