From the Influencers

Creating a Culture of Trust is Critical to Win

July 07, 2016
By Special Guest
Amy Zimmerman, Global Head of People Operations, Kabbage -

Building a winning culture involves some pretty obvious things like hiring high caliber talent, producing innovative products and displaying true grit; but the most critical factor is creating an environment where people feel safe. Physical safety is a no-brainer, but emotional safety is paramount. When we don’t feel safe, our primal instincts kick in (think “fight” or “flight”). The limbic system is activated when there is a perceived threat, whether physical, psychological or emotional. Being chased by a bear will trigger our limbic system to take over and so will a narcissistic manager that leads through intimidation and doesn’t take the time to connect with his or her team members.

When a team member is in fight or flight mode, productivity and engagement tank and trust evaporates. Let’s face it, without trust your culture (and your company) is doomed. Because of this, I firmly believe that creating an environment where people feel safe is the number one ingredient in building a winning culture. If people feel like they can take risks, and *gasp* even fail, we might actually set our teams up to really achieve greatness.

Creating a culture that promotes and supports an emotionally safe environment is easier said than done. Here are a couple of key strategies that can help you get there:  

Feedback is your friend, ASK for it, EMBRACE it and most importantly, ACT on it!

Small-group feedback sessions are one of the most powerful forums for not only getting honest feedback, but also for helping to build team connections. In addition, these sessions help to remind us that “we’re all in this together” and share similar thoughts, fears and frustrations.

It’s been my experience that people tend to feel more comfortable sharing the good, the bad and the ugly in small safe groups facilitated by someone they believe to be “neutral” rather than one-on-one. 

One of the best small group sessions that I facilitated was fun, open, free of judgment and incredibly productive. The participants seemed to feel safe as evidenced by their willingness to speak up and their uncensored feedback. There were several themes identified that included communication issues, cross-department dysfunction and confusion about company priorities. In my role as facilitator, I took the confidential feedback to our management team to devise an action plan. Together, we came up with a strategy to address the issues and major themes that were raised during the sessions, along with a tactical plan for addressing them with the entire company at one of our weekly all-company Town Halls.    

Done well, these sessions can be game-changers.  That said, here are some suggested “ground rules” to fully reap the benefits. 

  1. Get support from the top before you even consider taking this on. If you don’t have the support for this exercise from your leadership team, do not waste yours or your team members’ time going through the motions. If your senior leaders would prefer to deny, or worse, defend the aspects of the culture that have become undesirable, then it’s best not to call more attention to it.
  2. Make sure you are prepared to act on the feedback. If you’re not truly interested in addressing the bad and the ugly, don’t ask for the feedback. It would be worse to ask for feedback under the guise of caring only to do nothing with it.
  3. Look for themes and focus on the real problems. There will inevitably be participants who have something negative to share. After all, you’re asking for their feedback on what the biggest opportunities might be for improvement. There will be a lot of one-offs that you can help resolve easily, but don’t allow the noise to distract your team from solving the major problems (the rocks!). Save your resources for the themes that multiple people have identified to maximize the impact.

Testing trust: If you really believe it’s OK to fail, then stand up in front of the room and admit it when you do!

It would be virtually impossible to create a culture that breeds innovation - a critical characteristic for high growth disruptive tech companies - to succeed without trust. Most executives will espouse the virtues of failing hard, failing fast and failing often. Without failure, there can be no breakthroughs. But do your team members believe it? Do they see others get rewarded for failing or do they see their peers, and even their managers, get raked across the coals for a misstep?

There are different degrees of failures, but the point is that talking about the screw-ups is critical. Being transparent, accountable and vocal about things that didn’t work well or quite as you had expected only helps to build credibility, connections and engagement. One of the things we did at Kabbage in this past year was have our Executive Leadership Team each reflect on the top mistakes in their areas and report to the entire company what each area’s top three “lessons learned” were for the year.

One of the most valuable lessons reported by one of our leaders was that regular, direct communication is always important; however, in our environment it is a make-or-break competency, especially around people/organization issues. One of the most valuable lessons that I learned was when I realized that the concept of “annual performance reviews” is an archaic practice that was irrelevant to truly measuring and rewarding performance. The result? We decided to stop doing them just because “everyone else does.”

The results were powerful. Not only did we celebrate our learnings, we demonstrated to the entire company that mistakes are ok and, in fact, are an important part of growing up and becoming the company that we’re all so excited to be part of.

It all comes down to TRUST

As an employer, creating a culture where people feel psychologically safe should be as fundamental as paying their salaries. After all, our salaries support our foundational physiological needs (number one on the pyramid of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs), and feeling safe is the building block for what comes next.

The People Operations team at Google embarked on a two-year study to figure out what five elements make up a successful team in their environment. What they found validated what I’ve believed for as long as I can remember. Psychological safety is the number one characteristic for building a successful team. You can read about the study’s findings here.  

There are some simple things that leaders should keep in mind during their daily interactions with team members to better support the type of environment where people feel safe and push themselves to fully realize their potential. Having clarity and transparency around goals and objectives prevents confusion and distrust, thus helping people feel safe to challenge their curiosity. Replacing words like “I” with “we” is a connector and reminds us that we’re all in it together. And finally, shoot straight with folks. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Your word is everything. Creating an environment where there is mutual trust and where people feel safe will pay dividends during the good times and the bad.

Amy Zimmerman is Head of Global People Operations at Kabbage. Headquartered in Atlanta, GA, Kabbage has pioneered the first financial services data and technology platform to provide fully automated funding to small businesses in minutes. Kabbage leverages data generated through business activity such as accounting data, online sales, shipping and dozens of other sources to understand performance and deliver fast, flexible funding in real time.

Edited by Alicia Young

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