[Success] requires a high-trust working environment, and most business environments are low-trust. In order to own the future of your business, you have to design it around trust.

– Cindy Gallop

Building trust is critical to innovation. Without trust, your team can’t effectively collaborate and experiment. But even though trust is so important, most of us work in environments distinctly lacking in trust. In fact, a recent survey of CEOs found that over half felt trust in their organizations had deteriorated to the point that is was a serious threat to their business. So what do we do? How can we change this rather stark reality and begin to build trust on our teams?

Changing culture is tough, but it can be done. The key is to focus on habits — small activities that, when repeated, lead to big change. So, much like the famous Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we’ve identified seven practices that can, over time, help to establish trust in your workplace.

Encourage Random Interactions
This might sound a little too obvious, but the more we see others, the more chances there are for interactions, and the more comfortable we start getting with one another. This can be as simple as a friendly wave, a good morning hello, or a punny office joke, but these little moments build on each other over time. After all, it’s hard to trust who you don’t know. Trust-oriented workplaces intentionally create opportunities for people across the organization to mix and mingle. The best way to encourage this mixing is by giving people from different parts of your organization places to hang out like a lounge, a bar, a kitchen, or a game room -- someplace where you’d want to plant your feet for fifteen minutes to an hour, no matter what you’re working on. This hope was exactly what led Steve Jobs to insist that the Pixar campus be designed around a central cafeteria area where everyone from every project could congregate and cross-pollinate. If you’re going to pick a place to invest, these communal spaces are definitely your best bet. Fostering these interactions is crucial for building trust and compassion within an organization.

create feedback
Photo by Patrick Perkins via Unsplash

Promote Feedback
Gathering feedback is the best way to improve your work. But both giving and asking for feedback requires a lot of trust. The person asking for feedback has to trust that the feedback-givers will be helpful with their critique, and the feedback-givers have to trust that their thoughts will be taken seriously. But, the more you do it, the more trust you can build. Responding to someone’s feedback shows that you value that person’s ideas and will show them that investing their time in giving you feedback was worth it. The good news is that the more you ask for feedback, the more trust you will build. It will start getting so easy that everyone will really start to embrace all of those other more informal mechanisms as well - like displaying your work around the office or talking about their project over a beer in your communal space.

Run Retrospectives
Retrospectives are team meetings in which you look back at how things have been going recently and come up with ideas to improve your processes. There’s no better way than to just keep taking a good long, hard look in the mirror (and when you’re getting ready in the morning doesn’t count). But being able to speak honestly about shortcomings requires an incredible amount of trust among all involved. Retrospective meetings can often feel like they’re part of some 12-step program. They’re cathartic. They’re challenging. They emphasize sharing with your peers and ultimately create an environment of psychological safety and trust. And they recognize that the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem.

create slack
Photo by Graeme Nicholl via Unsplash

Create Slack
Slack is incredibly important to the success of innovative organizations. No, we’re not talking about the $4 billion chat app (though we are avid users of it). We’re talking about the amount of free time people have in their workday. If their entire day is filled with meetings, if they’re just “slammed,” then they don’t have any slack. But if all of the stuff they have to get done in a day adds up to less than the eight hours they spend working, they have slack. Without slack, though, you have no time. Overworked team members have so much stuff to produce and work to get done, that they literally can’t take time out of their day to reflect and experiment. Doing so would mean that they miss their deadlines or their quotas. They hardly have a second to take a breath, let alone remake an entire system of work. Organizations like Google and 3M consciously create slack with 20% time, setting the expectation that their team members would some take time out of their week to experiment. Giving your team time on their calendar to pursue ideas they think are interesting (rather than corporate priorities) shows that you trust them to come up with good and worthwhile ideas.

Reduce Hierarchy
The principle of trust, when truly embraced, has the power to produce organizational structures both radical and simple. With trust in place, there is no need to gather power into a nexus of control. Teams operate autonomously, coordination happens organically, and layers of management simply don’t exist. Frederic Laloux refers to these as teal organizations in his groundbreaking book, Reinventing Organizations, which uses colors to describe different types of groups. In teal organizations, salaries are determined by formula, reviews are given by peers, information is shared to all, and decisions are made by the individuals they affect. Some have few managers, while others succeed with no managers at all. This kind of radical organization is scary to a lot of people. But where does this fear come from? Managers want to retain their power because they are scared of what others would do with it. Put another way, they don’t trust the people that work for them. By creating a flat structure, you show that you trust your team to innovate and be productive without red tape and managers.

recruit the best
Photo by Rawpixel via Unsplash

Recruit the Best
Just ask any college coach what the single most important responsibility they have every year is and more than likely they’ll tell you it’s recruiting. It’s the reason why the same teams are good year after year and it’s the reason why professional leagues have drafts that give the worst teams the first pick. What it comes to recruiting people to your team, of course, you’re going to want to look for people with the right skill and propensity to learn. But probably the most important criteria is that the candidate is aligned with your team’s purpose. If they are intrinsically motivated to improve the world in the same way you are, you’re going to have a lot easier time trusting them to make decisions. If we’re going to trust the people in our organizations with the freedom and power to create an innovative environment, then we damn well better pick the right people.

Avoid Deadlines
Most (not all, but most) deadlines are actually created as a means of control. Managers institute deadlines, because they don’t trust their team to work efficiently without them. They are afraid that their employees won’t be motivated enough to work hard without the threat of a deadline looming over them. The deadline essentially transfers the manager’s fear of inefficiency onto the employees in the form of fear of punishment. But trusting organizations tend to not have too many managers, and more importantly, they tend to not have a lot of fear. If your organization is living by the principles of trust, then you should recognize that deadlines undermine this trust and need to be eliminated. If you’ve recruited the right people who truly want to fulfill your organization’s purpose, then they’re already just as motivated as you to get their designs out in the real world and starting making people’s lives better.

Ok, quick recap of the 7 habits:

  1. Create a space for random interactions.
  2. Constantly schedule opportunities for feedback to make it a habit.
  3. Hold retrospectives to come together and figure out ways to improve.
  4. Create slack so that you can experiment and focus on problems outside of your normal “work.”
  5. Set up a flat organization so that every member has the information they need to innovate.
  6. Spend a lot of time and effort recruiting people that love your purpose.
  7. Embrace trust by eliminating as many deadlines as you can.

While these seven practices are a good place to start, every organization is different. Not all will be exactly right for your work or your team. But even starting with just a few of these can go a long way to making your team more trusting and, ultimately, more innovative.

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