Trust is the key to high-performing (remote) teams

24 Mar, 2020
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By Pim Smeets & Evelyn van Kelle

A real team is more than just a collection of individuals . It provides members of that team with a common purpose, identity and a safe-to-fail environment where people can thrive together and creativity flows freely. Building a team is hard work, requires significant (emotional) investment and takes time.

Over the past months, we’ve gone through Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development * together with the team we are currently in and we want to share some of the lessons we have learned from it.

* On a side note; not everyone agrees with Tuckman’s model. The added benefit for us here is that we consciously kept going back and forth between the storming, norming and performing phases. We did not experience it as a linear process with clear starting- and ending points for each phase.  

Before diving into this, let us share some context around our team. This team consists of 3 ‘focus groups’ that are all part of a bigger team. Basically, 3 mini-teams forming 1 bigger team. Because of the nature of our work we spend most of our time in the offices of our clients. This means that we don’t get to see each other every day, so the focus group we’re in invented ‘co-create Friday’: one afternoon per week where we physically come together. Next to this, we use all kinds of tools ranging from Signal to Discord and Miro to keep the conversation alive. Plus, we also facilitate a lot of training, workshops and conference talks together. 

Respect Dunbar’s principle: small groups work

The Roman army organized itself into 9 men “Contuberniums”. Typical Scrum teams consist of 5 to 7 people and start-ups who surpass 150 FTE tend to become more rigid , which is not a coincidence. According to Robin Dunbar, there’s a hard limit to the number of relationships that people can have simultaneously, because we are constrained by the size of our neocortex. Durban looked at the relative neocortex ratio vs. the mean group size in 38 different primates and used this to calculate the mean group size for humans.

Simply put, Dunbar says that on average our core group consists of five people, our close groupcontains 12–15 people, we can have up to 50 acquaintances and the biggest group a single person can have close relationships with is 150 people.

In other words: small groups work and are a key ingredient to high-performing teams. The most effective teams that we have seen consisted of five or fewer people, allowing everyone to really get to know and trust each other. {More on trust later}

Considering Dunbar’s principle it’s not surprising that once a group starts to grow in size, sub-groups can start to naturally emerge. As a leader, the best thing you can probably do is facilitate and empower these emerging groups and give them the right tools to find their own common purpose and identity within the greater good. If purposes and identities start to diverge too much, it’s time to make a decision: split the groups or try to get them back together (again). ‘Fighting’ these emerging groups will result in a loss of energy and productivity and can lead to submerged frustrations. {More on how we found out the hard way later…}

All teams need a shared identity

Who are we and why do we exist (as a team)? What connects us on a personal and professional level? What are the things that we get excited about? When are we proud and satisfied and at what moment are we sad and angry? How do we deal with these emotions?

Most of these questions are difficult for an individual to answer, let alone for a team. But you do need to continuously ask them. 

Luckily, there are a lot of tools to help you with this. We started with a Business Model Canvas and went through several iterations before moving on to Wardley Maps. The BMC helped us during our initial brainstorm phase; what is our value proposition? What makes us different? Who are our customers and who are our key partners? What channels do we use to reach them and how do we generate revenue with what we do? 

Wardley Maps helped us to really dive into our value proposition. It starts with mapping your customer needs and continues on the vertical axis with the services or products that you offer to meet those needs. At the same time you use the horizontal axis to indicate the stage of evolution, ranging from Genesis (noone is doing this, there may not be a market for it yet) to Commodity (everyone is doing this, you will compete on price). Wardley maps create situational awareness and allow for the representation of movement over time. 

It helped us with determining which of the topics that we wanted to focus on are already well established in the market and a potential continuous stream of revenue for us (e.g. Continuous Delivery and Technical Audits). Topics that we feel we should continue to champion (e.g. Domain-Driven Design and EventStorming) and topics that we have to invest in (e.g. Social-technical Architecture and Product Engineering). 

Well, that was the end result. What helped us with establishing our identity is how we got there. Not just the end result, but the process of getting especially. Visualisations worked really well for us. We preferred to use stickies on a big piece of paper. This made things tangible and easy to refactor. It also gives you something to talk about. We adopted the same rule that we use in EventStorming; make all conversations visible. We would spend an hour here and there, discussing what we do, how we see our industry develop, what kind of questions we help our clients with and what makes us excited.

Every time we would look at our big A1-size sheet of paper again we would refactor it a bit; move some stickies around or rewrite them to clarify the language. Until at some point we were happy enough with it. We felt it represented who we are as individuals and what binds us together as a team. It provided us with a shared (visual!) identity. 

Identity is fluid and constantly changing

And just when all was fleshed out our team expanded :-). 

Identity is fluid and constantly changing. So teams need to adapt when new people onboard and allow new members to influence the identity of the team as well. In our case the team doubled in size (from 3 to 6) within a month. So we went back to the drawing board – explained our story to our new teammates and started the process of inspection and adaptation. This period was actually very valuable for our team; we got great feedback on the original proposition and were able to get it to the next level with all the experience, expertise and ideas that our new members contributed. 

Besides frequent visualisations, we also employed some of the tools from Deep Democracy (great article by Kenny can be found in the Agile NXT #3 magazine here) to help us during our storming sessions. 

