1 Simple Behavior to Build Organizational Trust

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Building trust is critical to the health of any organization.  There have been numerous publications discussing the requirements for building trust.  Being authentic.  Listening.  Collaborative decision making.  Act with integrity.  Improving communication.  But what does that look like?  Because trust isn’t something you can schedule.  There isn’t an agenda.  In a world which reveres processes and cadences, building trust seems antithetical behaviorally.

Go to their Gemba.

I have found one simple behavior has a significant impact.  Walk around and talk to people.  Engage with them informally.

I first learned the impact of this behavior while working at HP.  As part of a multi-billion dollar company with 120,000 employees (at the time), getting things accomplished took more than just following processes.  It was imperative that ideas, especially significant departures from the norm, needed to be pre-sold.  Over the years of working cross-functionally with key partners, I subconsciously created a “route” through the various campuses.  Catching 10-15 minutes with key partners.  Asking questions.  Sharing ideas (even half-baked ones).  Exploring.

“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”  – Friedrich Nietzsche

The results were remarkable.  Even controversial ideas were being accepted.  The more successful at gaining alignment, making quicker decisions, and growing the business I became, the more I doubled down on this behavior.  To be honest, at the time I was operating more on instinct than intent.  But the behavior became embedded.  And as my career developed I not only continued this routine, I began to encourage the organizations I was leading to mirror that behavior.

What was happening?  Why did this simple idea prove so effective at building trust?  I think there were three reasons why this approach has been effective.

First, the meeting is informal, casual, unstructured, (and really by default) authentic.  You are not only discussing the key ideas you want to explore, but you are engaging on many more levels.  You are understanding your partner’s world.  What are they working on?  What is their honest assessment of your idea, and how might they tweak it?  Even what is happening with their families.  You are genuinely understanding their perspective not only on this issue, but in general.

The second, is that it is happening in their space.  The act of going to them implies respect and genuine care.  You are taking your valuable time to go to them to seek wise counsel.  This small, but important act can quickly build relationship and trust.  This cannot be underestimated.

The third benefit is understanding their discipline.  Most of us like to “stay in our lane” at work.  Marketers talk with marketers.  Accountants to accountants.  By having informal conversations with accounting, manufacturing, supply chain and many more, I actually gained tremendous knowledge about what they were doing and how they were excelling at it.  This cross-functional understanding helped me both make better business decisions, and to more clearly understand their points of view.  This dramatically improved communications.  I had a colleague at Benchmade comment on my ability to foster cross-functional partnership.   “You already speak their language which gives you remarkable credibility.”  I speak their language because I created an opportunity for them to teach it to me.

This trust building behavior creates two critical benefits.

The first is speed.  When a team is communicating this way as a group, the speed of decision making increases dramatically.  They are already aware of activities and ideas of their cross-functional colleagues, so the time it takes to make and implement decisions is radically reduced.  In a world where predictive analytics are all the rage, having this level of proactive cross-functional engagement delivers remarkable old-school results.  At Blount, I had a leader cut product development time by over 50%.  The foundation of that breakthrough?  He started informally engaging his key cross-functional partners “offline”.  Together, they built an improved system.

The second, is that it pushes organizational decision making downward.  A wise leader once told me that if three critical cross-functional groups agree, there isn’t actually any decision to be made.  At HP, it was marketing, finance and engineering.  At Blount, it was product marketing, sales and manufacturing.  Every organization has their “trifecta” of decision making authority.  As leaders, when that “group of three” has already vetted a decision, and brings it forth as their recommendation – all that is left is to approve it.  That downward pressure on decision making becomes infectious.  Teams will accelerate their willingness to take on tough issues, identify best path forward and implement, all by themselves.  They become self-sufficient.

As leaders, isn’t that what we are all driving toward?

Bottom line is that if we are attempting to build trust within an organization, there are simple ways to make it a reality.  Encourage your teams to engage with their cross-functional peers where “they” live.  Model the behavior yourself.  They will catch on.  The results will be remarkable and sustainable.

– Mike Ulwelling

5 Keys to Cross-functional Partnership.

Business team giving a high five

In organizations, silos are the norm.  Most organizations just don’t collaborate cross-functionally very well.  Most managers and leaders assume that their teams are working together as part of the “normal process” of the company’s operations.  Unfortunately, its rarely true.  The results are predictable.  Confusion.  Alienation.  Dysfunction.  Blame.  Low morale.  Poor performance.  Addressing this organizational malaise is actually simpler than most leaders realize.

