The Trust Paradox

Episode 25

August 10, 2011


The Agile Weekly Crew discuss John Hagel's article on the Trust Paradox.

Roy vandeWater: Hello, and welcome to another ScrumCast. I’m Roy vandeWater.

Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Drew LeSueur: I’m Drew LeSueur.

Chris Coneybeer: I’m Chris Coneybeer.

Jade Meskill: I’m Jade Meskill.

The Trust Paradox

Roy: A few weeks ago, Derek posted an article by John Hagel on the Trust Paradox. Derek, do you want to explain why you presented that to all of us?

Derek: Absolutely. When we deal with teams and we talk about teams quite a bit. If you look at Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” trust is one of the pillars or the key elements to building a team. We see all the time people talking, “Yeah, yeah we need trust,” and even “Oh! Yeah, yeah our team’s got real high level of trust.”

Then you see all sorts of behaviors that are entirely counter intuitive to how people who trust each other will really behave. I think the article really did a good job of talking about that everybody acknowledges that trust is important for team building. The way that most teams go about trying to build trust with each other, is the exact opposite way in which you would build trust.

He kind of comes up with the term, it’s kind of paradox, that the things that people are doing that they think are building trust within their team mates, are actually destroying trust in a much more rapid pace. I thought it was relevant to say, “I think that the biggest part of software development with Scrum, is building team and how teams interact.” Trust is probably one of the biggest values that we have to deal with in being successful or what we do.

Values That Build Trust

Roy: What are the values that people feel builds trust, and how do they conflict with what actually builds trust?

The Illusion Of Perfection

Chris: In reading the article I thought one of the things that was pretty interesting is we talk about teams nowadays, and the fact that too many times people think they have to be perfect. People think that you can’t have flaws. You can’t have issues, and when you are trying to put on this perfect face all the time, and you’re trying to act like all your skills are perfect. You don’t want to show you have deficiencies with the team.

That is one of the points that is counterproductive to trust, because you’re hiding something. If you want to trust somebody you can’t just have trust and parts of relationship. You have to have trust in the relationship as a whole, and that’s for the positives and negatives. Look at any relationships that you have, be it a marriage, be it a team, somebody you pick up on the street, whatever. If you want to build trust with them, you have to do on at all levels of that relationship.

Derek: I think one of the best stories I heard about this, we were talking at one of the scrum gatherings about peer programming. Mike Cohn mentioned that he was one of the first people to start with one of the pair programming, and the story of how we got there was kind of funny. That was, “I had been working with one of the big five consulting firms,” or I can’t remember the exact place he was working.

He took an assignment that was all code and C, and he said I really have never had really coded in C before, “But I had kind of done some C in school. I figured I could probably fake my way through it, and learn over it. I really wanted to do that particular work.” He said, “I flew out there, and got in there, and was really nervous that I was going to be ousted that they would realize I didn’t know C.”

“The next day another guy that was joining the team from the company came and flew in. We started talking about the work and push came to shove and I felt vulnerable for a minute. I went ahead and I told them, ‘I just want to be totally honest with you, I really don’t know C, but I’m a bright guy and I really think I can get up to speed. I kind of fluffed a little bit my experience on this but I’m sure you guide me, and you’ll never know the difference.’ The other guy said ‘Oh, shit I did the same fucking thing, we’re screwed.’” They said, “How about this, every time were working on code we’re working on the exact same piece of code, so that if we completely fuck this up they have to fire us both. They won’t know who to fire, because we’re both doing the same thing.” He said, “I’m sure we invented pair programming because of that.”

I think that you know why it’s a funny story. I think it’s a perfect evidence of how when you actually build trust, and are vulnerable, which I think is one of the key components of trust, to be able to say, “Hey, I just want to let you know I’m not really confident in this, but I’m willing to make up deficiencies, and work my best to get the best out of this,” and somebody else is able to make the same thing.

They came up with a solution that ultimately was better for everybody. Meaning the project was entirely successful they both really got up to speed with C, best of all outcomes. Whereas if both of them were to hold up and try to lay blame, “Oh, well, he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” or whatever, the project would have failed. It just would have been disaster across the board. I think too often teams there’s no availability to express vulnerability that actually allows for good solutions to happen, and good bonding to happen.

