Building collaborative work relationships with colleagues and avoiding threats to project collaboration are issues that every employee today must deal with.
To address the real-life challenges that people face in today’s diverse and often global – or even virtual – workplaces, eCornell’s Chris Wofford was joined by Dr. Michele Williams, a scholar at Cornell University’s Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution as well as a Faculty Fellow at the Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Research Network. Their wide-ranging discussion is part of our ongoing Women in Leadership WebCast series.
Wofford: Michelle, thanks for joining us. I’d like to start with the results of some poll questions we posed to our audience. Here’s the first one: “Do fear, stress, or anger play a part in the erosion of trust at your organization?” The overwhelming response was ‘yes’, which is probably not much of a surprise.
Williams: No, it’s not. But what I think is really important in today’s society is that there’s so much economic pressure, a lot of mergers and acquisitions, restructuring and so on, so fear, stress, and anger have become almost a daily part of work. Figuring out how we build and maintain trust when emotions are starting to be just a common part of our work experience is a real challenge.
Wofford: I’ve got another one here I think will be interesting to look at, which is, “Do you believe that lack of trust in your organization is an issue that needs to be addressed?” Again, probably no surprise that 100 percent of the responses say “yes”.
Williams: This is a widespread issue. If we look more broadly, the erosion of trust in our institutions and politicians and government parallels what’s going on within organizations.
I would argue that trust is really the key to collaborative relationships because it really increases things that are essential to collaboration, like information sharing, helping behavior, responsiveness,and flexibility.
If something goes wrong every time you work with a contractor, for instance, you have to renegotiate the contract. That’s extremely costly. If you trust them, you can respond in a more responsible way that allows you to work around whatever problems arise.
Trust also decreases the need to monitor everyone. If you have to watch everything your team member does, it’s going to really slow down the project.
Wofford: Ok, trust is important. I think that’s something we would all agree on. But what is trust, really?
Williams: Everyone has almost their own definition, including academics, economists and
organizational people, and all of them tend to vary a little bit. But what we’re going to talk about here is psychological trust.
Whenever you collaborate with someone, if they don’t do their part, it can really harm you. When you rely on someone there really is a risk of opportunism or revenge. But you take this risk, not as a huge leap of faith but based on the expectation that others will be helpful or at least not harmful.
This belief that others have benevolent integrity and confidence is really the basis of trust; the trustworthiness you perceive in your colleagues. Do they have the ability to carry out the tasks or write the report or analyze the numbers? Do they follow through on what they say? That’s really what we’re talking about when we’re talking about building trust.
Wofford: Going back to our opening question, how does trust deteriorate?
Williams: Fear and stress can undermine rational cooperation. Time and time again, research studies show that people will punish others even at a cost to themselves if they believe they’ve been treated unfairly.
Tough economic times and layoffs make people fear that others are not going to be able to cooperate and are just trying to protect themselves. Fear can also cause employees to avoid one another and it’s very hard to get work done when people are avoiding you.
When it comes to anger, it can really cause vengeful behavior and override understanding and forgiveness. Everybody makes mistakes, but if people aren’t given a second chance, it often ends up undermining your project without giving them the chance to either explain what happened or to rebuild the trust.
Wofford: How do our different personalities and personal assumptions play into issues of workplace trust? I mean, we’re all individuals right?
Williams: I teach a course in intergroup dialogue and part of the foundation of that course is trust and how you give people the benefit of the doubt when talking about issues that are controversial. Can we have a discussion with people who have different assumptions and can we do it in a way that moves things forward rather than placing blame?
Wofford: Isn’t a lot of that just making people feel comfortable?
Williams: Exactly, and honesty is what brings about those high-quality connections that really facilitate work.
I want to talk a little bit about emotional work. Everyone’s probably had a colleague who’s had a bad day and you’ve tried to cheer them up. That’s what emotional work is. It’s when you try to change your own emotion or someone else’s emotion. Emotional work is really key to building trust in settings where there may be high emotions.
If you are all working really hard to get something done, there’s a lot of stress and tension. If team members are able to help each other manage that, they’re able to maintain that trust at a higher level.
Wofford: So we have to manage emotions in addition to doing our work? How does this play out in a real-world setting?
Williams: Emotional work has two fundamental foundations. One is emotional influence. Can you make the other person feel differently than they’re feeling now in a way that will help them work and continue their relationship with you and with a project? Can you see the situation from the other person’s point of view so that you can figure out the best strategy for interacting?
