Which Came First?

Published: February 10, 2011

A hand shot up during a recent Team Clock workshop.  Having just finished reading a best selling business book focusing on team dysfunctions, she expressed confusion about the relationship between trust and conflict.

The passionate audience member pointed out that the “dysfunctions” model asserts that trust is a necessary condition for eventual successful management of conflict. She then asked why successful management of conflict precedes the development of trust in the Team Clock model. “I’m confused,” she said. “Which comes first?”

Of course, conflict is much easier to manage in the context of a trusting relationship. When there is trust, differences are buoyed by similarities. How, though, does trust develop in the first place? The Team Clock model views trust as the natural consequence of accountability. Anything that occurs before that is not trust – it’s faith.

The Team Clock model argues that as agreed-upon norms are tested, partners enjoy an increasing sense of safety with closeness. If you do what you said you were going to do, there’s a greater likelihood that you’ll respond similarly the next time. Therefore, I trust you a little more each time you follow through with a commitment.

Eventually, the tests are no long necessary. Deep, sustainable, lasting trust boasts accountability during difficult times, not just when conditions are normal. What happens when partners view challenging circumstances from different perspectives? How is this chasm traversed? Teams and relationships that anchor a commitment to healthy debate in their norms are raising the expectations of trust. When the norms of a relationship include the expectation for respectful negotiation of differences, the threshold of trust is elevated.

Almost anyone can build trust under normal circumstances. Just have confidence in human nature and hope everyone does the right thing. However, when the landscape is critical and the pressure is high, only those who have woven an appreciation of difference as strength into the fabric of their norms will be equipped to measure up to the test of trust during stressful times. That’s when it counts.

So which comes first?

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.