No blame, just solutions.

Before a group can collaborate at a high level, the members have to trust each other.  Bringing the groups together is not enough.  When beginning a journey to harness  cross-functional partnership, the first thing a leader must do is set expectations that will blossom into trust.  What I have found most effective, is establishing ground rules that 1) no one is to blame, and 2) we are focused in finding solutions.  Those two simple ideas have way of freeing team members from the history of organizational behaviors, and unlocking new ideas and approaches to solving problems.  Organizations don’t build these silos intentionally.  There are good reasons for the behaviors that drive us.  What we need to do as leaders, is give our teams the freedom to jettison that baggage of the past, and architect the new behavioral norms, free from fear of retribution.  Being declarative about the new expectations, along with consistent repetition, can begin to change behaviors quickly.

Understand the common goal.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – Gen. George S. Patton

I love this quote.  Most cross-functional groups do not clearly understand what they are trying to achieve.  This lack of clarity allows each individual participant to assume their best outcome is to focus on what benefits their particular group, and not the organization as a whole.  At the beginning, leaders should set a clear expectation for what is to be achieved.  That goal will be most effective if it is focused on something external, bigger than any individual participant or group.  “Our goal is improve how we deliver products to our customers.”  “We are going to design products that better meet the unspoken needs of our consumers, while improving our time to market.”  These are real world examples which have galvanized teams to work together.  Bigger than any one individual.  Focused and external.

Let the team solve the problem.

The second part of Patton’s wisdom is about letting the team dazzle you with their genius.  Far too often, we as leaders believe we have the answer.  Our participation in the cross-functional process becomes more and more directive.  It is our responsibility to encourage our content experts and organizational leaders to come up with their own solutions.  We must repeatedly encourage them to continue investigating, to find their own answers, to make the solution their own.  I have found it most effective to encourage small “offline” groups to develop their own recommendations and solutions, away from the prying eyes of senior managers, managers and other authority figures who are not the content experts.  At Benchmade, we had several groups ask the leaders to accelerate the pace of implementation for their solution.  They had identified their own best path forward, understood the benefits of a full implementation, and became impatient with our pace.  In allowing them to lead in the solution, they were able to launch a product with only a two week delay, when the original recommended path was a 6 month slip.  Their plan.  Outstanding result.

Establish a cadence of accountability.

The hardest part of building organizational trust and cross-functional partnership is keeping the group focused on the task at hand.  Everyday priorities get in the way making progress on the project, and allows the team to drift back into their bad “siloed” behaviors.  You have to force them back together.  At Blount, we described it as maintaining a “ruthless cadence of accountability”.  No matter what, we met.  Everyone had to participate.  Depending on the scope of the challenge, you can set an appropriate cadence – daily, weekly, monthly – whatever is necessary.  But you must force participation on a recurring cadence.

Group members make commitments to each other.

It is not enough to have people passively participating.  They must be engaged.  If I ask you to complete a task, your might do it.  But, you won’t feel ownership.  If a member of the group commits to deliver something, the likelihood of an emotional commitment to deliver is much higher.  I have used this method at 4 different organizations, and it’s never failed me.  (FYI – Stephen Covey first exposed me to this idea in his book “The Four Disciplines of Execution.”  Great read.)  Make part of your cross-functional project a report out with participants making commitments, and reporting their progress.

Once an organization gets used to partnering, to trusting each other, the synergistic effects multiply very quickly.  Distrust fades.  Proactive engagement replaces silos.  New capabilities are unleashed in individuals within the organization.  At Blount, I had a team member from another part of the organization chase me down in the hallway to talk about a solutions she’d developed.  At the beginning of the process, we had to physically go get her to attend meetings.  That team learned to cross-functionally identify and resolve problems so well, they began to outrun their oversight.  Not in a frightening way, but an amazing one.  The benefits to the organization, and our customers, were outstanding

The solution seems simple.  Gather the cross-functional experts; free them from the past to build their future; set a clear vision; empower the team to take action, ask for commitments; and develop a cadence.  And, it actually is.  As leaders, we have to have the courage to empower them, the willingness to create the necessary clarity, and the patience to allow the team to find their own way.

Mike Ulwelling



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