So how do you do that? There are several different things you can do. One is to alter the situation. Managers often do this if they have a negative feedback report to give to an employee. Instead of calling them into the conference room or the manager’s office, they might instead take them out to lunch and make it a more informal situation.
Another way is to alter the other person’s interpretation of events. You know, projects often fail and that can be crushing. But being able to reframe that into a message of “failures only lead to success” is very effective. Get them to think about it in a different way. Those types of interpretations help people go forward and build and maintain trust.
You can also change the environment. Go play racquetball, go out for a drink – that’s probably not a long-term solution but it works in the short term.
Another approach is that sometimes people say, “Suck it up, just keep going and move on.”
Wofford: Is this emotional work the responsibility of HR, of leadership, or of all of us?
Williams: This is definitely something that leaders do and something that people expect of their leaders. But it’s also something that people do within a team. You need to support each other.
If you don’t notice how other people are feeling, there’s not as much the manager can do about it. Team members have a huge impact because they’re with that person every day, so they’re in the position of being able to reframe a failure or a challenge in a way that makes people go forward.
I think that this is important at all levels of the organization. HR certainly has a critical role to play, including in what type of training they can provide so that people start to understand these behaviors.
Wofford: I want to turn back to our audience for a moment and ask them to weigh in on this poll question: When you feel anxious, stressed or angry, what would you like your team members and managers to do? We have some options: one, use humor to distract you; two, listen to your story; three, help you think more positively; and four, give you advice.
The answers are now in and I don’t know if you’ll be surprised by this, Michele, but the most popular answer was two, to simply listen.
Williams: Listening is critical. I think that a lot of times people jump in with advice when they haven’t understood the situation because they haven’t taken the time to really listen to the person. They’re only half listening and then they start offering solutions. So listening is extremely powerful and it shows that you care and are trustworthy.
Wofford: Not everyone is willing to share their feelings though. How do you find out that your team members are angry or stressed if they don’t come out and say it? How do you anticipate it?
Williams: You’re right that people won’t always tell you, so you might have to look for clues. It may be that you have a team member who used to always go to lunch. If they stop going out to lunch with you, that’s a clue that something’s probably up.
A lot of this is about the proactive process of imagining other people’s thoughts or feelings from their point of view. This is important not only in terms of emotional influence but also just in terms of communication. Communication scholars have looked at perspective-taking and it turns out that when you take someone else’s perspective, you adjust what you say to their knowledge level and to their experience. You frame things in a way so that they actually understand what you’re saying better. It also helps you feel closer to people once you’ve taken their perspective and this in turn makes you care more about their outcomes. It’s a very powerful process if people engage in it.
You know, there is this myth that people are simply trustworthy or not and all you have to do is watch your colleagues and see how they behave and you can figure out if they’re trustworthy or not. But in reality, trustworthiness is something that’s negotiated. Both sides have expectations for trustworthiness and you have to talk about them to figure out where to meet in the middle.
Wofford: So we know that perspective-taking and managing other people’s emotions and emotional influence are important, but how do we get there? How do we get to a place where we’re doing that regularly?
Williams: I would just say practice, practice, practice. Perspective-taking is critical because perspective-taking decreases when people are under stress, under time pressures or when they’re trying to multitask. And of course, this is exactly when it’s most needed.
On a personal level, get feedback. Solicit feedback from individuals about how well they think you understand their perspective. Ask people, what are the situations in which I’m at my best?
Think about those types of situations so that you can build on those strengths.
And finally, practice generative listening. Generative listening goes beyond active listening. So you are listening – you’re not texting while they’re talking to you – but more than that, you’re also affirming their perspective.
You don’t have to agree with someone to affirm that you’ve heard, what they’re saying, and what assumptions they are moving forward from.
Wofford: What are the takeaways you hope people get from our talk here today?
Williams: Building high-performing, collaborative work relationships requires effort, perspective-taking, emotional work, and threat reduction. It’s an interpersonal process that’s ongoing. You don’t do it once and stop.
In today’s global workplace, effective work relationships are key to promotions, project success, and a company’s profitability. Some of the concepts we’ve talked about today can help you build and maintain the trust you’ll need within your team or organization.
Wofford: Michelle, this has been fantastic. Thank you for joining me.
Want to hear more? This interview is based on Michele Williams’ live eCornell WebSeries event, Building High-Performing Relationships at Work: What Leaders, Followers and Team Members Need to Know. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Human Resources topics.