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Trust by Default

Michael Luchen
August 3, 2020


This article  is part 1 of our written series “Building Trust in Product Teams,” where we examine what is required for cultivating a positive, results-producing environment for your team. Based on over a decade of experience in partnering with startups, enterprises, and Fortune 500 companies to build digital products, these are the repeatable tactics we’ve vetted out that drive successful product teams. If you’d like guidance in implementing these in your organization, learn more about our agile coaches here.

Trust is crucial, yet often absent

Trust is the foundation of any successful product team. Trust is what all good intentions and results are built upon. Yet, in a recent online survey conducted by product leaders at Crema, we found a lack of trust is surprisingly common across many organizations. Even for many of the organizations that do have it, there’s a heavy weight present with that trust: it has to be earned, and what can be earned can be taken away.

Trust shouldn’t be something that is always “on the line” in an organization. If it is, it becomes a bartering chip subjected to team politics. Worse, trust in an environment like this can become a form of “pseudo-trust,” where teams play the act of trust on the surface knowing that risk lies around the corner if something goes wrong. 

Trust by default

We believe in trust by default. Trusting by default means that if a team member needs to accomplish something, you trust they are capable enough to learn it or figure out a workaround.

This creates an empowering relationship that unlocks all benefits of trust in a product team: psychological safety, enhanced creativity, increased efficiency, and the ability to unlock the true potential of the team. As a product team leader, how can you cultivate trust by default in your team?

You may find yourself in a position to help guide your team members to understand this. They may be coming from a prior organization where they didn’t have this level of trust and autonomy. Or they may be coming from an industry where trust was based on their years of experience. It’s up to you to help unlock their potential.

What trust by default looks like on a team level

Patience and investment

Use key conversations with your team members to demonstrate patience and form trusting relationships. 

For example, when a team member asks you for a product decision, ask what they think first. Show that you value and trust their intelligence by leaning into that dialogue with them and asking deeper and nuanced questions.

Don’t criticize

When your team stumbles, don’t criticize. Ask guiding questions to help figure out how to improve or resolve the situation. Keep a focus on the problem, not the people in your team. Let them see their capability and creativity in being able to adapt and drive forward momentum.

Let your team members be the guide

When you need to provide a report to your stakeholders, rely on your team for guidance. Better yet, invite them to the table to support and guide that discussion. With their permission, let them collaborate directly with your stakeholders. Not only will this cultivate a trusted environment for both your team and stakeholders, but it will shrink the gap in communication, leading to a better-shared understanding of what you’re building and a more efficient decision-making process.

Cultivating foundational trust in product teams is about curating a psychologically safe environment for your team to do their best work. This requires intentionality on your part. More importantly, it requires space on your part.

What trust by default looks like on an individual level

Step back

It’s critical to intentionally step back and give your team room to figure things out. Jumping into discussions is helpful to guide them; however, you must resist the temptation to direct your team’s work. 

Directing their work will only pull down the potential collective intelligence of your team, as well as dampen the trusted environment where great ideas and insights could emerge. Like a mechanic maintaining an engine, only step in to tune up the collaborative environment to help keep things on track, if and as needed.

Effective product development is about cultivating an environment for great work to be done and good decisions to be made. Your team is made up of specialists and it’s up to you to empower them to focus on their craft. An important distinction to make is that the environment needs to strike a healthy balance unique to your team. In many situations, the best environments are the least process and review-driven. 

Introspection and internal processing

Throughout this, you will need to look inside yourself. Guiding your product team with trust by default may go against the grain of the culture in your organization. You may feel external pressure from that, or your past experiences, to not trust by default. However, it’s important to regularly reflect on your interactions with guiding your team. Journaling may be an effective way to process your thoughts.

Stepping back and critically looking at yourself will be the most valuable task to support cultivating trust in your team. Initially, this work may come across as counter-culture. As a product leader, you will feel the paradox of being “accountable for everything, but responsible for nothing.” Cultivating trust in your team may mean significant discomfort for yourself, including taking the fall or blame of perceived missteps, multiple times. This is worth the investment and will be healthy for you if you are willing to persevere.

Trust is a posture of service

Creating a foundation of trust in high-performance, cross-functional teams is about leaning into a posture of service. You must be a servant leader. This means listening more than talking and generally stepping back but at the same time subtly guiding your team. It’s an artful skill and one that always isn’t visible. If you become comfortable and persistent with this you will see a positive shift in your team’s culture towards one built on a trusted environment over time. In this series, we’ll look at how you can build structures on top of this foundation of trust in your product teams to drive effective results.

Trust is imperative on a product team, but you may be wondering how to build this trust. Stay tuned for 'Permission to Fail' (part 2) where we'll explore how to set up structures that encourage and celebrate results-generating experimentation.


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