Workplace Teams: Sitting on Tractors to Nurture Trust


More and more research confirms that it is not the technical skills of groups or even commitment to a shared purpose that make for an extraordinary team producing extraordinary results – it is the interpersonal relationships of the members that will either destroy the group or enable it to perform.

Whether it is an ad hoc team put together for a short-term project or a fully-fledged department in a traditional organisation; whether it is your management team or the organisation as a whole, teams function best when the creative and destructive power of relationships is recognised and managed.

Managers often focus exclusively on the technical aspects of work and the technical abilities of their team, avoiding the much more difficult ‘soft’ stuff. But they are ignoring the glue that keeps the team together and the energy that will drive them to greatness.

Bellman and Ryan (2009)[1] describe the characteristics of extraordinary groups:

A compelling purpose; shared leadership; helpful but limited levels of bureaucracy; full engagement; embracing differences; unexpected learning leading to growth; trust and congeniality; great results, both tangible and intangible.

Apart, perhaps, from the first and the last, none of these can be achieved to any meaningful extent without trust and respect among the members of the group. A compelling purpose may keep a team focused and determined, but not for long.

Lencioni (2002)[2] identified five potentially lethal dysfunctions of teams. He presents them as a hierarchy where the first, absence of trust, leads to fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.

For Lencioni, everything depends on trust. Without trust, even the compelling purpose that drives us forward will begin to lose its shine, and protecting oneself will become more important than results.

If this is true, then why are managers taught so little (if anything at all) about how to build great teams: how to handle conflict, encourage passionate debate and, above all, build trust?

Trust is not a package you hand out or a skill you can demand of employees. As Stephen Covey pointed out, if you want to be trusted you need to be trustworthy. Trust is developed through a multiplicity of actions and comments.

Trust is a tree. You don’t grow it; you nurture it. You can cut it down in a flash, but you can’t make it grow; you can only water it and remove obstacles. It grows by itself – day by day, moment by careful moment.

During a recent discussion a group of us identified some of the problems we had experienced in various types of workplace teams. The problems included lack of commitment, lack of trust, poor communication, absenteeism, superiority and inferiority complexes and exclusion of team members.

Nobody mentioned lack of technical skills and abilities. It seems that inability to do the job is not nearly as big a problem as inability (or unwillingness) to function within the team.

One member of our group dissented. She said she thought that the problems we described were more often than not excuses – people who didn’t want to work lacked commitment and complained about inequality and being excluded.

The person concerned thought of herself as a traditional, do-as-I-say manager. She has an open door but usually says, ‘Don’t interrupt me’. But then she admitted that she often takes her tea and sits on the tractor with the staff, and even drives the tractor. She is, without trying, developing the trust that allows people to walk through her open door and ignore her do-not-disturb face. She doesn’t talk about trust, she nurtures it. She has sat on the tractor.

Have you ‘sat on a tractor’ recently. What did you do? What difference did it make to your team?

[1] Bellman, GM and Ryan, KD (2009) Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results, San Fransico, Jossey-Bass

[2] Lencioni, P (2002) The Five Dysfunctions of a Teams: A Leadership Fable, San Fransico, Jossey-Bass

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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