Lightweight Trust Building

I was speaking with some colleagues the other day about some low trust interactions that I had recently observed. Based on my description of my observations, one colleague commented that the interactions appeared to arise from a negative feedback loop that promoted a low trust environment between senior leadership, managers, and employees. To break that feedback loop, he recommended having the different groups take a Speed of Trust course. Having gone through a course myself, I agreed that it would encourage trust-building behavior, yet I was concerned that convincing even one group to take the course would be a monumental task. Another colleague acknowledged my concern and the difficulty with saying "Hey, I noticed you're in a low trust environment, would you like to take this trust course?"

This comment about the difficulty of opening a conversation on trust in a low trust environment prompted me to pick up the book Agile Conversations, which I had just started reading. Divided into two parts, the book describes a lightweight method of conversational analysis and the theory behind how it works followed by using the analysis in 5 kinds of conversations. The purpose of the book is to encourage high-trust, psychologically safe conversations regarding business value creation that enable participants to jointly set a direction for a project, commit to goals that will achieve it, and be accountable for the steps taken to achieve those goals. Intrigued, I kept reading.

The analysis of a conversation revolves around writing down a conversation and then comparing what was said with what was thought to improve the next conversation. A few good questions to ask during the comparison are:

  • When I ask questions, are they genuine questions or leading questions?
  • If I had difficulties or concerns with what the other person said, did I mention them and show a willingness to work with him/her to overcome them?
  • Am I being consistent in how I talk and act so that others can trust me?

These stuck out to me, as they ensured I stayed honest with myself about my intent (similar to the Speed of Trust) and promoted curiosity and transparency in my conversations. After determining what could be improved, what was said is revised to address the discovered problems. Then the revised conversation can be role-played to practice the improvements before the next conversation.

After explaining the analysis, the 5 conversations that followed were:

  • The Trust conversation
  • The Fear conversation
  • The Why conversation
  • The Commitment conversation
  • The Accountability conversation

Each of the conversations naturally leads to the next.

The Trust conversation ensures that all parties in a conversation are working from the same story of the problem or need that they are dealing with. When a person starts telling a conflicting story, follow the Ladder of Inference to determine what is causing the conflict so that it can be resolved. This ensures that everyone is working from a shared perception of the world and gives a common language that people can use to be understood. Once people trust that they will be understood, then they will more readily and easily bring up concerns that they have, leading to the Fear conversation.

As an aside, the Ladder of Inference is very close to the Catholic philosophical tradition of how we perceive the world and choose our actions based on those perceptions. Here is a rough sketch: The senses perceive the world, the imagination creates an image from that perception, the intellect recognizes the image, recognition prompts a value judgment which can trigger the emotions. Reason, reflecting upon the image, the value judgment, and the emotional reaction, determines the potential responses to the perception. The will makes actual one of the potential responses. For a more complete and accurate summary, see Aquinas' Summa Theologiae Book I. Questions 79-89 and 93

The Fear conversation provides an opportunity for the team to identify problems they fear will prevent project completion. Often the best place to start uncovering these fears is by examining the deviations of the team from their espoused way of working. These deviations are often disparate mitigations that create conflict within the team and prevent them from being effective. Once the problems are brought to light, the team as a whole can design mitigations for them. As it is probable that there are multiple causes for each problem, spend some time talking through multiple scenarios to make sure that the mitigation will be effective. As some mitigations may require an entire project to be effective, the team will start questioning if the current project is the most important thing to be done, leading to the Why Conversation.

The Why conversation builds a shared purpose and direction for the current project between team members and leadership. Within a timebox, each person has an opportunity to discuss the goals of the project and advocate for their position on them. To achieve a shared ownership of the project, it is crucial for the team to share and understand the interests that lead to the different positions, otherwise the conversation can result in an endless loop of debate. When the interests are visible, the team will naturally try to set goals that take them into account. As long as the final decisions regarding the project direction sufficiently address the different interests, the team will have a sense of ownership for the project, leading to the commitment conversation.

The Commitment conversation determines what project goal is going to be delivered and when. This requires that everyone involved in the project agrees on what is being delivered. This is only possible when they trust each other, have identified and determined sufficient mitigations for any concerns, and understand why this particular increment is the most important thing to deliver. Without achieving these first, people may be showing up, but they won't be fully participating in delivering the goal. Once the team commits to the desired goal, then work on the project beings, leading to the Accountability conversation.

The Accountability conversation communicates the progress of a project increment. It provides an opportunity for the team members to "radiate intent" and to receive feedback. This conversation is more about each person giving an account for their actions rather than being kept accountable for them. The structure of such a conversation can closely mirror the textbook standup questions: What is the current state of the project? What is planned next and the expected outcomes? what are the existing or upcoming obstacles? This conversation allows the project plan to adapt to new business constraints or missed user needs. It also creates a positive feedback loop that reinforces trust as conflicts are resolved through understandable compromises or the discovery of a more fundamental value for the business.

These 5 conversations and the analysis process looked very promising for overcoming the problems that I was facing. What made them immediately usable was that the first three conversations are all triggered when a conflict is perceived. However, the reasons describing why this analysis works gave me some cause for concern, which I'll be examining in another blog post.

What do you think? Is there possibly an even easier way to start improving trust within an organization? Are there additional conversations that could be added to this list? Is there a situation where taking a Speed of Trust course would be more beneficial? Let me know either in the comments or you can reach out to me on the various platforms where I'll be posting this.