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You can’t build a winning strategy with people you don’t trust. It’s that simple.

Looking for the right teammates is big subject. But, in summary, it’s been said that good teammates have four C’s: Chemistry, Character, Calling and Capacity. Once you find the right people, how do you develop trust?

The good news is, trust can be developed along the way and need not freeze forward progress. In fact, building trust happens as we move forward on our strategies. Passionate leaders will step on one another’s toes. Apologizing when we do so is a huge step forward in building trust. Doing this is not complicated, but it’s incredibly unfamiliar, which is why most people don’t do it. But building trust requires more.

First — The Setting: Emotional Safety

Whether you choose an executive offsite or a weekly meeting, the principles that follow aren’t a one time thing. Remember, this series of blogs is about the ongoing work of a leader.

The 2016 New York Times feature on what google learned about building great teams highlighted that the best leaders create an environment of emotional safety. One of the ways they defined this term was ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ In other words, a safe environment is when it’s safe to talk.

This means no interrupting, no belittling, no shaming etc… As Brene Brown notes in her book, Braving the Wilderness, true belonging only happens when it’s safe to stand alone (p. 32). Creating an environment of emotional safety means creating a place where it’s safe to be an individual with an individual opinion. Great teams are unified, not uniformed. The difference? Unity is about different people who gather and work together for a common purpose. Uniformity is when we expect everyone to walk and talk the same, maybe even wear the same outfit.

Creating emotional safety happens when we learn perspective-taking. This means asking questions and learning. A workplace that asks no questions is a workplace that’s not learning. In our fast-changing world, if you’re not asking questions, you’re doomed for eventual failure.

Second — Stories

Do you know the name of your coworkers spouses or children? How about a hobby? How about something difficult that shaped them to become the person they are today? Trust happens when we know a person’s back story. When I talk about a person’s back story, what I mean specifically is about their failures, lessons learned, and desire for do-overs.

I know plenty of leaders who never admit their faults. It sounds counter-intuitive, but those leaders are not trustable because they deny their humanity. It’s only when we admit the hard stuff, like how we wish we did things differently, what we learned and how we changed—only then is trust developed.

Patrick Lencioni calls this Vulnerability-based trust. This is when we can bring all our parts to the table because it’s in the best interest of the team. Telling our stories in an ongoing way builds trust. I believe in this part of the work because I’ve seen it change many teams. This is why I’m an authorized partner with The Five Behaviors™ process.

Learning one anothers stories in an ongoing way means making space to regularly do this over lunch or in normal meetings. Doing this leads us to the third item that develops trust.

Third — Strengths

Many great tools exist to help teams put language on strengths. Whether it’s Gallup’s Strengthsfinder, DISC, MBTI or other tool, the point is that every team needs a common language to speak so they understand their unique contribution to the team. I’ve used all of these, but my preferred tool is the MBTI.

Knowing one another’s strengths or personality types take trust building to the next level. The reason for this is that when we understand each other, then we know how to better interact with one another.

Setting + Stories + Strengths x Collaboration = Shared Strategy
Having the right setting, knowing our teammates stories and strengths isn’t enough. Those things have to be put to work in an environment of collaboration. In fact, in a collaborative environment, the power of these things are multiplied.

When working with teams, I utilize a simple framework from Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage to help provide a common language for strategy. Unfortunately with wordy examples of Vision, mission, purpose & strategy statements, most people are confused as to what they are talking about. Lencioni teaches that teams need to know why they exist, how they behave and what’s most important, right now.

What’s most important, right now, is called a Thematic Goal. This is the rallying cry for the next season of time (3-12 months). If the goal can be accomplished quicker than in three months, it’s too small. But if it takes longer than twelve, too big.

Once the Thematic goal is collaboratively discovered, defining objectives are put in place and the team defines how they will each uniquely contribute to the goal, then we’re off to the races.

Most leaders want to start with the plan, thinking that’s the strategy. But the real strategy is relational. Developing an environment of trust makes a space for emotional safety. Those spaces are safe to share our stories, our strengths and set us up for a strong team that knows how to talk.


Here’s why all this is so important: once we trust each other, we can talk to each other. And once we can do that, we can finally develop a winning plan. Remember, the strategy is relational. Get that right and your plans will likely get accomplished. Get that wrong and you’ll just spin your wheels.

I hope this has helped you learn how to discover and activate the best in your team. I can’t emphasize enough. This work is ongoing. In my next blog I want to share how to assess how you’re doing with trust and how you’re doing in your plan.  Assessment goes beyond checking in your plan. It means learning to develop your team.

This is the second part in a six part series, Leadership That Grows Up. To read the first blog, click here.

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