I had the opportunity to present at the PMI Virtual Experience Series 2021 on 6-7 October. This global event had over 42,000 attendees and included excellent speakers, virtual exhibits, and networking activities.
My presentation, “Tools to Identify and Fix Trust Breakdowns in Project Teams,” focused on the extreme impact that trust has on the performance of projects. Here are a few questions that I received from attendees, along with my responses.
Question 1: Trust is a fundamental property? How do you measure it, based on which parameters?
Trust is made of two groups of components: who you are, and what you do. The who you are group includes three components. Competence is a professional, technical component. It essentially measures how good you are in what you do. You measure it by education, experience, track record on previous projects, etc. Personality Compatibility is an emotional one. It measures how compatible our personalities are, for me to trust you (or for you to trust me – those are two completely different things).
Having compatible personalities doesn’t mean we have to be the same. Often, having opposite personalities makes us compatible (you can’t have everyone on the team being inventors who don’t follow through, or have everyone on the team being great at execution, without anyone creative enough to come up with out-of-box ideas). Symmetry is the situational and topological component. For example, do we contribute to the project at the same level? Are we being treated similarly by the organization? Are we facing a common enemy (such as a tight schedule and budget), or are we in a position to compete with each other over promotions and/or bonuses?
The other group of components is the what you do group. We build (or destroy) trust in every interaction. We measure that through the other three components. The first is positivity. How positive (or negative) is what you bring into an interaction with me? How much BS do you bring? How much empathy? Do you behave as if the world revolves around you? Positivity is accelerated through the other two components: time and intimacy. The more time we spend together, the more frequently we interact, and the timelier those interactions are, the faster we build trust (or destroy it, depending on the positivity component). The higher the intimacy of our interactions is (more face-to-face rather than email), the faster we build (or destroy) trust. Your ability to see the consistency between what I say and what I mean determines (among all the other components) whether you should trust me or not.
Question 2: How do you trust others when they don’t trust you?
Of the eight laws of trust, the fourth is that trust is asymmetrical. We often say that “trust is a two-way street.” It is a two-way street, but not asymmetrical one. Think about this: does the pilot of your flight need to trust you to land the plane as much as you need them to land it? Does your surgeon need to trust you to perform surgery as much as you need to trust them to do it? Not so much, right? Trust is relative, and contextual, too. Do members of your project team need to trust you to do their job, be it programming, interior design, pouring concrete, or anything else? Not really. First, as a project manager, you need to be trusted to do exactly that: manage the project effectively and efficiently. Plan and manage it to finish on time, on budget, and according to the specifications. But the trust they have in you depends on six components: your competence, personality compatibility, symmetry (those are the “who you are” components), and what you do during interactions with them: your positivity, accelerated by the time you spend with them and the intimacy of those interactions (from email to face-to-face). If you feel that you are not trusted by others as much as you want to be, first find out why.
What is it that’s holding you back from being trusted by them? Once you find out—fix it if you can. One of the components that is hard to fix is personality incompatibility. Regardless, trust is asymmetrical, and the level of trust you have in a person has almost nothing to do with the level of trust they have in you. You can only do something about the latter.
Question 3: What do you mean by “Make tough decisions” when trust cannot be fixed?
Every now and then, you will find that trust cannot exist between two members of the team (you might be one of them) that depend on each other. It is important to note that where trust matters is mostly where such dependency exists. If member A of the team depends on a deliverable from member B (for the success of the project, not any other reason), then the trusting relationship that matters is whether member A can trust member B to deliver that deliverable. The level of trust that member B has in member A doesn’t matter that much, for this purpose. The level of trust that member A has in member B is more important the more critical that dependency is.
The level of trust that member A has in member B may be low for several reasons. One of the most common reasons is because they don’t have enough experience working with each other. This could easily be fixed by having them spend more time together, both professionally and personally. Another reason could be due to low intimacy in their interactions. This could be fixed by encouraging them to spend more face-to-face time than communicating over email. Another reason could be a possible low competence that member B exhibits. This is a little harder to fix, but it could be fixed as member B continues to acquire knowledge and experience relevant to their role on the team.
However, the reason for the low level of trust could be personality incompatibility. Compatible personalities don’t necessarily mean that both members have to be identical or share exactly the same values. Sometimes, being the opposite makes for good compatibility (“opposites attract”). The problem occurs when the personalities are incompatible in an area, or a value, that is important to both members, and neither one is willing (or capable) of changing. This is a recipe for a low level of trust that cannot be fixed. If it cannot be fixed, you have a simple yet tough decision to make: either you accept the consequences of a low level of trust (miss schedule, go over budget, or not meet specifications), or you remove a member from the team.