How a culture of trust leads to more agile organizations (and how product leaders can help achieve it)

The element of trust is frequently quoted as the cultural characteristic that can make or break organizations. More specifically, companies that boast a culture based on trust are known to make better products and retain their employees longer. On the opposite side of the spectrum the lack of trust in the workplace is often connected with toxic cultures.

It isn’t just a theoretical idea. Research has shown that trust is connected with organizational effectiveness and performance. And it makes sense. If people in an organization trust each other and their leaders, they will be more creative in solving their differences, they will communicate better and they will be open to work together on promoting each other’s goals. They will be more engaged and less willing to look for work elsewhere.

Foundations of trust

The foundations of trust are actually simple things: consistency, honesty and clear communication. All elements are equally important but consistency gets a special mention, as trust is built or destroyed with every interaction. As a matter of fact, it takes many positive interactions to gradually build trust and usually only one negative to destroy it.

It goes deeper than that. Take for example the extensive study that Google conducted over the span of two years, where they tried to find out what are the key traits of effective teams. Using data from interviews with over 180 teams they found out that the top traits of successful teams were psychological safety and dependability. The reasoning behind the result was that the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to partner to deliver results, take on new initiatives, talk about failures and how to prevent them.

How is the element of trust connected to this? Trust is the backbone for both of these two elements. For one, trust between team members and their leaders contributes to psychological safety (and vice versa). Second, being known as dependable is all about others trusting you that you will do as you say.

Trust as an agility enabler

All this sounds nice but one could argue that they are mostly theoretical. So, what are the positive effects of trust in practical terms?

It boils down to this: Trust is a huge enabler of agility in organizations.

The ability to move closer to a just-in-time model where decisions are made quickly with minimal bureaucracy depends directly on whether the different groups in an organization trust each other to deliver and have their back when the need arises.

This concept is often expressed as the trust-communication trade off. It goes like this: The more that team members trust each other the less communication is required to achieve something collectively. Ben Horowitz, in his book “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, writes: “If I trust you completely, then I require no explanation or communication of your actions whatsoever, because I know that whatever you are doing is in my best interests.”

In order to better demonstrate the relation of trust and organizational agility, let us briefly consider how the lack of trust between people and teams affects organizations.

A characteristic of environments where there is no trust between people is that teams and individuals routinely spend extra effort to make sure that they have the necessary elements in place to protect themselves in the event of a screw up. In this us-versus-them way of thinking, people often do not see other departments or groups as being in the same team but rather as opponents with conflicting goals. This is a killer of great products and only it serves to reinforce the silo mentality that is often ingrained in the culture of larger organizations.

If you are working in a corporate environment for some time, you will probably be aware of the practical manifestation of the silo mentality: handovers. Handovers are arguably one of the most important impediments of agility in organizations. We all know how it works. There are the handover policies, the relevant handover documents when a task is completed and a sign-off process to signal that this part of the work is done. We did our work, so now you do yours. Not our problem anymore.

Apart from the time spent not actually building the product or doing discovery activities, the real issue with handovers is the lack of shared responsibility behind the development of products. Simply put, handovers are agility killers.

How product leaders can contribute in building a culture of trust

Like many other culture related elements, it is the leadership of an organization that sets the tone on how people should interact with each other. A culture of trust starts from the top and specifically with leaders acting as role models in their everyday interactions.

Here is how product leaders and their teams can contribute in building an organizational culture based on trust.

Bridging the gaps

The product management function sits in the intersection of different departments in an organization – operations, sales, marketing and so on. As such, product leaders play a critical role in bridging the gaps between the silos and crafting a culture of trust.

Every department in an organization has different needs and goals. Sales want responsiveness in their requests. Marketing wants better tools to track product performance in the market. Operations want a crystal ball that can diagnose any product related problem in production.

Product leaders should advocate not turning people down by default when they request something. Use empathy and listen to their point of view. What does each department want? Why? How can we help them reach their quarterly or annual targets while making sure that we are building our products with the long term vision in mind?

Data trumps opinions

It should go without saying but leaders should mandate the use data for decision making. Moving discussions from opinions to data brings trust-building objectivity into the process.

Asking others to trust you because of what you think will usually be met with resistance, especially if you are not seen as an expert in the specific field. And in the event that they do and you are wrong, then good luck to have them trust you again. Instead, providing data that backs your opinion opens the door to fruitful cooperation that over time builds trust among teams.

As product people we should also be ready to reconsider our point of view if the data does not support it. Strong opinions, weakly held. Making a point to always validate one’s own assumptions with data minimizes the chances of falling victim to confirmation bias.

Owning failures

Product leaders should own their teams’ failures and ensure that the organization learns from them. This is an element that is often missed and has the dynamic to break the trust of people in the organization, not because of the failures themselves but because of how they were handled.

Crisis management experts advocate: “Don’t waste a good crisis”. Times of great stress are actually opportunities. They are opportunities because if handled correctly, they have the capacity to set an example, to show that the organization can learn from its mistakes and to set a precedent of being able to trust one another to have their back.

Or, if handled incorrectly by playing the blame game and taking CYA (cover-your-ass) positions they can destroy trust in the organization and its leaders.

Instead of playing defense after a crisis product leaders should be able to come forward and say:

We screwed up. Here is why it happened and here is how we will make sure that it does not happen again.

Of course they must make sure that their teams execute on this promise. If they don’t then it is just another broken promise that only serves to undermine their trustworthiness.

Trust the product manager

Another very important aspect of product leadership is building trust in the product management function itself. Product management is highly varied work and sometimes it can be hard for people in the organization to pinpoint how exactly the product manager adds value. A typical product manager is usually always busy, going from meeting to meeting and dealing with 3 or 4 things at any given time. But someone might wonder what exactly is it they do that adds value?

Product leaders should be the chief advocates on why product management is essential for long term product success. They should explain in practical terms how product managers lead the discovery process, help facilitate decisions, fill the gaps between stakeholder groups and promote a holistic vision of what success looks like for the product.

Product leaders can also reinforce trust in product management by being overly transparent. There are various ways. Share openly what the product teams do and why. Share what each team is learning from their experiments. Explain how the product function works internally. Many product managers boast that they lead by example and this is an excellent opportunity to put their money where their mouth is and become a role model for the rest of the organization.

Teamwork > individual performance

And the most controversial of them all: Leaders should take a critical look at anyone who is consistently damaging trust due to their behavior in the organization, even if they are top performers.

It doesn’t matter if an employee performs great as an individual or “gets things done” if they are demoralizing their coworkers in doing so. Building products is a team sport.

Accepting toxic behavior just because someone delivers short term results effectively damages the organization’s ability to deliver on the long term.

You can be sure that any incidents of such behavior will be already discussed in the office corridors or during lunch by the time that you learn about them. Bringing them to light and dealing with them appropriately sends a very clear message to everyone in the organization that they are not acceptable. Respectively, not doing anything and letting trust-eroding behavior persist sends a message that this is how things work around here.

Final words

An organizational culture that is based on trust enables people to work with each other more effectively, spending less time to protect themselves from blame and be more open to taking risks. It leads to more engaged teams that have the ability to respond faster to change and can go through the rigors of product development with a sense of shared responsibility.

However trust is fragile. It takes consistent effort of being honest and communicate openly to build it and usually only one incident of contradicting behavior to erode it. Leaders should be regarding themselves as role models, taking every opportunity to promote trust building behavior, as well as condemn trust eroding actions.

Because after all, this is not just a theoretical idea. It has been proven time after time that a culture of trust leads to more agile organizations that can react faster to market changes and ultimately produce better products.

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