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Strong Teams are Built on Trust

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As a leader, how do you go beyond building a “Team of All Stars” to achieve the ultimate goal of building an “All Star Team?” Many research studies, authors and successful leaders have arrived at similar conclusions – high performing teams occur when a group of individuals are willing to be vulnerable, establish trust and work together in support of a goal that is more important than their individual accomplishments. Easier said than done.

In today’s fast-paced world, results-oriented individuals often find themselves investing hours on a project or in a conference room with their teammates, only to find themselves complete strangers to one another. The opportunity as a leader is to break down the invisible walls that each of us has created individually, and forge the personal bonds and shared humanity that will bring individuals together as an “All Star Team.”

Despite our perceived differences, individuals share more in common than we sometimes believe. Scientists proved this empirically in the 1990’s, when the Human Genome Project discovered that 99.8% of all human beings are genetically the same. Yet we often spend much of our lives focused on the .2% that makes us different. The opportunity in building a high performing team is to first focus on ways to discover what we have in common, and then embrace the fact that the small differences are what make us collectively stronger. It’s a mindset shift that’s simple in theory, but dramatic in impact.

As a leader, there are practical techniques that can be used to make that shift, creating an environment where the team members build deep trust and willingly sacrifice for the greater good. One of the most powerful tools I have found is a Journey Line exercise.

Journey Lines work like this: each team member is asked to reflect back on the personal and professional moments in their life, both the ups and the downs, that had the most profound impact on shaping who they’ve become as an individual. To capture these moments, they are asked to create a Journey Line chart – a blank chart that has an X axis which represents time, and a Y axis that represents emotional high points and low points. At the midpoint of the Y axis, another horizontal line is drawn, representing equilibrium (the zero-line), which sets the emotional baseline.

Each participant is then asked to plot the major inflection points in their life, both personal and professional experiences that fall above and below the emotional equilibrium line. The final result is a life story of ups and downs, moments to celebrate, and challenges faced along the way. The exercise concludes with a summary of how their Journey Line has shaped their core beliefs. In other words, those behaviors and perspectives that often reveal themselves in the workplace every day.

While it sounds modest, Journey Lines force people to emerge from behind the walls they’ve built, and share their whole selves with their teammates. The magic occurs when co-workers begin to see themselves in their fellow team members. As individuals open up and share their stories, the 99.8% (common humanity) that we share comes to the forefront. It is commonplace that others in the room will have something similar on their Journey Lines – divorce, loss of a loved one, professional setbacks and successes – topics that typically do not come up in the long hours of a workday, yet have shaped how we tend to view the world and how we behave.

By creating the space for teams to meet and share their journey lines, co-workers gain a greater appreciation for those they work with, practice being vulnerable with one another, and discover things they share in common – building trust along the way.

Be warned, there’s seldom a dry eye in the house after Journey Lines are shared, but what you get out of it is a team that is much more than an org-chart on a piece of a paper. The end result is often a more cohesive unit, willing to fight for each other, and a source of new strength that is powered by the diversity and inclusion that now exists among them.

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