Broken Trust

This month’s article is from my good friend and colleague, Bill Weingartner. He discusses the challenges that cohesive teams face when they experience a break in their trust, and how they go about responding to it. He highlights several different response types and identifies the one that will truly bring a team back to where they need to be.


Inside of Table Group Consulting, we’re convinced of it. We’re motivated by it. Because it’s true. Cohesive teamwork is a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Working with multiple clients of different sizes in a variety of industries, we see the evidence literally every day. Team cohesion leads to high performance because cohesive teams are consistently characterized by three specific things. They make faster, better decisions. They affect more seamless execution, and they are more nimble to change. 

Of course, the term ‘cohesive teams’ refers to teams that overcome the five dysfunctions of a team. And there’s a formula for that. A leader fulfills the leader’s role, and team members fulfill their roles. Leaders go first in vulnerability-based trust, and team members are nanoseconds behind, being vulnerable themselves. Leaders demand debate, and team members don’t hold back. Leaders force clarity and closure, and team members respond with ALL-IN commitment. Leaders make uncomfortable conversations comfortable, and team members practice peer-to-peer accountability. (Side note: I don’t know a single leader whose highest and best use is playing referee for employees who cannot get along. Let’s commit to not assigning them to that task.) Lastly, leaders focus on collective results, and team members follow with a true Team One mindset, willing to do what is best for the larger organization rather than myopically focusing on their functional areas of expertise or interest.

The formula works. It truly works. But while it holds the key to higher team performance, even those of us who are practicing it will inevitably fail. After all, we’re messy, fallible creatures who didn’t come out of the womb as ideal team players. We mess up sometimes. Sometimes it’s small and inconsequential, but other times a team member really messes up big time. I’m sure you’ve seen that. Maybe even been a party to it.

So…what do we do when a team member breaks trust or plays politics? How do we respond when they make a personal attack or when they don’t follow through on a team commitment? Sure, it’s easy to be cohesive when everything and everyone is living within the formula, but formula breakers hurt. They cause pain. They stress the team. How do we respond then? That’s an important question because our response either drives us further outside the team cohesion formula that works, or it brings everyone back to center. And if we desire to behave in accordance with the premise that team cohesion is a strategic choice that leads to higher performing teams that make faster, better decisions with more seamless execution and nimbleness for change, then we need to be prepared for the inevitable stress.

There are five responses that each team member will deploy any time an infraction occurs. Either intentionally or not, they’ll respond in one of five ways. Not all five ways are good. In fact, three of them are flat-out bad. The fourth is helpful to be sure, and it’s a necessary start. The fifth, however, separates the best of teams from the others. Yes, the fifth “R” is gold for a team that chooses to be truly cohesive.

The Five Rs – When a Team Member Breaks the Formula

Retraction – Unfortunately, retraction happens far too many times. I don’t know why, but it’s easy for us to disengage from teammates by moving toward artificial harmony. We are hurt or frustrated by the actions of a teammate and proceed to hide our true feelings. We may not realize it, but passive aggressive behavior quickly steps in. We think, “I’m going to act like everything is okay, but it’s not. You hurt me, and I’m going underground. What you did damaged our bond, and now I’m being dishonest about how I feel. And when the retracting persists our attitude becomes, “I’m going to start doing things I know you don’t like or I’m going to not do things that I know you want me to do.” It’s all so passive aggressive, but we can retract from a teammate to whom we were once bonded.

Rejection – It’s also not uncommon to reject a teammate because they hurt or frustrate us. The rejection can be either overt or covert. Applied between team members, we can emotionally and intellectually withdraw from each other, no longer accepting each other’s inputs or opinions. It’s the opposite of “I’m all in.” But guess what? Bad things happen the instant we turn our hearts away from someone we’re on a team with. It’s entirely possible that we can be sitting right next to a teammate, but our heart is 1000 miles away. Clearly that’s not good. Rejection is common, and it’s especially common when we’re frustrated. We think things like, “Why aren’t you changing? How can you possibly act like that? I’m trying here, but you’re clearly not.” And subconsciously, “I reject you as a teammate.”

Revenge – Revenge is the attitude behind the sentiment, “I’m going to get you back.” We can take a posture of revenge and make others pay for what they’ve done to teach them a lesson or even to create fear so that they don’t do it again. Like retraction and rejection, revenge is not born from vulnerability. Rather, it’s an eye-for-an-eye approach to teamwork. “I’m going to get you back. You owe me so I’m going to make you suffer. I’m going to control the relationship, and you’re either going to do what I say or pay a price.” Team members who keep score are likely playing the revenge game.

Respond Righteously – Our fourth “R” is effective in keeping teammates talking openly and honestly so that teams can continue to behave cohesively. It takes some vulnerability, and again, it’s necessary. We righteously respond in a kind and timely manner. It sounds like this, “I really appreciate you. I think you’re great. And there’s no question we’re on the same team, but that bothered me when you said that, or when you did that.” Responding righteously (not judgmentally) in the moment is something the Table Group emphasizes. It prevents teams from proceeding down a path that isn’t healthy. It’s important and good, but it’s not fully complete without the fifth and final “R.”

Redemption – The “R” that makes all the difference is redemption. It’s the most vulnerable of all possible actions a team could take when someone breaks the formula. Here’s why. The definition of redeem is to buy back or restore something to its created purpose. It’s from the Latin word redimere (re- “back” plus emere- “buy”). When a team member breaks the cohesion formula, we need to do something they couldn’t do on their own. We pay the price they should have to pay. We buy their way back into our cohesive team without making them work for it, without making them pay for it, without shaming them into it. We don’t say, “If you behave well enough for a certain period of time, we’ll start trusting you again” because that would be performance-based trust (and it would be slow). Our team cohesion formula demands vulnerability-based trust. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we interact with each other in a way that enables abuse. That would be a horrible idea. But I am talking about simply working with an imperfect person. We can redeem a teammate through redemptive/proactive behavior. “I’m going to pay a price for you that you will not or cannot pay.” Maybe that price is time, or maybe it’s embarrassment, but it’s something. Mostly, it’s an invitation to a team member to come back to the team so that we can together practice vulnerability-based trust, to ensure that we are engaging in ideological debate to find and commit to the best way forward, holding ourselves accountable to the collective results of the team.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why would I ever want to do this redemption-thing? This is on them, not on me! Do I really have to be that selfless?” The answer is yes. And simply from a practical sense, here’s why.

  1. It’s the only way team members truly reconcile.
  2. It’s the only method that creates a necessary, swift solution.
  3. It’s the only behavior that stops the cycle of damage in the long run.
  4. It’s the right example to the team and to the company.