Trust and collaboration: a virtuous circle

Nov 16 2009 by Andy Atkins Print This Article

The great management guru Peter Drucker said trust is an essential requirement of effective leaders. Without trust, according to Drucker, leaders have no followers. And to build trust, Drucker challenged leaders to go beyond the singular "I" and to lead from a more empowering "we".

Effective leaders, Drucker wrote, know their job is to make the team a success: "They accept responsibility and don't sidestep it, but "we" gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done."

Building Trust in Business

Recent research from Interaction Associates which focused on building trust in today's economy sheds important light on the business impact when leaders engender trust, foster collaborative teamwork, and focus on shared responsibility.

The research, Building Trust in Business, surveyed more than 200 leaders across 150 companies averaging 11,000 employees and with average revenue of $14 billion. Building Trust focused on the relationship between trust, leadership, and collaboration ó and a key finding is that high trust companies viewed trust as driven more by aligned commitment and shared responsibility than by an assessment of individual capabilities.

Said another way: Trust is based more strongly on in a belief that we are working and taking shared responsibility for the same goals, than on my assessment of your skills. Paging Peter Drucker!

About Shared Responsibility

Shared responsibility lies at the heart of any effective collaboration. When teams work together well, their mutually held responsibility provides the basis for the connection. Leaders who want to create shared responsibility need to focus attention in three areas: strategic thinking, facilitative behaviors, and collaborative attitudes.

Strategic thinking

Strategy is about recognizing and making choices. In the service of collaboration and shared responsibility, strategic thinking involves choosing who to involve, how they will be involved, and how the group will work together.

Involving people in decisions that affect them is a concrete demonstration of respect. Establishing direction collaboratively through explicit and solid agreements ensures the group is aligned and able to work together. Recognition of this alignment reinforces mutual trust in the group.

Facilitative behaviors

Most people dread going to meetings. They bemoan having to stop doing their work and go to a meeting. What if that could be turned on its head? Imagine someone saying they had to go to a meeting so they could do their work. What would be required to make that change?

Although it's too rarely the case, we've all experienced meetings that were productive. People were clear why they were attending. The discussion effectively engaged the group and progressed logically to a conclusion. Decision-making responsibility was clear and the criteria and outcome were transparent. People left the meeting feeling energized and looking forward to the opportunity to work together again.

What happened? The meeting leader didn't pull a rabbit out of a hat. Productive collaboration rests on a set of readily acquirable skills. Because the process elements of the meeting were managed effectively, the group was able to make significant advances on the content of the meeting.

Collaborative attitude

Collaborative attitude starts with a commitment to involving others. This commitment can have various motivations. Involvement can bring together diverse points of view and lead to a better outcome. With involvement can come a sense of shared ownership and energy for implementation. Involving others also provides an opportunity to influence their views and build a coalition. Ideally, a collaborative attitude is also motivated by a desire to benefit from other points of view and to be influenced, as well.

Creating a Virtuous Circle

Which comes first, collaboration or trust? The answer may be "yes!" Collaboration is enhanced by trust, and the experience of collaboration can help reinforce trust. Trust is strongly based on alignment around intentions and strategic thinking provides the opportunity to make that intention clear to all stakeholders.

Facilitative behaviors make the mechanics of collaboration evident and help people trust both the process and each other. A collaborative attitude requires trust in the intentions of stakeholders and opens the door for them to trust by influencing the outcomes. Finally, the shared responsibility for success that lies at the heart of collaboration is itself a great working definition of "trust."

About The Author

Andy Atkins
Andy Atkins

Andy Atkins is Director of Strategic Collaboration Consulting at Interaction Associates in Cambridge, Massachusetts.