Absence of trust — The foundational dysfunction in any team

Ravi Kumar.
5 min readJul 15, 2017

Last few weeks have been testing times for me in professional front where I had to manage and address a searing conflict. Though I was satisfied with the way I took charge and negotiated the issue at the end, I am guilty of not acting upon it at the very outset and allowing the issue to grow. Though I cant reveal the details, here’s the gist of it. Since the past many weeks, I was facing communication breakdown with a key member of my team. I did not realize what led to it but the tension was clearly evident and as a result it impacted information flow and open communication. Things that were otherwise previously smooth became a matter of turf wars. The emails were cold in tone and we avoided eye contacts in meetings. And if we had to speak, there was an air of artificial harmony. As all communication broke, my suspicion about his intentions towards me snowballed and resentment grew. I complained about this to my boss. While all this was happening, I knew I had the answers to resolve this in a better way instead of escalating it to my boss. I knew all I had to do was to get into a room where both my colleague and I faced each other and addressed the issues directly. But I didn’t. (Read Mature Directness)

In hindsight, I realize I didn’t do it because it was a difficult thing to do. I avoided confrontation and having to engage in a difficult conversation. I finally mustered initiative and asked him to have lunch together. We talked over at lunch and lo and behold our resentments began melting away like wax over a lit candle. My colleague narrated a couple of instances where he felt my actions had irked him and made him look bad. I had no clue of this and I apologized sincerely when I realized my faux pas. And then my colleague apologized to me and the lunch ended with a string of mutual apologies and with a promise to work better together in the future.

As a product manager, I realize I am in a people role. My success depends upon my ability to get along with people, to be able to influence them and collaborate to get things done. I can’t afford to shy away from addressing communication issues no matter how difficult they are. One of the feedback I have received consistently from my past bosses was on becoming more organisational savvy. As a result, I have always looked to work on that area professionally. And the above incident goes to show that there is still work to be done for me. One additional layer of challenge that gets introduced is because of difference in cultural backgrounds. Working in a German based company makes it even more challenging for me to present the right attitude and tonality of language in my daily communication. But the challenge also presents opportunity for professional and personal growth. (Read: Communicating in Cross-cultural Product Organization).

Absence of trust is the biggest dysfunction in a team

One of the books that has left an indelible mark in me is Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

The book begins with a business fable and then explains the five dysfunctions of a team with this pyramind:

As you can see the foundational dysfunction in a team is the absence of trust. And I want to spend some time on this topic in this post.

In the above example of my conflict at work with a colleague, it was the growing lack of trust that was impacting our professional relationship. Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible. Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because in the course of career development and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instincts off for the good of the team, but that is exactly what is required.

The costs of failing to do this are great. Teams that lack trust waste inordinate amounts of time and energy managing their behaviours and interactions within the group. They tend to dread team meetings, and are reluctant to take risks in asking for or offering assistance to others. As a result, morale on distrusting teams is usually quite low, and unwanted turnover is high.

Patrick in his book provides many suggestions for improving dysfunctions of trust,one of which is Personal Histories Exercise. This low- risk exercise requires nothing more than going around the table during a meeting and having team members answer a short list of questions about themselves. Questions need not be overly sensitive in nature and might include the fol- lowing: number of siblings, hometown, unique challenges of childhood, favorite hobbies, first job, and worst job. Simply by describing these relatively innocuous attributes or experiences, team members begin to relate to one another on a more personal basis, and see one another as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds. This encourages greater empathy and understanding, and dis- courages unfair and inaccurate behavioral attributions. It is amazing how little some team members know about one another, and how just a small amount of information be- gins to break down barriers.

Please do let me know what do you do to create a high-trust environment in your teams.