What makes a high-performing team? When we’re asked this question, we tend to look at skill set, proficiency, and knowledge as the key contributors to a team’s success. But when we take a closer look at the inner workings of a successful team, we discover that it takes a lot more than skills and talent. We will find that successful teams are founded on trust. And it’s this trust that propels them to greater heights. So what’s more important between these two concepts? When we have to choose between Performance vs Trust – who wins the battle?

Simon Sinek and the Navy SEALs

When we talk about Performance vs Trust and what it means for teams, we will hear or read anecdotes from famous author and inspirational speaker, Simon Sinek. He’s one of the proponents of the importance of trust in molding high-performing teams. Having worked with the Navy SEALs, Sinek would often cite examples on how they are and what makes them the “best of the best.” And it’s a lot to do with trust.

A Navy SEAL goes through rigorous training to push their limits and discover what they are capable of. But the training and environment of which a Navy SEAL performs are not only made so that they can harness their skills. It’s made so they can realize that their success is dependent on each other. When they are deployed on a mission, they need to work together. No one will help them complete their mission if they don’t help each other. 

And with the stakes at an all time high – we’re talking about life and death here – they need to work with comrades that they can fully trust. When things go haywire, they need to know their team has got their back.

The Performance vs Trust Matrix

One of the key things Simon Sinek learned with his time with the Navy is how they select people who would join the Navy SEAL Team Six. This can very well be the birth of the performance vs trust concept. They use a 2-axis matrix to determine whether someone has got what it takes to join this elite unit. The y-axis measures performance while the x-axis measures trust

Performance is the ability to execute one’s job. Trust is one’s character on and off work. The way the Navy SEALs put it:

Performance: “I may trust you with my life,

Trust: But do I trust you with my money and my wife.”

Performance Vs. Trust Matrix

Surprisingly, the SEALs will choose someone who may not be the best performer but is trustworthy over someone who is high performing but untrustworthy. They put a higher importance over someone’s trustworthiness over their proficiency to do a great job.

And this is strikingly different with the way businesses operate. Companies have many metrics to measure performance and skills with minimal to no metrics to measure someone’s trustworthiness. We think everything can and must be calculated in business. And so we forget that our business is functioning primarily because of its people. And one of the basic human traits is trustworthiness. Isn’t it easier to work with someone you can trust? Would you choose to work with someone who’s so good at what he does but doesn’t show respect and honesty to others?

If a company operates without trust, growth and success will not be sustainable. It’s easy to find a highly-skilled and proficient employee who’s not trustworthy. You may even have them in your teams now. But having them stick around, without correcting and guiding them, will only create a toxic environment for the rest of your employees. A high-performing team is a collection of its member’s skills, talents, and knowledge and how well they use and execute them together. And they can only do so if they trust each other. 

Placing Importance on Trust to Build an Effective Agile Team

The whole debate on performance vs trust shouldn’t be a debate at all. It should be an eye opener for business leaders and managers. This should not push leaders to forego performance over trust. Instead, we need to place equal importance on building trust within our teams. And it should start from the top. Business leaders and managers should be trustworthy. If you need to promote a leader within your team, go for someone who can be trusted by everyone, not only someone who does a stellar job. 

As a leader, it’s also your responsibility to create a work environment that breeds trust. If you put good people in a caustic environment, they can be pushed to do awful things. It’s your job as the leader to ensure a safe environment for people to work in and eliminate toxicity. One of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto discusses how it’s important to build projects around motivated individuals. It’s hard for your team members to self-organize and motivate themselves if they don’t trust the people they work with. Should you find team members who may not be as trustworthy as you’d hope they would be or isn’t a team player, it would be good to spend time coaching them, the same way you would do for a low performing employee. 

In an Agile environment where we need to deliver products fast and with high levels of quality, team members must work harmoniously . If you think that building successful Agile teams is only about technical skills and proficiency, you need to change your perspective. You may have the best programmer in your team or the best salesperson who can rack up the most sales. But if these persons make things difficult for others to perform their jobs or doesn’t even help in grooming others to be at the same caliber as they are, then you are only making a toxic environment that promotes performance over teamwork and trust. Whatever success you are experiencing now won’t be sustainable in the long run if you don’t correct the situation.

Leaders should look beyond numbers and also bring their attention to an employee’s human skills. The right people for your team can do a great job while working harmoniously with the rest of your team. Instead of thinking of performance vs trust, we should think of performance AND trust as key factors when considering members to build your Agile team.

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