It takes hard work – rinse & repeat

Creating a shared identity, satisfying processes, effective communication and trust will take hard work. That’s why it’s an iterative process and you have to rinse and repeat. Transparency is crucial. The good news is that this process will also help you create that shared and social identity. 

Conflict will arise. There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as it’s handled effectively and you won’t let it lurk beneath the surface, you will only grow. Trust is important here, as it can mediate conflict. When team-conflict is handled badly, it will decrease team effectiveness. High levels of trust reduce conflict. Want to solve a conflict? Start with trust. 

Trust comes in many different forms

This is the tricky part. We all agree that we need trust and that it’s crucial for team performance and success. Especially after Google confirmed that trust and psychological safety are the key dynamics in high-performing teams. 

Trust is a broad concept. What helps us in making it more tangible, is thinking of trust in different forms and related to a social identity. 

  • There’s team trust, which is trust at a team level and refers to trust that is collectively shared among team members. 
  • There’s interpersonal trust, which refers to trust at an individual level, the dynamic and relationship between pairs or subgroups of employees in the team.
  • And there’s the relation with social identity: the idea that an individual’s social identity is developed based on group membership. Our behaviour can be understood in terms of subjective beliefs about our own group and its relation to other groups. Based on that, we make a distinction between in-groups (us) and out-groups (them). In-groups are groups you identify with and trust, and out-groups are ones that we don’t identify with and trust less.

An important thing to realise – we found out the hard way – is that it’s fine to have subgroups within a team. As long as both the subgroup(s) and the team are considered in-groups by team members. As soon as there are perceived out-groups, trust will be a bigger issue. 

Teams with low trust are often stuck in the ‘storming’ stage of Bruce Tuckman’s group formation model, pushing boundaries and lacking productivity. Staying in the storming stage won’t get you very far, so you will need to find a way to improve trust.

You can find loads of articles and opinions on how to increase trust (and we’ve read most of them, trust us…), but we found these are very often too generally applicable.

Let us share our experience when it comes to creating, enhancing and maintaining trust. 

There’s no one size fits all approach to improve trust

Turns out there were 3 crucial lessons for us when it comes to creating and enhancing trust.

Lesson #1 – It starts with acknowledgement

More specifically, it starts with recognising and signalling signs of low trust. Things like conflict, sabotage, low morale, low productivity, subgroups not collaborating or just don’t seem to get along. Key here is to make these things explicit and discuss them. 

In our case, we found ourselves fighting against the existence and evolution of subgroups. Some of us were ok with it, others felt it wasn’t optimal. Instead of acknowledging that and finding ways to increase trust between subgroups, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ feeling could become more present. 

What helped us is seeking reassurance in the fact that the existence of subgroups doesn’t have to be a problem. As long as all groups are considered in-groups. That all groups have a social identity that everyone can identify with. And that takes some (hard) work.  

Try, acknowledge failure and adjust: just before Christmas we tried to create marketing streams so that we could put more focus into our content creation. We ended up going in circles for two hours and draining everyone’s energy. Why? There was still too much misalignment in the team.

Instead of continuing on this path we chose to take a step back and asked everyone to write down in a few bullet points what, in their opinion, were the key ingredients that comprised our identity. One of us combined all these points into a coherent story that we could all agree with. This unblocked us and allowed us to move forward again as a group. 

Lesson 2 – It’s all about personal connections

The most simple yet most effective way to build trust is to simply get to know each other. On a personal level. Knowing someone’s job title is not enough. Talk to each other; what is your favourite thing to do? What sports do you like? What are your pets called? It’s as simple as that. Understanding what drives, moves and slows someone down means you can better explain certain behaviour and lines of reasoning. Getting over very stubborn cognitive biases such as fundamental attribution error.

Honestly, this is challenging for us. As stated earlier, your core group consists of five people, your close group contains 12–15 people. You will have a stronger personal connection with your core group, or in our case our subgroup. What we are trying to do is extend rituals and habits that work in our subgroup, to the entire group. Setting up collective virtual hangouts for work related conversations, and even the VrijMiBo (the typical Dutch get-together every Friday after work to have a drink and relax) – which is very helpful in getting to know each other better. (Pro tip: sharing pictures of your cat helps tremendously.) 

Lesson #3 – Being on the same page about what you’re doing is key to maintaining trust

Creating and maintaining a shared sense of reality. The shared identity mentioned above is crucial for improving trust. Matching expectations is crucial as well. We tend to assume a lot. Especially if we don’t know each other that well, it’s easy to make wrong assumptions. Make stuff explicit: “how do you expect me to do XYZ?” “When working on a client project, how often do you expect us to align?” Listening is a crucial skill that most of us lack, unfortunately. 

Obviously, this takes time. One thing that truly helps us in improving our listening skills and increasing mutual understanding are regular check-ins. This is a simple monologue in which one person speaks and the rest just listens without interrupting. One person shares what he/she wants to share; how’s your week going? What’s making you happy? What’s worrying you? What are your weekend plans? As simple as it sounds, it’s one of the most powerful things you can add to any meeting. And it’s easy to do remote as well! Just turn on your video and go ahead. 

I am a specialist at Qxperts. We empower companies to deliver reliable & high-quality software. Any questions? We are here to help!


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