The critical ingredient is always trust

Imagine walking into your leadership team meeting wondering whether the same old politics will play out.

Would the same people work their own agendas, again? Would the same people be silent and watch it happen? Would everyone just be nice and kind and not honest, and let the meeting pass without ever addressing the elephant, the giraffe and the rhino in the room?

Imagine further that the trust issues were so deep-seated that you begin to wonder if this team would ever be able to be high performance. We know silo thinking, conflict avoidance, a lack of confidentiality, and a lack of accountability play havoc with an organization’s efficiency, effectiveness, quality, and bottom line. Now imagine the impact that all of this has on the workforce.

For most business leaders today, they don’t have to imagine this scenario. It is how most businesses are led and managed today, large or small. These behaviors usually reflect leadership cultures based on power, politics, or personality, with the results being sub-optimal at best. The greatest victim is the loss of trust between individuals, teams, departments, and between senior leadership and the workforce. And yet we keep working this way.

Trust is the one principle of relationships we know we must have to be successful in our own lives, in our teams, and our organizations. And yet it is the most elusive for us. It is an amorphous quality of relationships — we can’t touch it, hear it, or see it. But we can feel it. We know when we are trusted and when we trust another. It is hard to attain and easy to lose; and if lost, we may never regain it. Trust is the icon for our personal and interpersonal integrity. Whether we trust others is the outward reflection of whether we trust ourselves. And when the trust is broken, our ability to forgive others is a reflection of our own ability to forgive ourselves.

Distrust in teams, especially leadership teams, can result from our playing by different rules, having different interpretations of events, or have undisclosed expectations of each other or the business. What if we could build and strengthen our levels of trust by agreeing with each other how we will work together — at a level of 100 percent true consensus, no reservations. What if we created a set of team Operating Agreements to govern us — how we make decisions, handle disagreements, be responsible for each other and the business, hold ourselves accountable, keep things confidential, and resolve conflicts. What if?

Reaching 100 percent true consensus on how we will work together is hard work. It means we have to subordinate our personal self-interest to the good of the whole. It’s not about being right…it’s about being in relationship. It’s about becoming a “we.” But the payoff is we achieve high trust and high performance. It’s how we lead our people collaboratively. It’s how we become excellent as leaders, as a workforce, and as a business, and never have to ask “what if?”

Dr. Edward Marshall is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at, or 919.265.9616.