Fear is the enemy of creativity. In order for creatives and creative teams to do great work, they must feel enough freedom and trust that they are willing to make mistakes and not be paralyzed by fear of them. This requires a healthy culture of trust and good-will which can often be difficult to create, much less sustain, in the everyday grind of work.
The English Oxford Dictionary defines trust as, “A firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” I love this definition because it essentially says that trust is a choice, not a requirement. Without trust, at best, you get compliance. A leader can demand many things, but trust is not one of them. And yet, trust is the single greatest attribute of healthy and high functioning creative teams that do amazing work.
Over my 25+ years of leading, coaching, and consulting for creative leaders and teams across the nation, I’ve come to realize that trust is frequently oversimplified and/or misunderstood, resulting in creative teams that produce work far below their capacity and skill. When something as critical as trust is not intentionally and proactively nurtured on a creative team, it can quickly lead to misunderstandings and trust gaps that kill creativity, create a culture of fear, and contribute to high team turnover.
In Patrick Lencioni’s seminal book, “The Five Dysfuntions of a Team” he lists trust as the foundational team dysfunction which ultimately culminates in a lack of healthy conflict, team commitment, peer accountability, and desired results. I’ve seen this play out first hand with creative teams for decades and come to see that trust has two primary dimensions, relational and functional, and depending on the culture of your organization, one of the two is likely struggling or being neglected. Let’s look at these two dimensions a little closer.
Relational trust is the first dimension of trust. It’s also the dimension most commonly associated with trust because it resides in the heart and is more rooted in feeling. Relational trust is built on behaviors like empathy, vulnerability, forgiveness, familiarity, and good will. The overriding question relational trust asks is, “do you understand me?”
Functional trust is the second dimension of trust. It resides in the head and is more rooted in thinking and is built on behaviors like performance, consistency, accuracy, and delivery. The overriding question functional trusts asks is, “did you do what you’re supposed to?”
Most teams and organizations have personalities that result in an organizational culture that favors one of these two dimensions. For instance, nonprofits are typically marked by high relational trust because of the missional dimension of their work and struggle to define success and build and sustain systems of accountability. As a result, functional trust gaps sneak in as well-meaning and passionate staff are allowed to slip on results or expectations. Their answer to the functional trust question of, “did you do what you’re supposed to do?” is usually some version of, “no….but I really really wanted to because I really really care!”
On the other side of the cultural coin are organizations with cultures that lean towards functional trust. In these cultures, systems of accountability, performance management, and measurement are easy to find and very few people working there ever slip on results or expectations (at least, not for long). Teams with this personality tend to struggle with empathy, with extending a genuine sense of good will and care. Their answer to the relational question of, “do you understand me?” is usually some version of, “no….and I don’t really want to because you screwed up.”
Healthy and high-performing creative teams learn to foster both dimensions of trust through how they communicate, lead, manage, and develop their teams. This trust tension results in creative teams that produce inspiring work while still delivering on time. These teams can take profound creative risks, and even fail without compromising the ultimate outcome and goal of the organizations they serve.