Interpersonal trust initiatives

In order to feel psychologically safe (and therefore work effectively in teams), people need to have a high level of interpersonal trust with their colleagues.

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Leaders and managers can model interpersonal trust in their own behaviour

  • Saying 'I don't know' in front of other people — we so rarely hear this during our formative years (from parents or teachers) and it has such a profound impact on employees. It demonstrates openness and rallies against a culture of perfectionism.
  • Being clear with work-life boundaries — telling the team they're clocking off after an end-of-day meeting, not emailing on evenings or weekends, and saying when they won't be able to do something on time. All this helps employees to set better boundaries themselves.
  • Admitting to mistakes and fails — this can be done in a light-hearted or serious way, but the important thing is to be open about when they did something wrong, demonstrating that it's not the end of the world if an employee were to do the same.
  • Asking for criticism and inviting conflict — hoping that people will feel comfortable giving feedback or questioning those above them in seniority isn't enough. It's the responsibility of those who are more senior to ask for constructive criticism, logic-checking and debate.

Interpersonal trust between employees can be improved hugely through exercises that promote openness and vulnerability

Unfortunately, competitiveness, office politics, misunderstanding and passive-aggressiveness can easily crop up between peers who work together — especially in the new remote or hybrid world.

The key to psychological safety between employees is to foster as much honesty and understanding as possible. The more honest we are with each other, the more we understand each other as whole people. And the more we understand each other as whole people, the less likely we are to misinterpret actions, or feel resentful and competitive, or assume the worst.

The absolute bible when it comes to encouraging honesty and understanding in teams is a book we mentioned earlier on in this post, 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team' by Patrick Lenconi. Although the title makes it sound like a slightly dry management textbook, it's written as a fable — the story of a fictional company and how its team members interact — so it's actually very readable. It has dramatically changed the way in which we interact with each other at Spill, and we now even give the book to new joiners as part of their onboarding pack.

Here are two exercises that the book suggests for building team trust and openness, and two more (one taken from Stanford's D-School, and one we made up) that have been really effective for us at building interpersonal understanding:

  • Personal histories exercise (~20 minutes per person). Even on close-knit teams, we can still be surprised by how little we know about our colleagues. This is a relatively low-risk exercise, and questions don't need to be overly personal: number of siblings, what life was like growing up, experience at school, first job, worst job, and so on. Just by describing these relatively innocuous attributes and experiences it helps team members to see one another as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds. Ask each person to speak for around 10 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions. Often the questions are the most interesting part.
  • Strengths and weaknesses exercise (~15 minutes per person). Best done in smaller teams (less than 10 people), rather than bigger departments. Take some silent time for team members to write down the single greatest contribution that each other person makes to the team, and the one area that person must either improve or eliminate for the good of the team. Everyone then speaks through their response, focusing on one person at a time. Ask the person hearing their responses to reflect on how they feel about it. The aim is for it to be at times uncomfortable, but never personal.
  • 'Life graph' drawing exercise (30 minutes in pairs, then 10 minutes for each pair to present back to the group). Employees are put into pairs and go off for 30 minutes with the task of spending 15 minutes each talking about their life, from birth up until now. While one person is talking, the other listens intently and draws out the highs and lows of that persons life as they hear them (asking clarifying questions where necessary). When presenting back to the group, each person shows and talks through the other person's graph — and then at the end the person hearing their own graph is asked how it felt to hear that.
  • 'Desert island discs' exercise (45 minutes in pairs, then 10 minutes for each pair to present back to the group). Inspired by the radio programme 'Desert island discs' on BBC Radio 4, this is a great exercise for helping to understand other people better through the catalyst of music. Employees are put into pairs and go off for 45 minutes with the task of thinking about which five songs they would want to take with them if they were being shipped off to a desert island. They can also take one luxury item (but it can't be anything that could help them to get off the island). After thinking about which songs to choose in silence first, each person then takes the other through their song choices and why a song has particular emotional resonance to them. When presenting back to the group, each person explains the other person's choices and gives a summary of what they learned about the person that they didn't know before.

One final thing that hugely helps boost interpersonal risk-taking is having a feeling of unconditional positive regard from fellow teammates. When we don't just feel accepted because of how we've performed recently, but because of how we are fundamentally as people, it's so much easier to go out on a limb and be honest, or start conflict, or invite criticism. We feel safe and held enough to take the risk. One way to build unconditional positive regard is with a steady stream of unconditional praise. That means the "you're a thoughtful and funny person" kind of praise, not the "you worked really hard last week to get that project over the line" kind of praise. We use one of our own Spill features, Wall of Praise, to remember to give someone unconditional praise each week over Slack.

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