How to Create Trust Among Cross-Functional Teams

Sep 6, 2016
13 Min Read
How to Create Trust Among Cross-Functional Teams

How to Create Trust Among Cross-Functional Teams

Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships.—Stephen Covey

In an election year, the issue of trust is front and center as candidates at the local, state and national level argue who is the most trustworthy.

Trust also is becoming a bigger deal in companies, especially as cross-functional teams strive to develop a cohesive strategy to drive innovation. Unfortunately, leaders are discovering that no matter how talented a team may be, innovative ideas may flounder and productivity may drop if team members lack trust in one another.

This lack of trust can be the result of several different factors. For example, science shows that human beings often make snap judgments about people they meet for the first time, but research shows that our own intuition can be wrong when judging those we don’t know well. First impressions are not always the best way to judge a person and can prove to be inaccurate, experts say.

Further, some employees may have had poor experiences working on cross-functional teams in the past, further eroding their willingness to trust such teams again. Additional obstacles to establishing trust include old-fashioned turf battles, poor communications and an unwillingness to change how work gets done.

This all points to the fact that is can be very challenging for leaders to instill trust among cross-functional team members. A recent study found that nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

“The reason why most cross-functional teams fail is because silos tend to perpetuate themselves: for example, engineers don’t work well with designers, and so on,” says Behnam Tabrizi of Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering.

Still, even teams who are familiar with one another can have trust issues, which is why establishing trust is the “No. 1 challenge for leaders,” says  Thomas Barta, a former McKinsey partner and leadership expert.

He explains that managers must serve as “integrators” for teams, helping members better communicate and understand one another.

“Think about how trust is established – it’s always about your credibility and knowledge,” Barta says. “Most leaders are good at putting that on the table, but then they need to look at the second component of trust: intimacy.”

Barta explains that when employees from different functions get together, it can lead to some strong differences of opinion and leaders need to help workers get past those defensive positions and instead learn about one another. “Trust and intimacy come about by building a relationship with someone – finding out who they are and what they’re about,” he says.

Creating a joint vision

At Halogen Software, at least a handful of cross-functional “working groups” are in play at one time, created and disbanded as needed, says Dominique Jones, chief people officer.

“I think one of the lessons we learned is that in the first meeting everyone wants to jump in and fix whatever it is in five minutes. But it’s best if they take an hour or so just to understand one another – to know the background of those in the room,” she says.

Barta says the importance of the manager in helping teams mesh is brought home through research revealed in his book, “The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader: How to Succeed by Building Customer and Company Value,” with Patrick Barwise. Using insights on over 8,600 marketing and non-marketing leaders in more than 170 countries (over 68,000 profiles) Barta says they discovered that a leader’s functional skills and knowledge were “completely outweighed” by leadership skills. In other words, “leadership skills are so much more important than the (technical) skills you bring,” he says.

He says one way for leaders to make a real difference in the level of trust in cross-functional teams is to create a joint vision with the team members of what needs to get done.

That’s what happens at Halogen. Jones says working groups agree on a goal when initially meeting, and establish a “mini-charter” that outlines how they will work together. This also helps the group “feel they can call one another out” if necessary since they’re all involved in creating a working plan, she says.

Such groups benefit from having a leader “to keep them from going in circles,” Jones says, but the company also likes to have one or two dissenters in the group to constantly “challenge different biases” and ensure the group is striving for new solutions and not simply recycling old ideas.

Building trust

Once cross-functional teams come together and begin working on ideas, the challenge really begins for leaders.

“You’ve got to listen to what they (team members) think, even if it’s pushback,” Barta says. “That’s when you walk through what concerns them and those issues will become less and less.”

He stresses that one of the most effective ways to bring team members together is to tell a story – and tell it again and again.

“It should be something that addresses the heart and mind,” he says. “For example, you might tell them how this new product is going to make a big difference for people and by coming together, you can make it available to the people who really need it.”

Listening to an entire team – and then spending even more time listening to individuals – is key if leaders are to help trust develop. Among other suggestions from experts:

  • Keep teams updated. When teams feel they’re out of the loop or decisions are being made by only some team members, then distrust begins to grow. “Smart people go back and communicate again and again,” Barta says. “Let them know that if you can’t do everything they wanted, that you at least listened and tried to incorporate what you could.”
  • Ask for communication preferences. Jones says that team members at Halogen can look up how individuals scored on Myers Briggs tests, which lets them know how each person best communicates. If such information isn’t available, team members can share the best way to contact them or to solicit feedback.
  • Avoid too many cooks. Just as too many cooks spoil the broth, too many members on a cross-functional team can lead to overkill. Jones says Halogen’s working groups have about eight to 12 members. “How many perspectives do you really need?” she says. One of the few times the group was larger was when it came to a big initiative: establishing the culture of the company. In that case, about 20 people participated.
  • Don’t ignore troublemakers. Sit down and listen to them, and sometimes the trouble will go away,” Barta says. “But if it’s clear you’re not going to convince them of anything, then go to where the supporters are and try to get them moving forward. Find that energy. Then, others will follow and begin to fill the dance floor – people will just start to join in.”
  • Don’t be afraid to pull rank. If a team isn’t moving forward and a critical decision needs to be made, then leaders may need to “rent a bulldozer” and execute the decision, Barta says. Stay calm, look for a consensus and remind the team that “this is what we decided,” he says. Along those same lines, Tabrizi recommends that leaders “winnow constantly” and cut those projects or priorities that aren’t working or that don’t align with business goals. “Rapidly changing market conditions and customer demands force all companies to recalibrate their high-level corporate strategy,” Tabrizi says.
  • Make it a priority. Leaders may believe that once they have a team on track, then they can pull back and return to their daily “to do” list. “What you really get paid for is to make things happen. Your effectiveness comes from moving issues forward,” he says. “That should be the core of your work – not just an ‘add-on’ or a ‘problem’ to solve.”

The bottom line

A Human Capital Institute study finds that employees are more likely to trust someone based on the consistency, predictability and quality of the person’s work and actions, rather than trusting the person simply because he or she holds a certain role in the organization, the study finds.

“This underscores the fact that at its core, trust must be earned through individual exchanges and behaviors—it does not come with a job title or seniority in an organization,” the report says.

The study also finds that greater trust also leads to better bottom-line results – and it’s critical that leaders make it a priority.

“Trust is the tone at the top. Its presence and practice—or lack thereof— stems from the CEO on down,” says Jean Hamakawa from Bank of Hawaii in the report. “Establishing that tone and maintaining it is admittedly very difficult and puts those individuals under a lot of pressure, but only they can do it. Creating trust has become part of the job description for senior leaders today, one of the most important things they do.”

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