I don’t think you can learn without some level of trust, especially as part of a team. I recently had an experience with one of my colleagues that brought this home – I was asking questions about a project, and my intent was to understand what was happening and why, so that we could learn what we might do to improve how we work on similar types of projects. However, my colleague felt like he was on the hot seat – it was uncomfortable for him. Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that questioning others can often seem a bit antagonistic – and that it is the responsibility of the person asking to ensure that the intent is clear and that there is no hidden agenda behind the questions. But even with that, there needs to be some level of trust between team mates.
The root of the word “trust” comes from a Middle English word meaning “faithful,” also related to “true.” Learning together requires at least a small leap of faith – willingness to take a risk and be vulnerable with teammates, and faith that they will treat you with respect. Teams don’t reach a high level of trust quickly. It takes time. Brené Brown talks about trust as a marble jar, with each small act of vulnerability, each risk taken and met with appropriate respectful response, as another marble of trust put in the jar. You can’t build trust without the courage to take a chance on being vulnerable. And this willingness to be vulnerable needs to be met in kind, if trust is to grow. It is especially important for leaders, who have relatively more power, to honor the trust of their fellow teammates. Any disrespect will erode faith placed in them, defenses will come up, and learning will be blocked. Leaders need to have the courage to go first, not just to role model the behavior they want, but to earn the credibility to lead. If they do this, they can help build a group norm of psychological safety, a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. When psychological safety is present, teams are more likely to learn from mistakes, have highly engaged employees and innovate to solve problems and improve processes.
Having a value of continuous improvement implies that we are not where we would like to be. That can be uncomfortable – admitting that there is room for improvement can be a risky proposition in some organizational settings. The learning process itself is also uncomfortable. As adults, we get used to being competent – so learning both requires that we admit we aren’t that good at something, and then that we demonstrate our lack of competence by practicing a new skill. Leaders need to help people manage this discomfort. One way is by role-modeling it: being willing to look unskillful in front of others. Another method is to support people in their learning by giving them the time and space to work through whatever comes up.
Finally, leaders have to take a big leap of faith in all this that focusing on the learning process in the short term will lead to better results in the long term. If they focus on results in the short term and do whatever it takes to achieve desired outcomes, leaders are likely to shut down learning, rather than create space for it, because learning requires making mistakes and being ok with that. It takes a lot of courage for a leader to trust the learning process enough to give it time to generate positive results. But I do believe that is the only way to reach sustainable, high performance.