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Measuring Trust and Its Impact on Leadership and Organisational Change

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Dom Price, head of R&D program management at Atlassian, recently wrote about the importance of healthy trust between teams and their leaders. He wrote of the difficulty in confidently measuring levels of trust, and proposed 10 trust indicators for leaders to look out for. Prudy Gourguechon of Invantage Advising, a business psychology consultant and former president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, also recently wrote an article on assessing a leader's capacity to trust and inspire trust in others. Both Price and Gourguechon shared behavioural heuristics which leaders and teams can look out for in the way they collaborate, deal with uncertainty, take personal ownership and experience inclusivity from leadership.

Price wrote that trust enables teams to "make decisions faster (and revisit them less often)." He pointed out that it encourages teams and individuals to "proactively admit to and learn from mistakes instead of scrambling to hide them."

In order for individuals and leadership to measure their levels of trust, Price suggests looking for 10 indicators:

  1. Do people say "no" to you?
  2. Do you use high-trust language?
  3. Are failures and lessons learned publicized across the company?
  4. Do people live the company values?
  5. Is information open and easy to find?
  6. Does everyone know what the business is focusing on and how it's performing?
  7. Do team members share company news on their social channels?
  8. Is it easy to give and invite feedback at any time?
  9. Do you crowdsource strategy and major initiatives?
  10. Is it easy to connect with you?

Price wrote that measuring levels of trust can be challenging in existing low trust situations, stating that "you can't ask point-blank–not if you hope to get reliable, authentic responses." Gourguechon similarly warned against getting false confidence from 360-degree reviews, suggesting instead that a "person's capacity to trust can be evaluated by looking at specific secondary behaviours which occur only if the person is able to trust."

Gourguechon provides 27 positive and negative behaviours to look for in assessing three modes of trust which indicate a leader's trust in those they lead and support:

  • A leader's capacity to "trust others" can be measured through behaviours of respect; entrusting responsibility, an openness to learning from failure within a victimless and blame-free culture.
  • A vulnerability to providing unreasoned and "excessive trust" can be indicated through behaviours where leaders ignore evidence and fail to welcome broad feedback in supporting a trust-based decision.
  • Behaviours indicating a leader's capacity to "inspire trust" in others are very closely related to those of the leader's own ability to trust the teams. Indicators of inspiring trust include the psychological safety of teams to reach out for help, promote the team over self, admit to mistakes, defend fairness and take responsibility for organisational goals. Gourguechon writes "followers are loyal but not blindly so."

Speaking at the QCon London 2018 panel on Leading Great Engineering Cultures this March, Andy Walker, an engineering manager at Google, also shared his experience with loyal yet questioning teams. He considered it a positive indicator when "people feel able to tell you that you are wrong and they aren't just blindly nodding." Walker said that this demonstrates that "you have cultivated an environment where people are willing to have opinions, back them up and feel it's safe to do so."

Price described his 10 indicators as demonstrating whether teams feel the safety and inclusion to challenge incorrect assumptions, request and provide transparent feedback and partner with leadership in "creating vision" and steering the organisation. He wrote of the organisational value of learning from those doing the work and being closest to the product and the customer:

"A new breed of executives understands that being on the front lines working with customers and/or making the product have the perfect vantage point from which to see opportunities. These execs make a habit of soliciting ideas for major initiatives and strategic focus areas."

Both Price and Gourguechon touch on the notion that healthy trust between leadership and teams can result in a greater focus on achieving organisational and big picture outcomes. Zuzi Sochova, Scrum Alliance board member and author of The Great ScrumMaster, recently blogged and asked What is Agile Leadership? She describes modern agile leadership as understanding and coaching rapid organisational change, and providing the agility to deal with a "modern constantly changing, complex world." She wrote:

(Agile Leadership) is an ability to look at the organization from the system perspective, understand system dynamics, be able to get awareness about what's happening, embrace it, understand it and become an integral part of the system and finally be able to act upon and influence it with coaching, and initiate a change."

Sochova wrote that the "new management paradigm is about collaboration and trust, decentralization, continuous adaptation and flexibility, cooperation and teamwork." Without this, she wrote that companies risk becoming "new dinosaurs who are so huge, slow and inflexible that they eventually disappear from the world."

Price reminded the reader that building trust and leading change is a shared responsibility which requires championship and effort. He wrote:

Building a culture of trust takes time, but it starts with you. Even if you're not in a position to influence big things like opening up tools and information, there are lots of things you can do as a leader. Remember: leadership is personal, not positional. Anyone from the CEO down to the intern who started last week can lead by example.

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