D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

The First Dysfunction of a Team - Absence of Trust

Sunday, March 4, 2007 8:26 PM

I blogged previously about an amazing book I read recently called the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. I don't want to necessarily re-hash what the author says, but I want to start a short blog series about experiences I've had in the past and how they play into the ideas the author lays out in the book.

The first thing you need to undestand (if you havn't read the book) is that the 5 dysfunctions are not seperate; they are layers, described in the book as layers of a pyramid. Each one is a building block that the others rely on, and if one area suffers then the other areas suffer as well. There's very little chance that your team will have no issues higher up the pyramid if the lower items are in dissaray.

So that brings us to the first layer: Absence of Trust

When we think of trust, we normally think in terms of reliability:

I trust that if I do x then y will occur.
I trust that if I ask Ray to do something, then he'll get it done on time.
I trust that if I assign a work item to Randy, he'll complete it within our company's expectation of quality.

But in this scenario, we're talking about a different trust...one that maybe is a bit more "touchy feely":

“The confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. “

Building a layer of trust within a team is crucial  to a team achieving results. It's the foundation layer that all the other dysfunctions ride in on. When you don't have that trust level between co-workers, you end up with people that feel they need to put on their Superman costume every day; they need to be invulnerable, but that leads to defensiveness and attitudes of survival more than co-operative thriving.

But how do you build this? How do you create good intentions, focus on team more than self, removal of personal defenses? I believe that this comes down to commitment from two areas:

Corporate Commitment
If the decision makers, leaders, and owners of a team don't buy into this, then it doesn't matter. You can throw in the towel right now. Think about it: even if you trusted your co-workers completely, if you didn't have the trust of your leaders then where does that leave you?

How many of us have worked for a small start-up company where we always questioned the owners motives: do they really want to grow the company, or do they want to get bought by someone, make their money, and not care that we could lose our jobs?

How many of us have worked in an organization where we felt we were working to make our bosses look good instead of pushing ahead the overall good of the company?

But you see, this is the catch: those decision makers, leaders, and owners are part of a team too...and that team needs to buy into the idea of Trust just like all the other teams do. It's a corporate commitment, not an area commitment. Trust needs to be something focussed on every day at every level of an organization. Otherwise, it's like having a house with only a partially-strong foundation.

Personal Commitment
As much as you need buy-in from the higher-ups, it ultimately comes down to what you do. Each member of the team needs to make Trust their personal commitment, and hold each other accountable to that commitment as well. Trust is something that needs to be talked about, that needs to be communicated, that needs to be out in the open and issues with Trust need to be dealt with. If issues aren't dealt with, then you risk creating a multi-tiered culture in your organization.

I worked at a place like this. The perception was that the owners showed favor to a handful of employees. Everyone in the company saw this, but it was never really dealt with or discussed openly. Instead, those in the outter circle formed their own "team"...they bonded together, discussed openly, and created a high level of trust. However, insert anyone from the inner circle into the mix, and defenses were raised. Why? Because there was no guarantee that these inner-circle members had good intentions, or that their focus was for the team as a whole, or that they wouldn't go running back to the ownership with a tattle-tale list.

Of course, this also shows the importance of buying into Trust at the higher levels as well.


It's hard discussing this topic on its own. When you take a step back and see all the dysfunctions, you realize how they all interweave together. But for the purpose of this post, we'll sum it up this way:

If you don't have Trust you're screwed. Your team will never achieve its top potential. Your team will never achieve the type of goals they might be able to if they didn't have to spend so much time defending themselves or worrying that their ideas and thoughts may be rejected. Trust ultimately starts with each one of us...but implementing Trust individually in an atmosphere of untrust can be daunting...maybe even dangerous. Involve the team leaders, involve your co-workers, and ultimately gauge whether the team you're on is worth trying to save. Of course, if you don't think they are then maybe its time to find a new team.

Next Up...
The next dysfunction we'll look at is one that shows clearly why having a solid foundation of trust is so important: Avoidance of Conflict.

Let me know if you have any comments or questions, or if you've read the book and want to weigh in on the topic of Trust.



# re: The First Dysfunction of a Team - Absence of Trust

It is an interesting topic. I was in the situation myself..The team members did not trust each other in the beginning but as the time went by we started defending each other and eventually the environment was helthy..

Does the book talk about how to develop that trust? any examples? 3/15/2008 9:44 AM | Kevin Peterson

# re: The First Dysfunction of a Team - Absence of Trust

Building Trust.

Team members admit their mistakes.
Team members acknowledge their weaknesses to one another.
Team members ask for help without hesitation
Team members ask one another for input regarding their areas of responsibiliy
Team members acknowledge and tap into one another's skills and expertise
Team members willingly apologize to one another
Team members are unguarded and genuine with one another
Team members can comfortably discuss their personal lives with one another. 8/9/2008 9:50 PM | unknown norcal

# re: The First Dysfunction of a Team - Absence of Trust

Nice article, very helpful.

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9/7/2009 8:12 AM | djkec

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