Trust in temporary groups

Trust is in my focus again! Recently I’ve been working with teams that come together for a short time around a project and then separate – often never to work together again. Sometimes, magically, teams trust each other from the start and continue to do so. In others, trust never develops.

Temporary teams are everywhere, for example in a networked start-up, contract employees are involved in diverse short-term projects with different teams.  Or two organisational teams come together temporarily to develop a shared platform.  In a huge company people come together around a project and never see each other again.

In these situations, the conventional notion that trust needs time to develop (from shared experiences, vulnerability and familiarity) seems inadequate. Yet, many work!

Another factor is the high stakes and complexity that many projects entail. In one, undertaken in the umbrella of large bureaucracy, the proposal that the team had worked on for months was accepted wholeheartedly, but when it came to resourcing it further, the process was so slow that competitors raced in. In another fast-moving 6-month project, the partnership between two very different cultures ended in such a clash that goals put at risk.

Recently I found Deborah Meyerson’s concept of “swift trust”. She writes that many groups are like the organisational equivalent of the “one-night stand”- they have a finite lifespan; relatively clear goals and their success depends on a tight and coordinated coupling!”*

Swift Trust proposes that when a system is temporary, people enter it with the presupposition that trust is a “given”. Then they immediately start (consciously or unconsciously) verifying that these trust expectations are fulfilled. If behaviours that support this assumption occur without hesitation both reciprocally and collectively, they provide “social proof” that trust is indeed present, and high engagement and performance ensues.

Everyday conversational behaviours, however small, contribute to the collective verification that trust is present. These include listening when uncertainty is expressed, responding to vulnerability with empathy and recognising difference in our ability to manage risk. The opposite is also true. Each act that dismisses uncertainty and vulnerability and bulldozes over risk and expectations will undermine the gift of trust that people give in a temporary group.

If in the context of a short-term group we cannot rely on our prior experience of people, we then rely on our self-experience and the idea of norms around trust. From my perspective, the unpredictable element is the personal history of team members. Therefore, I find that a shared charter of values and behaviours formed in consultation with the team is worth the time.  The Charter includes the mechanisms for holding people to account and senior leaders need to both model it and make sure it is enacted.

*(Meyerson, D Weik, K & Kramer R Swift Trust and Temporary Groups in Kramer and Tyler: Trust in Organisations 1996 Sage)