Going Against Conventional Wisdom

Jade: By saying that, you’re going against tons of management advice, and personal growth advice. You’re supposed to never let them see you sweat, and always project confidence, and be the big alpha dog. What you’re telling me now is I’ve got to be this wussy guy, who lets everybody know and cries whenever something goes wrong, right?

Derek: I pretty much carry a binky and a blanket wherever I go.

Jade: Oh, OK.

Roy: I thought I’d seen you with that. I was wondering what that was for.

Drew: One of the things I thought that was interesting in the article where they talk about the kind of thing you were talking about, Jade, was built on how corporations treated branding for so long. It was, you only show your strength and you hide your weaknesses and act like they don’t exist. That’s how people treated their personal brands.

You look at any resume, most people look at resumes, and if they look at their own resume they think, “Oh, this is all great stuff,” and they read someone else’s resume and they’re like, “Man, this guy is so full of BS.”

I think what Derek’s getting at is the idea that we need to be able to expose our strengths, and by exposing our strengths and acknowledging where we have deficiencies, like what Chris was saying, that’s the new way to be confident, and project confidence and do the right thing, and make progress.

Jade: What you’re saying is when somebody asks me what my greatest weakness is in an interview I shouldn’t say that I work too hard.

Drew: Yeah, I interview at companies where people ask stupid interview questions.

Roy: I feel like, intellectually, there are at least a few people out there who know that but don’t act on it because it’s very difficult. It seems to go against human nature. Why do you think that is?

Chris: I think part of it is, one, it’s against human nature, but also, take a look at the training we had. Take a look at the way that we’ve been raised in a lot of corporations. We’re on an engagement right now where I’m seeing patterns that I used to work and live in. I worked and lived in this non‑trust culture, and now I have a level of trust with my team and my family here to be able to say that…

Jade: There’s the crying again.

How Are We Teaching People

Chris: …to be able to say that. I can stand in front of you guys now and say, “I suck at this,” and somebody will be willing to help stand me up. I can ask stupid questions and people are willing to help me, because we realize that we’re building on one another, but also, you don’t turn around and go, what a dumbass for that.

Where before, in the corporate world, you were treated like that. I think that goes back to, how are we teaching people? What is excelling? What is making you different than somebody else? Sometimes that’s all about finding your secret project, and working on it, and hiding it from everybody instead of making sure that you’re doing something as a team and learning together.

We’re seeing where we have silos right now and some of the information on our current engagement, and there are trust issues at the very bottom of that. I think that if these people were able to trust and open up a little bit more instead of worrying about somebody else looking at them and going, “You suck at this,” they have so much knowledge that they could bring together, they could move together. They could move forward so much faster.

Fear Driven Culture

Derek: Yeah, I think a lot of this, too, is fear‑driven, fear‑driven and peer‑culture driven. What I mean that is, I believe it’s Ken Robinson talks a little bit about this. If you take a five‑year‑old into a crowd of people, and you tell them to dance or to perform, they’ll do so, no problem. If everybody in the room starts cracking up, they’ll probably get even more crazy with whatever they’re doing, because they’re getting a reaction.

If you take a 35‑year‑old person, and put them in a room of strangers and say dance, they’re like, “No way.” Even if they did, if somebody criticized it, they would stop immediately and totally shut down, because of response.

I think we have the same self‑preservation mode, this mechanism that says, I don’t want to be vulnerable, because if I’m vulnerable to my peers, and my peers react in a negative way, I have no other way to deal with it, and so my way to deal with it is to shelter it or camouflage the weakness, so that I’m not attacked in that area.

I think from Robinson’s perspective, a lot of that’s the heart of where creativity is. When you’re in a mode where you’re able to say, I’m going to try things that people might laugh at me for, is when you have the highest propensity to do the most magnificent things. When you’re operating in a mode that, “I don’t want to do anything that anybody could possibly laugh at or criticize at,” you’re actually shutting down. You’re limiting yourself severely.

