Video: Trust and the High-Performing Team in Higher Education

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

Drawing on current research on high-performing leadership teams both within and outside of higher education, Pat Sanaghan, president of The Sanaghan Group and author of Collaborative Leadership in Action (2011) and the forthcoming book, How to Actually Build an Exceptional Team (2013), has identified 10 differentiators of exceptional teams, 10 qualities that enable teams to rise to and perform at high levels consistently. Of the 10, Sanaghan points to trust as the most important quality that differentiates high-performing teams in higher education.

“In a high-trust environment,” Sanaghan remarked in an interview with Academic Impressions, “you can do many things even with limited resources. But if you have low trust, even with high resources you can’t get much done. To build trust, you need transparency with information — especially around financial realities, decision-making roles, and process.”

Higher education is by its nature a collaborative and people-driven enterprise — yet often, too little investment is made to improve the professionals within the institution work together. As the speed of change accelerates and higher-ed’s operating environment grows more complex, those institutions that will remain competitive and thrive will be those characterized by high-performing teams across all parts and levels of the organization.

The High-Trust Environment

In a recent essay on building top teams in higher education, Sanaghan remarks: “In over 25 years of working with teams, I have never been brought in because a poor-performing team didn’t know how to do their tasks well. I have always been brought in because the process side or the relational side has broken down (e.g., when people don’t feel heard, feel disrespected, unable to deal with team conflict, not listening to each other.) Leaders need to pay careful attention to the process side because that is what will kill a team’s effectiveness and performance.”

Trust is the oil that keeps a team moving smoothly and effectively toward a shared goal. In its absence,

  • Decisions get derailed into ongoing debate
  • Team members remain focused on day-to-day tasks rather than on the goal
  • Fractious relationships develop
  • The rumor mill operates in high gear
  • Team members may lack the feeling of emotional safety needed to bring forward important concerns or ideas

In a recent video interview with Academic Impressions (embedded above), Sanaghan adds: “A leader can build trust in a team by a couple of really important behaviors. They need to:

  • Tell the truth
  • Own their mistakes when they make them
  • Be transparent in their decision making and communication
  • Treat team members with care.”

In particular, ensure that all team members are updated regularly, that the “rules” by which a decision will be made are clear (for example, specify what decisions require consensus and what decisions will be made by the team’s leader or co-leaders, and what role input from team members will have in that decision), and provide safe “creative” space for team problem-solving.

“Even a leader who is not particularly creative can encourage and support creative thinking,” Sanaghan notes. “Create safe space for getting all ideas on the table, no matter how unlikely an idea may sound at first; there will be time to review them later. Allow for brainstorming. Complex problems need outside-the-box thinking, new strategic alliances, challenges to stagnant processes and policies and procedures.”

At the end of the video, Pat Sanaghan invites viewers to rate their own team on their level of mutual trust and their trust in the team’s leadership. If you were to give your team a letter grade for trust, would you rate it an A, B, or C?

And what can you do to raise that one letter grade?