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Trust as a Fundamental Force That Binds People Together

Building a Team
Internal Communication
Team processes
Leadership
Personal growth

28 October, 2020

Zhenzhong Xu, Engineering Manager at Netflix, reflects on the problems that he faced as a first-time manager and explains why building trust is critical for team success.

Problem

As a tech lead, I had a hard time handling interpersonal conflicts and mediating different opinions. I was so occupied with expressing my own opinion that I would fail to take into account other people’s perspectives. If I would encounter a strong, opposing opinion or would be interrupted in my presentation I would simply shut down myself into defense mode and fail to listen. As a result, I was making less optimal decisions.
 

That made me reflect on my own behavior and my own actions. During one of my reflections, I experienced almost an epiphany observing one of the fundamental forces of our universe (Strong nuclear force: https://www.livescience.com/48575-strong-force.html that helped me understand that trust (and the ability to imbue trust through leadership) is the most fundamental force that binds people together and is critical for team success. This realization was crucial in my overcoming of the difficulties I had as a first-time manager and that, without any doubt, made me a better leader.
 

Actions taken

Practicing self-awareness and mindfulness
I started to regularly reflect on my actions which helped me better understand my own emotional triggers and behaviors. Self-reflection made me more self-aware and mindful and allowed me to value the importance of small, incremental changes that I made as a part of my personal growth. It encouraged me to think more intentionally about leadership and how I could become a better leader.
 

Creating a psychologically safe and inclusive environment and building trust by combining curiosity and courage
My own difficulties with accepting different opinions assured me how important it is to create a safe and inclusive environment where people can express their divergent opinions without fear of negative feedback and criticism. I realized that trust plays a central role in creating that environment, but also that trust is a uniting force that brings people together regardless of their different opinions. I decided to create a psychologically safe environment by encouraging and combining curiosity and courage. I view curiosity as a prerequisite that unfetters people to learn about and understand all those different perspectives. Oftentimes, behind different opinions, there are different personalities, (sub)cultures, personal histories, incentives, etc. Empowering people to share their differences is the first step toward creating a more inclusive and inspiring environment.
 

At the same time, I would encourage rigorous debates to ensure only the best ideas move to the execution phase. People should also learn from their experience of tolerating mediocre ideas and understand that silent dissent means disloyalty to the team. We as leaders are responsible to model the desired behavior. Showing vulnerability and demonstrating active acknowledgment should be initiated by a leader and then, meticulously nurtured in others. That includes positioning myself as a person whose ideas should be challenged first.
 

Once the decisions are made, be fully transparent about the reasoning behind them and the tradeoffs. This is especially critical when reasonable objections or alternatives were expressed during the process.
 

Developing rituals to scale communication
One of the problems I encountered was how to balance challenging each other and discussing our different opinions while being effective and focused on results. I came up with my own list of rituals that helped me scale communication with my team.
 

  • I would leverage one-on-one conversations to model behavior and brace it with real-life examples. I would share my own, lived-through stories to influence behavior change. Sharing stories in a one-on-one setting proved to be more effective than sharing them in a group because it allowed me to better connect with a particular person. I would customize the stories while preserving their authenticity, but I would emphasize an angle that would allow me to better connect with another person.
  • I would encourage a feedback culture and enable team members to most effectively use feedback. I would have them use conflicting situations as opportunities to build trust between them and to effectively give feedback to each other. Conflicts happen all the time and we should not avoid them but learn to manage them.
    I would use unconventional communication channels such as weekly context email to touchpoint context that was not - covered in 1:1s or team meetings. It’s also an opportunity for me to articulate my own mental models and thought process in written form, as well as inviting feedback in an asynchronous fashion. I would use team meetings to discuss hard decisions. Whoever decides to initiate and facilitate the discussion on hard decisions that should be challenged would be labeled an informed captain. That person will be responsible for facilitating interaction, farming for dissents, and driving the discussion toward the conclusion.
  • On a broader level, I would convene forums to share context, decisions, and ideas between different sub-teams in order to create the connection but also demarcate the teams’ boundaries. When putting effort into building trust only internally, there is a reasonable risk of creating silos. Therefore, we should put an additional effort into extending trust to other teams and creating a company-wide culture of trust.
     

Lessons learned

  • People are building blocks of high-performing teams. These building blocks are united by trust. Trust is the fundamental force that creates a team’s cohesion and binds people together.
  • Leadership at its core starts with understanding oneself well and having the ability to constantly reflect on oneself and continuously improve.
  • People need to feel valued and respected to be productive. Therefore, you should create a collaborative and inclusive working environment where every voice is appreciated but hard decisions are nevertheless made.
  • Communication overhead can sneak in pretty easily, but if you are able to proactively identify bottlenecks, and create rituals and behaviors to scale the team, it’s more likely to succeed.

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