Three Keys to Cultivating a Culture of Trust, Empathy and Accountability

For the last few years, I’ve been adding all sorts of wildflowers and shrubs to the woods where I live. I like the math of gardening; sorting out who grows well together, who supports who, and who blooms when.

I’m not a great gardener, but I love the math. Coupled with humility and patience, garden math has the potential for beauty beyond expectation. And that doesn’t even account for ‘volunteers,’ the plants that simply show up to work for no reason other than they found a hospitable community and decided to bloom.

Turns out, people are a lot like gardens!

When I’m invited to work alongside a team, I come as an outsider. I get the benefit of both fresh eyes and unique perspective, making it easy to see the rooted patterns that inhibit growth, as well as those that foster productive habits.

And of all the issues that bubble to the surface, three stand out as the most vital for cultivating teams that work well together, believe in each other, and make progress toward shared goals.

Trust, empathy & accountability.

When they abound, teams function in ways that are the envy of everyone.

When they’re absent, managers gravitate toward fixing lots of surface-level things – some small, some bananas – that circle around the issue, but never fully resolve it at its core.

Trust, empathy, and accountability.

Not the fastest road to high functioning, wildly effective teams, but critical to:

  • managing people well and in ways that encourage their growth,
  • improving collaboration (and your team’s attitude toward it),
  • building sustainability and strength,
  • and cultivating a sense of community with strong, reliable roots.

Trust Must be Tended

In The Thin Book of Trust, Charles Felton defines trust as “choosing to make something important to you vulnerable to the actions of someone else.”

At work, the ‘something important’ is often our time. It’s finite, it’s valuable, and we simply never seem to have enough of it.

So it stands to reason, that giving one’s time to a meeting, a task, or a myriad of other possibilities is an exercise in trust. And trust is the seed from which strong teams emerge.

Here are three ways to tend thoughtfully to the time entrusted to you by colleagues and partners:

1. Set clear expectations and communicate them effectively. Identify the purpose of every meeting, along with roles and responsibilities, to build a sense of shared intention and effort.

2. Make the most of collaboration. Craft a clear plan that is transparent and readily available to every member of the team. This fosters an atmosphere of shared responsibility and empowers every member of the team to act in furtherance of progress toward the goal and/or alignment to the mission.

3. Follow through on next steps. These are the promises made in meetings that allow team members to do their best work on the path toward the larger goal. And promises kept, become the foundation of trust within a team that grows stronger over time.

Empathy Grows Better Together

When teams have a strong foundation of trust, there is a nearly imperceptible shift toward empathy.

And although it doesn’t stand out like a bright yellow sunflower, an undercurrent of empathy functions like a system of rhizomes, forming a veritable safety net of nurturing support that makes the entire team stronger.

Here are three hallmarks of an empathetic team:

1. Offering the benefit of the doubt. Teams shift from shame and blame, to a consistent effort to seek understanding.

2. Flexibility in planning and decision-making. Life is simply not something that happens in a vacuum outside of work. Teams that can acknowledge the changing demands of colleagues juggling multiple, often competing, priorities build essential support systems that far outweigh any momentary inconvenience.

3. Pitching in. With understanding comes a willingness to lend expertise and support when needed, ensuring that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Accountability Flourishes in Sunlight

When trust and empathy have been tended and nurtured, accountability becomes a welcome addition to the garden.

Accountability gets a bad rap. But when it’s part of the team dynamic – both expected and appreciated – it opens the door to fruitful conversations that reflect the objectives and nuance of a well-balanced team.

Encourage the continued growth of trust and empathy, by shedding light on accountability. Here are three tips to get started:

1. Give credit where it’s due. (And in a form in which it is appreciated.) Never be afraid to acknowledge good work and take a victory lap. Accountability isn’t just for things that have gone sideways.

2. Leave the sugar coating for cookies. When things do go sideways, talk it through openly. Make a habit of conversations that seek to understand what/how things went wrong and lead solution-oriented brainstorms that produce viable paths forward.

3. Be open to change. Truly transparent and open discussions about accountability often result in new ideas. Ideas that may be unconventional or untested. Use this as an opportunity to explore the possibility of new approaches to existing problems.

Cultivating a Culture of Compassion

It goes without saying – but it won’t – that teams reflect their individual and collective experiences. So let’s create better collaborative experiences!

Cultivating the seeds of trust, empathy, and accountability is an exercise in building a culture of compassion. It will not offer immediate gratification and may even result in some temporary discomfort and pushback.

But the seeds will grow, the roots will strengthen, and then…my goodness, the blooms! The blooms that come from tending to the well-being and functionality of your team will astound you.

Get the most out of your ‘next steps’ process using the guidelines in my book Start With Better Meetings. It’s so much easier than you think and the results speak for themselves.