Relational Trust is the Secret Ingredient in Any Good Change Recipe

When we facilitate a retreat with a leadership team (or an entire organization) that is navigating complex change (and who isn’t?), we typically dedicate about half of the time to deepening personal connections and building positive relationships. That often feels counter-intuitive to people who have carved out time from their break-neck schedules to try to make progress toward getting work done. But it turns out that deepening personal connections and building positive relationships IS work, and it is work that directly translates into better outcomes. 

Relational trust is the secret ingredient in any good change recipe. It doesn’t guarantee results in itself, but without it, the result is almost always going to be unsavory. This is true because at its essence, change leadership is about people. It is about understanding their concerns, connecting with their hearts and minds, unlocking their collective potential, and building durable coalitions around a shared vision for the future. It requires empathizing, listening, and motivating.

Relational trust is even more important in today’s workplace. Teams are increasingly required to tackle cross-functional and adaptive challenges for which there is no obvious or known solution. No one leader can control the outcome or the process, and everyone has to work together not only to execute against a task list, but to decide the target to aim at, the strategy for how to get there, and the best way to respond to the problems that come up along the way.

Even one broken link in this collaborative, cross-functional environment can be enough to disrupt the whole. Sometimes people feel like they have to walk on eggshells around a particular team member, that they can’t question the designated leader, that there is a competence issue in a key area, or that someone is prioritizing their own domain over the team’s collective impact. These are just a few of the many manifestations of a lack of trust that can slow down and undermine an entire effort. Can’t you see now why we advocate so hard for these so-called people days during team retreats?

So how do we work with teams to build this kind of workplace relationship? It’s not about trust falls or escape rooms or bowling nights. And it doesn’t require everyone to become friends or “family”. It is much more about better understanding each other’s motivations, thought processes, and journeys, and providing the tools and space for honest and direct communication. Fun does help, and laughing together can help reduce the friction, and make these conversations turn more easily, with less friction.

We start with some diagnostic work to understand the current state of trust and relationships between team members. Then we tailor the activities accordingly. Sometimes we help team members develop and share their personal stories in a way that makes their motivations, life journeys, beliefs, and lessons learned explicit to each other. Other times we provide dedicated time, and structured protocols for engaging in short, direct, and honest conversations about what they need from one another and why. Sometimes both. We always include some fun, bringing peoples’ personalities to the surface.

We understand why many people are skeptical when they first see the agenda for their two days together, and see one day dedicated to “Learning about our strategy”, and one to “Learning about each other”. We get it. Time is valuable, and it’s taken several efforts at implementation for us to build the confidence to push back, particularly when we know a team is in the thick of trying to scale, pivot, focus, or evolve. But we are certain now that it is absolutely worth it.

We admire others doing good work in this space. Trium for example, has a helpful framework for defining and discussing trust in a professional context. So does Gary Cohen (although 7 is a lot of Cs).  Also see this short piece (“To promote and build positive trust relationships, senior managers must communicate as honestly and directly as possible with their employees, particularly during uncertain times.”), and this one (“Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things.”)

In our own change leadership framework, Relationships is one of the four domains that we believe every leader (and team, and community) must attend to when tackling a complex change effort of any kind. We believe that without purposefully cultivated, positive, and strategic relationships and a healthy level of relationship trust, no change effort will succeed with fidelity.