While working with a senior manager the other day, he made a powerful observation that I hadn’t really considered before. He said, “When we have strong trusting relationships, we are more likely to try new things. Trusting others gives us the chance to screw things up with less fear.”

He’s right—when I am surrounded by people I trust, I am far more likely to try something new. It’s no surprise then, according to research at Google, that psychological safety  (“Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?”) is one of the most important aspects of a successful team.

Some of you are thinking, “Jeez, I hate the soft stuff. Give me a project plan and a spreadsheet, and I can make this team work.” It seems that building the perfect project plan is so much easier than getting a dysfunctional team back on track. Relationships, however, are the glue that tie people together, and can mean the difference between a team that gets okay results and one that really shines.

So how can we encourage team members to build the kind of relationships that gives them the ability to take risks, try something new, and innovate?

  1. Make a strong enough case for why relationships are important, how much they pay off for us in the long run, and why they are worth the investment, energy, and sometimes pain to build. At work, we often assume the opposite—that relationships get in the way. In this case, you must show how the benefits outweigh the costs.
  1. Actively encourage team members to build relationships with one another—relationships that benefit our teams and the individual. Again, it may be a surprise but many of us don’t know how to build relationships, which makes us not want to build relationships. Because it’s hard, we convince ourselves that relationships are overrated. You will need to discuss strategies with the team of how to connect with others, just like any other skill you want the team to master.
  1. Create the time and space for teams to build relationships. It doesn’t have to be a fancy retreat or team building exercise.  It can be as simple as having a meal together—we’ve been building relationships over food for thousands of years, so why not continue the tradition?

I want my team to perform at its best. I want to perform at my best. It is crazy to think that part of the solution is building trusting relationships—so we can screw things up with less fear. But fear may be the biggest performance killer of them all, so why not drive it out of our teams?


Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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