May 10, 2012

Take a look at a photo I really admire. It’s a little soft-focus and the framing is a bit off. That’s what makes it perfect. After all, the photographer had only seconds to shoot and only one free camera hand. His other was in that stack.

It was a surprise moment at the end of recent seminar for new managers, one that meant a lot to them. For me, the image is a vivid reminder of how trust and teams grow — under the right conditions. I’ll share the photo’s back story, but first let’s focus on trust.

Great bosses know it’s important to build trust in organizations. But managers can’t simply mandate it, any more than Poynter faculty can command people in our programs to reach out to each other. It must be their own choice.

But leaders can create an atmosphere where the choosing comes easily.

That’s important work with a great payoff. So here are eight tips for building trust among a group of people, whether they’re in a workplace or a workshop:

1. Know each other as people, not just professionals. We’re all so much more than our job titles; we have stories that connect us.

2. Talk about values early and often, but don’t lecture from on high.  Just share yours, listen to others, and walk your talk.

3. When you create rules, connect them to values. When guidelines support beliefs that people share, they’re more likely to respect them.

4. Respond to disappointments, misunderstandings and honest mistakes constructively, not vindictively. Start with an assumption that the other person has positive intentions.

5. Recognize that teams are stronger when people bring diverse skills, experiences and viewpoints. A team of clones is a closed club with limited potential.

6. Respect and encourage thoughtful, civil debate. Give greater credence to those who “show their math” rather than just shooting off their mouths.

7. Provide ongoing and useful feedback so people never wonder where they stand with you or their co-workers. Uncertainty feeds fear. Fear erodes trust.

8. Work — and PLAY — well together. Play is an antidote to tension, a vitamin for creativity, and an opportunity to make a memory.

We try to practice what we teach when bringing people together for leadership training. Our “icebreaker” asks each person to display a photo of the “Real Me” and tell the story behind it. (Most choose images from outside their work lives.) We talk about the values of the best bosses they ever worked for.  We explain our philosophy that “the wisdom’s in the room” — already there among them to share and build upon.

We put a priority on building a seminar group that’s diverse in media, gender, ethnicity, age and geographic background. We change the seating each day so people make new connections. We infuse our teaching with interaction and even goofy play.

We encourage people to respectfully disagree, or, as a Poynter colleague put it, “challenge with passion, not poison.” And we simply suggest that people agree to look out for each other by asking permission before they quote a fellow participant outside the seminar. (Just as I did for this column.)

Without trust in the room, people won’t open up about fears, frustrations, failures, challenges, half-baked ideas or personal ambitions. Fear of criticism or gossip is a candor-killer. I’m happy to report that candor was alive and well among the people in the photo I like so much.

So, what was that picture all about?

Those 20 new managers came to the seminar from across the globe.They spent a little less than a week together. But in those days, in the right environment, they discovered the kind of trust that builds and binds a team. They learned that it’s their role as leaders to cultivate that atmosphere at work for those they supervise, and to make it last for more than one magical week.

The seminar had ended. It was time for people to dash off to airports, back to work and to families. But the affable Ernest Hooper of Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times stopped people in their tracks.

“Huddle up, huddle up, everybody,” he called out with a strong voice and a serious smile. He herded them toward his outstretched hand, toward one more connection.

Scott Simmie of the Toronto Star decided two things: he wanted in on that gesture and he’d capture it, too. In this shot by Kristin Gazlay of the Associated Press, you see Scott, cell phone cam hovering over Ernest, grabbing the image that inspired this column.

Kelly Brown of Denver’s KCNC-TV, described the scene this way:

At first, I thought he meant a group hug – like the classic last scene from Mary Tyler Moore…not being able to let go. But then I realized it was a cheer leading us forward and a promise to remember what we learned together… The perfect ending to an inspiring week.

And that’s the lesson for leaders. People will assemble, at your request. They’ll smile at the camera for an official “group photo.” That’s nice:

But in the right environment, when trust transforms individuals into a team, then they’ll decide what their team photo should look like. I predict it will be better than any you envisioned:

And if you aspire to be a great boss, they just might invite you into the frame, too.

* * *

Here is the companion podcast to today’s column, with a reminder of three key building blocks of trust in any situation:

Note: Jill Geisler’s new book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know,” will be released on June 5.

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Jill Geisler is the inaugural Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity, a position designed to connect Loyola’s School of Communication with the needs…
Jill Geisler

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