I love to play and coach basketball. Back in the 2000’s, I remember wrapping up the last game in our city’s adult recreational basketball league. We had lost, again. We had lost every game that season. What I remember most is that despite having skills, something was just off. We did not feel like a team when we stepped onto the court. When we played, it was frustrating, unpredictable, and just yucky.
The bottom line was that we did not have a foundation of trust and so nothing else mattered. It didn’t matter what skill or experience we had. For us to be successful, we had to work as a team. There was no other way to be successful. Since we didn’t trust each other, we could not work as team. Put another way, we could not “unlock” those skills, as Patrick Lencioni describes it.
Equally true is that, as the “player-coach” of the team, I didn’t know how to build trust in the team. I felt unconfident and stuck. That was not a fun feeling as a leader. I have realized that many leaders feel the same way: they are not sure quite sure how to build trust in their team. How could we know? It’s not like we take a bunch of classes or training in college on building trust on your team.
Fast forward almost 20 years and I have learned a thing or two about building trust. I’ve had to do it myself, I’ve learned how to do it from industry titans like Patrick Lencioni, and I have had the privilege of supporting leaders as they build trust with their teams.
Which brings us to the point of this article. A key method for building trust is to spend time together and get to know each other. But there needs to be intentionality and nuance, otherwise we just end up wasting time in a Zoom social meeting. How do we actually do this in a way that builds trust and has a positive effect on the team.
What is Trust?
First, let’s define trust. Patrick Lencioni says that “trust is all about vulnerability.” Brené Brown says that “trust is a product of vulnerability.” Vulnerability-based trust is what we are talking about, not trust that people are competent in their job. Are people on your team willing to be vulnerable? Are they willing to admit mistakes, say they are sorry, offer ideas, and admit they need help or don’t have the answer? Are you willing to be vulnerable as a leader? Where is the energy on your team? Is the energy in finding solutions and engaging in forward change? Or is the energy in protecting ourselves and processing how other people will react or respond? It needs to be the former.
How to Leverage Graduated Sharing
There is no substitute for spending time with each other on the team and for taking the time to get to know each other. We trust people that we know. However, there is some nuance and intentionality needed to do this well. It’s not just scheduling a Zoom session to have fun and interact socially. We want to be intentional about getting to a deeper level of vulnerability. The key is to think about this in terms of graduated sharing or levels of vulnerability.
Level 1: Low Vulnerability – Share Something
If a team is new, not familiar with each other, or doesn’t have a level of comfort with each other, it may be appropriate to start with level 1. In level 1, ask team members to share easy things. We don’t care so much about being vulnerable, just that everyone shares something, and we begin to learn about each other. Here are some ideas:
- What is your comfort food?
- What is a hobby that you really enjoy?
- What is your favorite sports (or other) team?
- What is one way you spent your weekend?
- What is a favorite place you have visited?
- Share your favorite music.
You can also ask simple follow-up questions:
- Why is that your favorite sports team?
- What is it about that hobby that you really enjoy?
- How did you get started with that hobby?
These are questions you could use at a team retreat or even at the beginning of a weekly meeting (even better, as I recommend keeping weekly tactical meetings tactical, use it at a meeting designated to get to know each other). Of course, we don’t want to stop at level 1, we want to gain comfort and familiarity so we can go to another level of vulnerability.
Level 2: Medium Vulnerability – Let’s Get Vulnerable
If the team is not brand new, already has a level of comfort with each other, needs to get healthy, or even has a level of distrust, it’s appropriate and necessary to go a bit deeper.
This level is best done through intentional activities meant to start building vulnerability-based trust. These activities are easy – we’re not talking group therapy here – but they do require a certain level of vulnerability. They also take some focused time – though they are still relatively quick (typically 30-45 minutes). I almost always use one of these when working with a leadership team. Here are three from my library that you can use.
Activity #1: Personal Histories Exercise
This is an exercise that I learned from Patrick Lencioni. I use it a lot and I’ve seen it change the dynamic of the conversation within a team. It’s easy, quick – it takes 25-30 minutes – and impactful.
Here is a link to the specific instructions to follow.
Pro tip: as the leader, go first. The rest of the team will often model your level of vulnerability. In fact, many times when I am facilitating this exercise for the team, I will go first to model it, then ask the leader to go next, and then the rest of the team. Everyone does not need to share something deep. The goal is for everyone to share something.
Activity #2: Tribes Exercise
Perhaps you’ve played a game like this at a party. One team member asks, “has anyone ever…”, and then shares something that they have done in their life. Any team member that has also done that in their life can literally step over a line (or raise their hand if virtual). For example, “has anyone ever been a first-born child?” or “has anyone ever taken a trip that changed their life.” You can put some parameters or guidelines before you start (i.e. nothing unethical). This exercise can open up some really good conversations. You can take this activity to another level by applying it to careers, “have you ever… in your career.”
Activity #3: Humble, Hungry, Smart
This is another activity from Patrick Lencioni, which I use all the time. It is an easy way to start the conversation around how to we each show up as a member of the team. Some teams I have worked with use the language around this model and exercise all the time. Here are the steps:
- Watch this video from Patrick Lencioni (or ask me to present it to your team. 😊 )
- Download this exercise to conduct with your team (modify as needed)
- Alternatively, download this self-assessment if you have a little more time and use it in the exercise.
Level 3: More Vulnerability – Keep It Going
It is natural to take some time to build vulnerability-based trust and then stop because we’re not sure what’s next. Instead, regularly use questions that build off what people shared in level 2. Here are a few examples to get you going:
- What is something you were taught as a child? How has that shaped the leader / teammate you are today?
- What might be the impact of birth order on shaping our personalities?
- How does your childhood experience show up in the leader / teammate we are today?
- What was something positive from your childhood?
- How did this affect you later in life?
By the way, just because I am delineating these in levels doesn’t mean that they are linear. At this level, you could go back to level 1 and mix in some high-level questions to continue to get to know each other. Get to the point where you can mix in all of the levels so team members know each other enough to be vulnerable with each other, in order to be a team that is cohesive, fun, and highly productive.
Level 4: In the Moment Vulnerability – real impact
Don’t build vulnerability-based trust just for the fun of it or because I told you to do it. Do it because it makes a real difference in the team. When you are in a meeting, listening to or participating in the conversation about an issue or a decision, that is an opportunity to build vulnerability-based trust by doing the following:
- Acknowledging when someone exhibits vulnerability: “Sarah, thank you for acknowledging that you don’t know the answer – that is exactly the kind of vulnerability we need for us to be a team that works together, is willing to let go of our egos, and spends its energy on finding the best solution.”
- Exhibit vulnerability yourself: “I’m sorry everyone – I was wrong about that,” or “I made a mistake,” or “I need help with this.”
- Ask for sharing during the meeting: “remember, it’s really important for all of us to share what we’re thinking about this issue and not old back. Let’s take 5 minutes to go around the room. I want to hear everyone’s thoughts on this issue before we decide.”
- Ask a question such as “what is everyone thinking that isn’t being said?”
By leveraging graduated sharing, you have a leadership library of techniques to get people to open up and develop vulnerability over time, regardless of your team’s starting point.
Take an Assessment
As always, reach out to assess the actual behaviors on your team around trust and the four other behaviors of a healthy team. This is the ultimate method of seeing, in black and white, exactly what behaviors your team needs to work on in order to build trust and health on the team.