Building Trust with Your Team

Written by: Erik Francis

As a leader of a development team, I often have to assess the health of my team. I have run and participated in what I consider to be some high-performing teams. I have also experienced the opposite, along with the fear and uncertainty that in-team dysfunction induces. In my experience, one of the common attributes of high-performing teams is trust—more specifically, a trusted leader.

An Environment of Trust

Have you ever dreaded giving your status in morning standup because you're still working on that item you said you would wrap up yesterday? Ever felt squeamish about asking your team some basic questions to help get you past an impediment? Are your pull requests and change sets taking forever because you just can't take the criticism of another peer review that picks apart every line of code? Ever experienced all of these on one team? Working from a place of fear in any context is limiting. It is the responsibility of the leader to recognize when the team is operating in an environment without trust and start making changes to fix it. When our team members trust each other, there are a number of benefits:

  • Fear is greatly diminished. In a trusting environment, team members can be honest about where they stand. They don't fear criticism or repercussions because an item is taking longer than the initial estimate.

  • Creativity increases. Typically, developers are very creative and efficient problem solvers. When you put a few developers who trust each other in a room together, ideas can flow freely without fear of being the one who threw out the silly idea.

  • Innovation increases. Often, there are multiple ways to solve a problem. When developers are not afraid to take some calculated risks, the team has a better chance of coming up with brand new and innovative ways to implement features.

  • Engagement increases. When there is an environment of trust, the job is no longer just about completing the tasks they were assigned; developers now have a vested interest in the success of the project.

These benefits are slightly subjective, but a keen leader will be able to assess the team for these metrics and determine if the trust level is impacting any of them. And these are just a handful of the benefits of developing an environment of trust. Consider your team. How do they fare? Do you think the trust level could be improved? It's easy to get into a rut and just check the boxes, meeting to meeting, work item to work item. So if you want the trust level to increase on your team, what do you do?

Building Trust

Here is your five-step plan for building trust. If you follow these steps word for word, you will see the benefits in as little as ten days! Did I set your BS detector off? Truth is, trust takes time, and you'll have to be patient and steady in your approach. I mentioned before that the benefits of "trust" are subjective, but so is the feeling itself. There are threats to trust, but in my experience, the little things you do to build trust really minimize the impacts of the trust detractors. Lets talk through some common ways to build trust within your team.

Build Relationships

What do you know about your team members? I'm sure you know how well they perform in each part of the stack and their familiarity with whatever languages and frameworks you're working in, but do you know how many kids they have? Their spouses' names? Having this foundational knowledge, which can only be attained through developing relationships, opens the door for real honest and communication. This starts a trust relationship between you and your employees that can be very beneficial to you as a leader. Don't you want the people on your team to be comfortable talking to you about how they feel the team is doing or about mounting tension between another set of team members? For this to happen, you need relationships built on trust. The benefits of holding one-on-one meetings with your team members are huge. Take some time and listen to this guidance offered by the renowned guys at Manager Tools about the benefits of a one-on-one. Avoid the temptation to cancel these meetings in favor of "more important" business, and don't be afraid to take notes! In addition, take some time once in a while and lighten up the daily standup. You can do this with some basic small talk or even some light-hearted discussion about what's happening in the world. It doesn't need to be "all business, all the time!"

Be Authentic

One consistent and endearing quality I've found with the great leaders in my life is how they lead with authenticity. When you lead with authenticity, you communicate to your team that you value being genuine and that it's OK for them to be genuine as well. Your authenticity will encourage truth-telling on your team. There is nothing more frustrating as a leader than trying to fix a problem when your team members are only giving you partial insight. If the leader is willing to share that she is struggling with a concept, that paves a path for others to share the same. If the leader can freely admit that he underestimated an assignment, the team members won't hesitate to admit the same. Sharing your struggles and successes models the kind of behavior you want from your team. Remember too, this doesn't have to only apply to work situations. There is life happening outside of work. When you come in on Monday, go ahead and tell the team, "What a weekend! My son's team won a high profile soccer tournament." When you share your experiences, you give your team members permission to not only share stories from their lives, but also to live their lives and not spend every available moment working.

Invest in Your Team

Your team is working hard each day to deliver features on time, but you have to remind yourself that you don't have a team of robots that just crank out code. Your team members are human beings who have expectations for their jobs beyond day-to-day tasks, such as improving their skills and climbing up the ladder into higher positions. As their leader, you should take responsibility for getting them where they want to go. What can you do to invest in their careers? Chances are at some point in the past, some leader or manager did the same for you. Here are some ways you can invest in your team members:

  • Create opportunities to showcase their skills. Sprint demos are great for this. Set up a demo process and encourage a team member to take the lead presenting for a sprint.

  • Send team members to conferences. Let them learn about things they are interested in.

  • Delegate some of your tasks to them.

  • Encourage them to join and present for local development communities. Let them showcase their work.

  • Stay competitive in your own leadership space, keep up with industry trends.

You have the benefit of knowing how well these folks perform, so how can you get them in front of YOUR boss? Think of ways to let them shine. Your team will they're working in a place where opportunities are possible, not where a power-hungry leader is just fighting to hold his or her position.

Encouragement and Feedback

Feedback is such a great tool for communicating with your team about their performance. Again, the Manager Tools podcast has great guidance on the feedback model and delivering feedback; it's a must-listen for any leader! The type of feedback they discuss focuses mostly on one-on-one contexts, making it a good tool for relationship building. But you should also give public encouragement to team members when they perform tasks well. As the team leader, you need to be looking for ways to praise! You should obviously praise good work and deliverables, but don't forget the intangibles:

"Hey Christine, thanks so much for helping Joe with getting his new environment set up."

"Nasir, thanks for stepping in and running our standup today while I was out of the office."

"Steve, thanks for explaining that concept to the team in simple terms. That really helps them understand and puts us all on equal footing."

Think about the type of environment you want to foster with your team and encourage the team when they contribute positively to that environment.

Protect Your Tribe

As a leader, you are responsible for your team members. There are many threats to a trust environment, and you have to diligently thwart those attacks. If at all possible, let your team know you're protecting them. This communicates a powerful message to your team so they know you've got their backs. Consider how your reaction to these scenarios could help build or diminish trust within your team:

  • Abrasive team members

  • Missed deadlines

  • Underestimated assignments

  • Calculated risks that fail

  • Negative comments about your team from peers and superiors

These types of events will occur, and your reactions to them send valuable signals to your team about your trustworthiness as a leader. When your team members feel protected, they will also protect you. That's what makes a trust relationship!

Do This Well And...

If you do these things well, you will create a positive experience not only for your team but for you as a leader. The next challenge you will have is managing the creativity and innovation that pours out of your folks! I can recall a time when I was not a leader on my team and I would read articles like this. I would think, "Man if only my boss would do this." When that didn't happen, I started implementing some of these principles myself, to the degree that I was able. Doing so had an impact on my team and helped to distinguish me from some of my peers. I encourage you, leader or not, to consider ways you can help make trust a central tenant of your team.

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