I think that teams and organizations fall into that trap, where they’re so concerned about looking bad to each other, or being laughed at that they, basically, strike out all ability to do any kind of innovation, or do any kind of really gel at that next level. I think it completely impacts the way they’re able to interact and be vulnerable with one another.

Clayton: I agree with that. When that is the status quo when you’re working with a team like that or organization like that, it’s a perfectly rational thing to have that behavior.

If my performance review, my pay raises, how I’m viewed on this team, and my advancement in this corporation are determined by my strengths and weaknesses compared to people at the same level. It’s perfectly reasonable to say, “OK, I’m going to hide all my weaknesses. I’m going to have my secret project, and try and make everyone else look bad.”

That’s a very rational thing to do.

Roy: If you’re in that type of situation where you have a culture of people that are throwing each other under the bus, and trying to make themselves look better. Drew, if you were working in an environment where everybody was throwing each other under the bus, what would be the best way to approach that, and try to rectify that type of culture?

Building A Culture Of Openness

Drew: Showing an example of openness would probably be the best way to do it. Be the one where if you make a mistake, “Hey, it was my fault. I did this. Can you help me figure this out?” and pull in another teammate or something.

Jade: Then you’re fired, and no problem.

Drew: Maybe I’m wrong on that, but I think people will see that. If everybody’s throwing each other under the bus at a corporation, people are going to notice. Higher ups are going to know that, “OK, they’re always just blaming each other.”

They’ll probably take a dose of transparency with happiness, and they’ll probably embrace that, and enjoy that. It’ll be refreshing to them. That’s probably how I’d do it.

Chris: Hope the guy throwing you under the bus is your manager.

Make Everyone Around You Better

Jade: One of the mistakes a lot of people make is they believe that their success is hinging on their ability to perform some skill to the best of its ability, not realizing that what’s more important, especially to management, is your ability to make everyone around you better.

If you can rise to the top as leading that type of a change, people respect you much more for that than your ability to be the best .net developer out there, when it comes to this particular niche technology, “I’m so awesome, and I can code anything.”

In a team situation, it’s really more about what you’re contributing to the team. If you can make everyone on your team at that same level, then that’s way more impressive, way more valuable. That’s going to build a lot of trust by investing back into the people around you.

Moving Towards Trust

Derek: There’s two segments to it. The first segment is, if I’m a CEO or a manager that’s trying to get a team to have trust, you’re spot on, Drew, that there’s really two ways to do that. One is, to model it. Be open and transparent, and really model that to the team, and look at how you’re incentivizing the team.

Whether that be through their performance appraisal, whether that be through how you articulate and express that you’re happy with them. Make sure that you’re reinforcing behaviors of vulnerability, transparency, and authenticity, and not performance.

You’re putting more reward towards people modeling a value system of trust than you are whether they’re succeeding or not. As a team member who wants to create a more trust‑filled team where you aren’t getting management support, I would say the same thing. It’s really about modeling.

I would also say, one of the things that Hagel talked about in his article that is totally relevant is, for 30 or 40 years, brands got away with being absolutely inauthentic in masking what they were horrible at, and highlighting what they were great at. Everybody believed that.

We’ve come to a point now that, once you spill 100 million gallons of oil into the ocean, it doesn’t matter what you do to try to PR that up, people know that that PR is bullshit.

Anybody who’s been the workforce for any amount of time, any amount of time being twelve months or more, knows that there’s so much bullshit in teams that they know when people are glossing, when people are highlighting the right things, and pushing the bad stuff under the table.

It’s such a breath of fresh air when a team member comes in, and is authentic, helpful, and vulnerable that it becomes really hard to ignore that. You earn the respect of management and of your peers so much quicker, because you stand out so much more than everybody else around you. It’s almost contagious.

That’s the hopeful message in this because, right now, most teams are fundamentally broken. It only takes one person within a team to start modeling this for it to become contagious, and start to infect the team and organizations involved with the team.

Roy: That’s it for today’s ScrumCast. Thanks for joining us.

Related episodes