June 2018 | 

Building Trust: The Essential Ingredient for High-Performing Teams

Building Trust on Teams

Most of the work done in organizations is done by teams, so it makes sense that there are decades of research on what makes them successful. Identify the “secret” of high-performing teams and you unlock limitless potential for excellence, or so the thinking goes. But even though we know, most recently with the results of Google’s Project Aristotle, that trust is the one most critical factor for team performance, building trust on teams remains an elusive goal in many organizations.

Jeff Klein, executive director of Wharton’s McNulty Leadership Program, uses the research as a starting point. “What’s very clear is that trust is engendered when as a team leader I know more about you as a person, convey my character, and create a common framework and language, and when we share experiences and survive, if not conquer, adversity together.”

Klein, citing the work of Amy Edmondson, says team leaders who build trust also create an environment of psychological safety by communicating consistent, stable expectations clearly. But simply developing an academic understanding of what it takes to lead a great team doesn’t necessarily translate into practice (or those decades of research would have resulted in nearly every team in every organization performing at the top of their game).

Wharton’s Creating and Leading High-Performing Teams program takes the research steps further by immersing participants in experiences that let them see how they show up as team members and team leaders. Klein says from the first day of the program, “We model how to structure a team and put people in roles to maximize success. Then adaptive challenges let the participants try it for themselves.”

One challenge involves teams creating an original piece of theater. Developed in collaboration with Pig Iron Theater, the stretch experience is designed to accelerate trust and engagement. Participants are thrust into a new environment and asked to learn new skills while reaching high levels of performance as a team (the goal is not to create a passable ten-minute play, but to write and perform an award-winning piece of theater).

After a beginning session on acting techniques, each team convenes to collaborate on content for their play. They share individual stories about significant events in their lives, and are encouraged to seek wild ideas and seemingly impossible solutions, which leads to collaboration. “Trust and alignment must be created before a team performs,” says Klein, “whether the team is a theater company or a cross-functional product development group.”

Experiences like the theater project end with debriefs, and the week-long program ends with structured consultations. Again working in teams, participants take lessons learned from their experiential teams and transfer them back to their work in their organizations.

Ultimately, says Klein, the program is designed to require a fair degree of vulnerability. “When we get to share adversity, feel like beginners together, make mistakes, and even fail, trust is engendered. It goes beyond an academic experience or even tools and tactics. They learn how they work in real time, and create an action plan for how they will transfer what they learn back to the teams they are leading.”