Why trust matters (and how to unlock it)

Dave Winsborough
February 28, 2023

If you really want to unlock team performance, think about the four elements of trust:

  1. Competence
  2. Predictability
  3. Integrity
  4. Benevolence

While integrity and benevolence are nice to have, no team can perform without competence and predictability. Here’s why they matter most.

Surgeon Atul Gawande has written a sheaf of fantastic books about his work. One of his most popular books, called the Checklist Manifesto, describes his experiences as a surgeon, and how important it is to count the implements used in surgery before closing the wound. Beyond medicine, Gawande is illuminating the increasing complexity of jobs and how professionals can begin to deal with them. He describes two types of failure: those due to ignorance (errors we make because we don’t know enough), and ineptitude (because we don’t make proper use of what we know). 

In his view, most modern errors are the result of ineptitude. The routine tasks of medical professionals have grown so complicated that mistakes are now almost inescapable: especially because medicine, like much of work life, requires interaction and skilled coordination between lots of people. In the stress and turmoil of the moment it is hard to plan properly for every eventuality, but easy to miss a step, or forget to ask a key question.

Gawande’s remedy is to use an old-fashioned technology – the checklist, a written guide that walks people through the key steps in any complex procedure. In his operating theatre people call out the steps and mark the lists as the operation progresses.

In a similar way, highly trained military teams have SOPs – standard operating procedures – that they rehearse over, and over, and over again. Knowing that everyone on the team a) shares the same understanding of what we will do and how we will do it, and b) has rehearsed those tasks a thousand times, ensures that competence and predictability are both high.

If you want to unlock high performance and trust on your teams, do these four things:

  1. Invest in predictability. Make sure there is a plan, and make the plan a document that is referred to daily (scrum and agile methodologies do this superbly in software development).
  2. Invest in competence. Make sure people are skilled not just in their technical tasks but in cooperation and team-working.
  3. Rehearse with the whole team. Instead of wasting time on shallow team building exercises, spend the next offsite having the team practice and review their most critical tasks.
  4. Invest in a Deeper Signals Team Sprint. A 45-day program to build cohesion and strengthen self and other awareness.

Don't let ignorance or ineptitude get in the way of your team. Practice the tasks, learn from each other, and build the systems to support your behavior. Trust will then follow.

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