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Trust and Safety in High Performing Teams: QCon London Q&A

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People want to feel included in teams, and feel safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo. The first thing for each of us to do is acknowledge that we have a partnership with each of our team members. Like all relationships, care and attention are needed to strengthen the bond and work together effectively.

Jaycee Cheong spoke about the importance of trust, how to deal with it and how to increase it at QCon London 2020.

Trust by default is a mantra/value you can start with within yourself; it can be a very useful tool, as trust by default allows one to be freed from the mental energy of excessive social risk management behaviours.

As teams are becoming more common in organizations, the way trust is earned changes. Peer sponsorship shows that there is support from your team members for your ideas.

Trust is more impactful when embraced by the entire group of teams (or organisation), and should start with the organisation itself.

InfoQ interviewed Jaycee Cheong, a cloud infrastructure engineer at Bryter, about trust and safety in high performing teams.

InfoQ: How do you define trust?

Jaycee Cheong: I define trust by where one believes that they can lean on another person. In the fast-paced technology swift, we constantly are dealing with a high level of uncertainty, whilst there is always an expectation and pressure to deliver quality output. Having the safety net within the team, I believe, is the ingredient to high performing teams.

InfoQ: Why is increased psychological safety important for innovative, high performing teams?

Cheong: Team psychological safety is a situation in which we feel included and in which we feel it is safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo, all within the group setting, without there being a fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way when giving our all.

Google has named team psychological safety to be one of the five key elements of a high performing team from their research on team performance.

A study by Edmonson et al, in 2004, highlighted that trust and respect in peer relationships promote team psychological safety, which is the factor I’d like to raise wider awareness to the technical leadership community.

InfoQ: What can be done to cultivate trust in teams?

Cheong: There are a few team behaviours and concepts, such as giving and seeking feedback, nemawashi and sponsorship.

Giving and seeking feedback:

High performers offer more positive feedback to peers, and data from a study on high performing teams show high-performing teams share nearly six times more positive feedback than average teams.

Team feedback culture breaks down into two behaviours, asking and giving feedback.

In my career, I’ve been guilty of asking for feedback with a blanket question such as, "Do you have any feedback for me?" It is rather vague, and not particularly helpful to the recipient of your request. A concrete step in asking for feedback effectively is to craft specific open-ended questions. Specific questions bring focus to the request, demonstrate that you’re asking for coaching, and assume there is an area you can work on.

When it comes to cultivating team feedback culture, it is always safer to establish a connection with our peers first by offering specific positive feedback. The more positive connections we can share, the more trust grows. Use a heart emoji on the code change, acknowledge others for their good work; we can all start small and be an active member of sustaining the culture, fuelling the growth and the performance of our team.

Nemawashi:

I was introduced to the term "Nemawashi", a Japanese management paradigm that values consensus in the decision-making process some years ago.

For example, in Toyota, where they adopted Nemawashi decades ago, there is a practise where any employee can develop a proposal and circulate it to all levels of management before seeking approval.

I believe Nemawashi still has a place in our teams in modern times, helping us to build trust with our peers. Instead of circulating your proposal upwards, we switch to circulate and discussing our ideas with each member of our team, incorporating their feedback and refining it as a team solution.

When the idea discussion happens in a one-on-one setting, it is a good way to practise active listening, and that promotes open communication, where team members are more inclined to share their values, ways of thinking, and especially any opposing viewpoint.

By doing this groundwork, you are creating a valuable bond in an interpersonal setting, within a professional context. It is signalling to your team members, "I’d love to work with you on this, as I value your feedback, and it is important to me and my work".

Sponsorship:

Sponsorship is traditionally defined as the support from an authority in a more hierarchical setting, such as getting career sponsorship from managers. In modern organisations, as teams are gaining more autonomy, there are more nebulous social dynamics in teams. Much like in all communities, we each possess social capital in them, such as the family unit, professional network, etc.

Social capital is the set of norms that promote trust and co-operation among people in communities. There are a few factors that have a positively influence on gaining your social capital, such as length of your tenure at work, any official or unofficial leadership, and expertise.

Investing your social capital wisely by giving peer sponsorship to those who need it the most is a sure way to gain your team members’ trust. Being each other’s advocate helps generate enthusiasm and gives weight to these new ideas and processes, helping us work effectively, the hallmark of being in a high performing team.

InfoQ: What can organizations do to foster trust?

Cheong: To foster trust amongst teams, organisations must start by leading by example.

Certain behaviours of leaders, such as admitting mistakes or showing thoughtful vulnerability, show the team the ropes in fostering trust amongst their peers.

Another concrete step in fostering trust is to evaluate the current organizational policies. Organisations tend to adopt traditional management practices because they are inherited, rather than adopt policies that reflect the organisational culture. Adopting guidelines that encourage self management, such as flexible and remote working, is an organisational behaviour of trust towards the team members, and in turn promotes organizational physiological safety.

InfoQ: What benefits have you seen?

Cheong: The benefits I’ve seen include increased engagement in team activities, and the team having more confidence in self management and organising. By providing a team psychological safety with an emphasis in building trust, the team is more productive and able to focus on the things that matter to them, which is being in a high performing team.

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