Thoughts from the Field - Issue #8 - Develop Loyalty to Maintain Trust
By David Ross
October 2011

Develop Loyalty to Maintain Trust

If you are a sports fan, chances are good that you have seen tension mount between teams to the point that benches have cleared and players had to be restrained by referees and coaches. Perhaps you have even seen players from the same team get angry at each other for losing their cool and jeopardizing a possible technical foul. The one thing you never see is coaches from the same team taking swings at each other. As spectators, we would be appalled if that happened.

In the sports world, we intuitively know that the leaders' loyalty to one another in the face of adversity and frustration is a prerequisite for team success. But in the business world, we regularly tolerate infighting within teams. Colleagues take swings at each other about one another's decisions, motives, work ethic, and even personality. Most often these comments are not made in public, but rather in side bar meetings and back-channel conversations. And it's surprising to me that people don't seem particularly appalled. People have gotten used to this kind of behavior. It's normal.

The Trust/Loyalty Connection

At The Table Group, we believe that the first priority of any organization is to build and maintain a cohesive leadership team, and the foundation of doing so is trust. Many organizations spend time and resources trying to build trust, but forget the importance of maintaining trust. One important aspect in maintaining trust is for team members to expect and exhibit loyalty to one another. When loyalty is missing on a team, there is a clear and visible trust problem.

When I work with leadership teams, I make the case that it is not enough for people to be loyal just to the company, to their manager or to their goals. Team members have to be loyal to one another. And loyalty means caring enough to go directly to your teammates with issues and concerns, and in the presence of others, constantly "having each other's backs." Emphasizing loyalty in this way seems to illustrate the concept of trust; thereby, making it feel more tangible and attainable for team members.

What Steps Can Leaders Take?

  1. Trust Over Time - Trust building is a process, one that takes time and patience from the participants. As a clinical psychologist, I have learned and observed that one-on-one relationships are inherently unstable - this is true at work, home, school and church. We don't like this reality, but it's true. As we all know, there are many differences in personality, cultural background, age, values and philosophies that get people off track. Trust can atrophy if we aren't committed to revisiting trust levels again and again. Using a personality instrument can help highlight these differences among people and provide a common language to talk about issues moving forward. Teams can also retake their Five Dysfunctions Team Assessment to monitor their trust development.
  2. Normalize Frustration - It is normal for frustration and conflict to develop as people work with each other. Leaders shouldn't hesitate to remind people of this. What separates great teams from poor ones is not whether frustration breaks out, but how it is handled. The way the leader handles those first few outbreaks of frustration will set the stage for the future. One method for proactively handling frustration is to have "teamwork" as a standard operating objective (or a regular topic of a weekly meeting). This way, it provides a scheduled open forum for people to vent their issues before they escalate.
  3. Make the Case for Loyalty - Every leader who cares about maintaining trust should review the relationship of loyalty to trust. Teammates need to know what is at stake. One of the first teams I worked with using the Five Dysfunctions model was an executive leadership team of a large church. In the course of our work, I discovered that the staff routinely entertained complaints from the congregation about other team members without ever taking the matter to that teammate (although it usually circled back to them through the grapevine). It was not hard to figure out why the various divisions were operating in silos, competing for limited resources, and experiencing politics and low morale. This visible breakdown of loyalty needs to be addressed because it erodes the team's trust and effectiveness. Simply highlighting this disconnect may serve as a call to action for some teams.
  4. Clarify Expectations - Leaders must articulate what they expect from their teams when frustration surfaces. Table Group consultants virtually always develop "conflict norms" with our clients. We work with the team to identify specific behaviors that they should expect of one another when conflict breaks out. For example, the aforementioned church team's first commitment they chose to make to one another was to simply disengage from any "complaint conversations" with parishioners, unless that person was willing to address the staff member directly. Likewise, they agreed that when they had frustrations with each other, they would go to one another directly instead of complaining to a third party. This simple guideline has done more to maintain loyalty on teams than any other guideline I know.
  5. Be Prepared for "Repair Work" - In the course of working with people over time, it is inevitable that there will be miscommunications, misunderstandings, and failed assignments. There is no easy recipe for repair work. Repair work is simply keeping key issues on the table until they are resolved. Team members need to get comfortable with surfacing issues and addressing them within the team. Leaders need to identify and deal with threats to loyalty and trust before they spiral. These conversations are not easy, but the main point here is to stay on task and keep the dialogue going until issues are resolved. Every time a team is able to successfully do repair work, they gain trust.

Loyalty Round-up

The church team mentioned above was indeed able to overcome their trust issues and begin to function more cohesively. After three months of openly communicating with each other and repairing relationships, many of the personal issues that were slowing the team down dissipated. In fact, one team member eventually announced during a meeting: "Three months ago, I couldn't stand staff meetings. I knew that several of you were regularly throwing me under the bus. But I know that's changed now, because I've had several different constituents tell me stories about you guys having my back. And I can tell by the way we speak to one another that you genuinely care for me as a person. So I wanted to thank you for helping create this change. Now these staff meetings are the highlight of my week."With the right time and investment, your team can do the same.

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