The Three Levels of Trust with Successful Co-Worker Partnerships

I think a lot about how to create and maintain highly effective teams. To be a part of a highly effective team, you need to have mutual trust with your team members. Many companies approach this problem organizationally, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m convinced individual tackling it one co-worker at a time is the right solution. So, I thought about what trust really means with your co-workers, and found that there are really different levels of trust in an organization. I’ll break them down here.

Layer 1: Same Goals
It’s amazing how many workplace relationships never even get to this step. I’ve been lucky to work with really exceptional teams with shared objectives and aligned incentives, but the first question you should ask when trying to establish trust with a co-worker is, do you really have the same goals. In more political organizations, co-workers tend to see things as zero sum. If she gets what she wants, I won’t get what I want. This can be related to project allocation, budgets, headcount, etc. Even in non-political organizations, I’ve found other people tend to assume we don’t share the same goals.

So, what do you do if you don’t share the same goals? I have tried to break down what we’re trying to accomplish to find some middle ground. Usually, people are at companies for at least some similar reasons. If you have frank conversations with your co-workers, you can typically find those out and build from there.

Why is it important to have the same goals? If you don’t, you can never be confident a co-worker won’t undermine you/your plans, try to make you look bad, get you fired, etc. This sounds kind of rash and unrealistic, but you’ll be surprised how often these things happen.

Layer 2: Doing What You Say
Once you’ve agreed to the same goals, you need to divide work to reach those goals. The second layer of trust is having confidence that if someone has said they will do something, they will actually do it. This probably sounds minor, but it’s probably a more common problem than sharing the same goals. Co-workers are constantly bombarded with tasks, and can easily get side-tracked. Some people also over-commit regularly and let co-workers down. Some people really mean to get stuff done, then when they excitement wears off, they get lazy. If you can’t trust someone to accomplish what they say will accomplish, you will not have a successful partnership with them. Now, it’s important that you commit to this as well. You can’t have a successful partnership if you don’t care of your tasks as well.

Layer 3: Covering
A truly highly effective partnership is not just about having the same goals and doing what you say you will do, but also covering all the gray area in between what you agreed to do and what actually needs to get done. Consider a typical project. As a product manager, I may write the strategy doc or requirements I said I was going to write or do the appropriate research, and it may cover everything I talked about with the engineer I’m partnering with on the project. But, sometimes, it won’t really cover everything it should cover for the project to be a success. Not only could I have missed something, but there could be something that couldn’t be foreseen that’s really important to the success of the project. In that case, both me as the product manager and the engineer could have done everything we said we would do, and the project would still not be successful. Layer 3 is about covering for these gray areas. You want to feel confident in a team that if you forget something, your co-worker will catch it and address it. You need to be able to do the same.

It’s really stressful being in a role where you feel you need to be “always on”, and if that you’re not 100% perfect on everything you do, everything will fail. Covering is about have a team member that can pick up the slack when you miss something or when something comes up.

So, if you’re trying to build better relationships at work, think about which layer you’re at with your co-workers and how you can ascend to layer 3. If you build layer 3 relationships with multiple members on your team, you’ll execute at an extremely high level, and will be way more likely to succeed.