• Dr. Andrew Kitchenham

Lencioni's Trust Pyramid

This week, I would like to discuss trust vis-à-vis Lencioni’s (2012) Trust Pyramid. This model is used worldwide within organizations (mostly for teams and their leaders) and has a great deal of research to support it. I like to discuss the Pyramid with clients and coachees alike as it is very eye-opening for them and assists them in using a lens to examine their own and their colleagues’ trust in oneself and in others, respectively.


The Trust Pyramid includes five behavioural principles: (1) Building Trust; (2) Mastering Conflict; (3) Achieving Commitment; (4) Embracing Accountability; and, (5) Focussing on Results.


Building Trust: This behavioural principle is the most-important one because it is the foundation for the other four (and is depicted at the bottom of the pyramid). Many people see trust as akin to being able predict a person’s reliability; faith that the other person will get the job done, for instance. This notion of trust is acceptable for sociological inter-relationships but it is not the type of trust that is needed to form a good team in a department, program, or organization. What is needed is vulnerability-based trust which is when team members are totally comfortable to air their dirty laundry and are transparent and honest with their team members. They are vulnerable and if each member exhibits that level of trust where they are willing to admit to mistakes, ask for assistance, and highlight their weaknesses, they will have a deep and lasting sense of trust. In this manner, there are no egos, no pride, and no fear so that the team’s needs, wants, goals, and so forth are the priority. An effective way to bring out that type of trust is to use the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for each member of the team and to have them share their profiles. As someone who administers the MBTI, I can attest that often when hearing what the assessment says about each team member, the team begins to understand their members much better as participants tend to share why they are a certain way (e.g., introvert) when dealing with colleagues. At times, the fundamental attribution error does crop up whereby team members will indicate that the negative behaviours exhibited by their colleagues can be attributed to the person’s intentions and personalities but their own are attributed to the environment. This approach does not build trust, but it is an obvious avenue in getting to the core of the problem.


Mastering Conflict: This behavioural principle is about willingness to disagree with each other based on the foundational principle of trust; it is productive ideological conflict so that “when there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer” (p. 38). As I indicated in a previous blog, the most-common type of conflict style is avoidance or aversion so mastering this type of conflict can be challenging and, sometimes, painful. Using the aforementioned MTBI with the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Inventory has resulted in some pretty eye-opening moments for clients and coachees and having that knowledge allows them to share their conflict tendencies to each other within the lens of personality types—it is another effective way to show their vulnerability and openness to each other. Part of understanding conflict is to characterize the conflict dynamics within the department or organizing on a continuum, so the extremes are artificial harmony where all people get along and never disagree (and smile and nod a lot) to mean-spirited personal attacks which is a no-holds barred approach, resulting in a lot of shouting and gesticulating. The ideal conflict point is where people take their conflict to the middle of the continuum and then take a step back so that they do not cross the hypothetical line that divides the two extremes. Lencioni argues that there are a few tools that a leader can leverage in mastering conflict at department and organization levels. The first is mining for conflict which occurs when the leader senses that there is conflict in the room and it needs to be aired so they ask the members to bring the conflict to the surface. In this manner, members might not leave the room and continue to fester about the undisclosed disagreement between and among members. The second tool is real-time permission which involves the leader interrupting two members who are engaging in a conflict, disagreement, or argument and encouraging them to work out the conflict without as much stress or guilt. They embrace the conflict as a healthy way to discuss their differences! Lastly, leaders and team members can lay out rules of engagement so that there are clear expectations and guidelines about dealing with conflict.


Achieving Commitment: As the saying goes, “if people don’t weigh in, they can’t buy in” so that members will not commit wholeheartedly to a decision if they have not had the opportunity for a fulsome discussion. It should be noted that achieving commitment is not achieving consensus among members since the commitment is the goal and that commitment must come after members have weighed in. Lencioni points out Intel’s disagree and commit concept which involves members sharing their views (for or against) on a decision but ensuring that everyone leaves the room committed to that decision. It does, however, require that the leader is willing to embrace the discomfort of conflict by ensuring that everyone has a chance to share their views and ending the meeting expecting that everyone rally around the final decision. The leader needs to be aware of passive sabotage whereby members appear to agree to the decision but go back to their offices and start to bad mouth the idea or the leader or do nothing to move their co-workers to the decision that was agreed-upon. To combat that passive sabotage, the most-effective (and really, only) approach is to invite the aforementioned conflict from the team and let them all know that they will be accountable for getting all members to whatever the team decides.


Embracing Accountability: This behavioural principle is the most difficult to achieve as members can intentionally deviate from the plan or unknowingly move away because their day-to-day responsibilities shadow or eclipse the original decision. Peer pressure can be successful as “peer-to-peer accountability is the primary and most effective source of accountability on a leadership team” (p. 54). Many times, members will go to the leader as they expect them to fix the behaviour of the colleagues rather than work it out peer to peer. What the behaviour of going to a superior evokes is resentment and distrust and a state of being in one’s head so they spend valuable time trying to ascertain who “tattled” to the boss. A better alternative is to confront the colleague and discuss how they are both committed to the decision but there are some issues to unpack (a common occurrence for conflict coaches is to assist those people in discussing the impact, action, and intent, by the way). The rub of this peer-to-peer interaction is that the leader must be willing to confront and address difficult scenarios and to hold certain individuals accountable so that the team members see that person as the arbiter of accountability and, well, a good role model.


Focussing on Results: It might sound obvious that any organization should be focused on results but, surprisingly, many are not, or the focus is on the results for a team and not for the individuals or the entire organization. According to Lencioni (2012), “no matter how good a leadership team feels about itself, and how noble its mission might be, if the organization it leads rarely achieves its goals, then by definition, it’s simply not a good team” (p. 65). In fact, a team works best results-wise when the goals are shared by the entire team so that everyone is invested in getting the results. An effective approach I use is to remind members that we can focus on results by everyone doing everything they can all the time; in other words, it cannot be a piecemeal approach as all member need to ensure that the focus remains on the organization (or individual members becoming “better) rather than which department did the best job.


In summary, a team or organization can become cohesive when the leadership team is small enough to get results and they approach conflict through a trust lens to show vulnerability. They need to have opportunities to air their views to reach a stage of commitment so that all members are convinced that they had their say in the decision-making process. Lastly, they hold each other accountable starting at the top (the leader) and continue to have an open approach to any disagreements.


Next week, I will discuss the opposite scenario; that is, what happens when the five behavioural principles are absent in an organization, department, or relationship.


Further reading:


Lencioni, P. (2012). The advantage: Why organizational health trumps everything else in business. Jossey-Bass.


#TrustPyramid, #Trust, Conflict, #ConflictCoaching, #ConflictResolution, #PatrickLencioni

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