Collaboration Is Hard. Collaboration Without Trust Is Impossible.

In a low-trust culture, collaboration is painful.

Imagine if everyone at work had an icon floating just above their heads, similar to our phones, that indicates the signal strength you’re getting. One bar is bad. Four bars are good.

Leaders are constantly sending trust signals to their teams. They need to ask themselves, “How am I signalling my openness, trustworthiness and willingness to partner in everything I say and do?”

They should also ask: “Am I signalling the idea that collaboration does not mean one person’s ideas always prevail, but that teamwork can lead to greater results? How strong is my capacity to trust and be trusted? Am I sending the right signals to my colleagues?”

Leaders need to own their signals. If not, in a low-trust culture, collaboration can be painful.

Why?

Collaboration is the lifeblood of modern organisational culture. It fuels innovation, drives productivity, enhances communication and fosters engagement among team members. In an extremely fast-paced world, where businesses and opportunities are evolving constantly, the ability to collaborate effectively has become a critical success factor. But there is a secret ingredient that underpins successful collaboration: Trust.

Stephen M.R. Covey (author of The Speed of Trust and Trust & Inspire) describes trust as confidence born of character and competence. In a collaborative setting, trust forms the bedrock on which all successful endeavours are built.

The opposite of trust is suspicion. Now, take trust and suspicion and put them on a spectrum. Ask yourself, “How are other people detecting me on that spectrum right now? What signals am I sending to my people that would cause them to lean in towards trust, or the other way, towards suspicion?”

The importance of this concept is hard to overstate. It becomes more obvious in this example: “I am a leader who is losing confidence in my team’s abilities because of the hybrid work environment. When I have lost confidence in my team, how am I reinforcing that? What are my people experiencing from me?”

This leader cannot physically see the level of trust they have with their teams. Without clear signals, this leader leans into the language of suspicion. “How do I know they are truly working?”

What are the consequences? “I impose more rules. More bureaucratic red tape. More policies designed to keep people firmly in their own lanes. More obstacles to trust-based collaboration and, for that reason, less opportunity for innovation.” This leader is headed in the wrong direction.

Trust follows the law of reciprocity. The more it is withheld from someone, the more they’ll withhold it from others. This is a major problem when it comes to collaboration.

Effective communication is at the heart of driving greater collaboration. When trust is present, team members are more likely to express their ideas openly, provide constructive feedback and engage in meaningful discussions. Conversely, in a low-trust organisational culture, individuals hesitate to speak up, fearing repercussions or judgment.

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The result is a loss of opportunity. A missed chance to make the small changes that, added together, lead to actual innovation. 

This is not merely about innovating the greatest solutions the planet has ever seen. Sometimes it can be as simple as a new process or workflow. Benign things that can change outcomes in a big way.

It is about small improvements over time, built on the strength of shared opinions that can only be solicited from people who feel like they are in a safe, welcoming environment. A space where it is acceptable to express an idea, even one that might seem silly or not fully shaped at the time.

The alternative scenario is also easy to picture. Low-trust organisational cultures tend to become bureaucratic as they implement layers of compliance and control to mitigate risks. In such environments, innovation suffers because individuals are hesitant to take risks and share their creative ideas.

The better alternative is to make them and everyone else who works in a collaborative environment aware of the evolutionary certainty of what happens when a leader or team member has a naturally suspicious mindset, is wired to be cautious and projects that suspicion outwardly all the time. This is the neuroscience of trust, where team members are detecting signals from leaders revealing how they feel and how others should feel about them. A leader should say, “I can’t control how others feel, but I can control my actions.”

In a world where collaboration is the driving force behind success, trust emerges as the linchpin that holds it all together. Stephen M.R. Covey’s work around trust provides us with invaluable insights into the critical role trust plays in collaboration. 

Trust forms the foundation on which effective collaboration is built. It influences communication, fosters innovation, shapes organisational culture and is a leadership imperative. To succeed in today’s dynamic business landscape, a leader should recognise that how they are showing up and creating that confidence for others is paramount. Done successfully, they can unlock the full potential of their teams, drive innovation and achieve remarkable results.

This article was made possible by contributions from FranklinCovey Global Practice Leader for Trust and Executive Consultant Doug Faber.

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