True Collaboration Requires a Special Kind of Trust
Advancing employees from mere teamwork to collaboration requires a certain amount of bonding. Don't misunderstand. Your business doesn't have to take people back to summer camp. It's not required that everyone like everyone else. But there does need to be professional respect, which requires a high degree of trust among team members.
Collaborative trust is deeper than being able to rely on team members to get their work done with an acceptable level of proficiency. That's still just teamwork - a cog-in-the-machine model that relies on every person chugging along as expected.
At the core of collaborative trust is being able to trust people's motives and intentions. You can trust that individual team members are fully invested in achieving the team's mission, even above their personal goals. With this sort of trust, team members don't demand strict oversight over each other. Instead everyone has room to breathe, as well as get a bit creative without needing to have a group meeting about it first. And when this trust exists, it’s possible to create a culture of feedback that constantly improves team performance.
How to Get There
This all sounds great. But every team has politics, inter-personal conflict (even if mild), and a thousand other reasons why team members may not share this sort of empowering trust.
Well, the fundamentals of building collaborative trust in a team come down to similar themes we see when it comes to creating a culture of collaboration: it takes time, and it starts with leaders modeling the behavior they want to see throughout their organization.
The first place to start is being honest, open, and reliable in your own communications to the team and to individual team members. There may well be times when you can't share every bit of information with your team. Perhaps you're talking with potential investors or other folks involving legal and financial matters that require discretion and absolute confidentiality. To get through these times, you need to have built up a strong reserve of trust credibility with your team.
That means sharing information as soon as you can, only sharing accurate information, and sharing it through the right channels.
This is especially true when you have to deliver a difficult message. Modeling how to have an open and honest conversation with a team member, or among team members together, is a critical milestone is building a team that works with collaborative trust.
Open and honest conversations are also special challenges because (most of us anyway) have been taught to always be polite or to always say something positive. Both of which can hinder expressing needed and valuable timely feedback. It’s precisely because we know the power of our words that we often restrain ourselves.
Restraint can be a good thing. The absence of restraint is how online troll culture proliferates, right? The supposed anonymity of the Internet unfortunately seems to have unleashed many folks' baser natures.
But this instinct to be polite can leave important things unsaid, at least in front of the people who most need to hear it. Politeness notwithstanding, there's still plenty of gossip and jabs taken behind people's backs. If you want a richly collaborative team, friendly, polite conversations have to make space to include constructive, honest conversations.
Modeling the right way to hold a difficult conversation, whether it's criticism of something a team member did or bad business or organizational news is only the first step. You also need to positively reinforce those employees who follow your cues and are actively building trust by modeling your behaviors.
Accountability is Key
We also need to hold team members accountable when they fail. Having a team member who criticizes another team member, in a way that undermines or embarrasses them, can poison the entire group dynamic.
The good news is that this situation certainly gives you the chance to have one of those difficult, open, honest conversations with such an employee. And in the spirit of honesty, don't be coy. Be explicit when you provide feedback and note what changes need to be made in order to achieve respectful discourse.
Team members who contribute a spirit of collaborative trust should be rewarded with greater responsibility and recognition. Those who can't give trust or act trustworthy need stronger oversight and more limited responsibilities until they demonstrate increased trust. Team members will focus on earning trust through communication when their leaders expect it from them.
Always Keep the End in Sight
As collaborative trust among team members grows, the entire team will see how they collaborate more productively and creatively. They'll value being on your team because it's a more positive work experience.
That's the pivot point where the collaborative culture takes hold and the need for external, top-down accountability starts to take a back seat. There should you need it, yet rarely ever used.