When Craig and I are invited to work with a team, it’s common that the client cites trust issues as one of the reasons for engaging us. Although it’s immediately apparent that trust is weak, once we get working with the team, often the trust issues turn out to be the symptom rather than the root of the problem. For many teams experiencing trust issues, the source of the problem is actually poor alignment.

The fundamental problem is that leaders fail to do the hard work of getting aligned and it’s the people who report to them that pay the price. As a leader (at any level), it’s your responsibility to work with your peers to come to one view of the path ahead and a single, merged set of priorities. The goals and targets of one group must jive with the goals and targets of all others. Fail to line up the goals and watch the trust evaporate.

Imagine the case of a company that makes fruit juices. The CEO is trying to drive growth, but worried about growing unprofitably. The VP Sales is creative and well connected and has ideas about how to amp up the growth through products targeted to certain retailers. The VP Operations is experienced and knowledgeable and clear on how to drive cost out of the operation.

The CEO and the Board agree on an aggressive plan and the goals are cascaded to the members of the executive team. Each team member has 20% of their goal tied to overall company profit and the rest of their goal (80%) tied to the performance on key indicators for their function (e.g., revenue targets for the VP Sales, cost and productivity targets for the VP Operations).

This team is already set up for misalignment. Unless the key decisions come back to the executive team to be agreed upon as a group, it’s likely that the motivation toward very different goals will create an antagonistic dynamic within the organization. Here are a few scenarios that might play out:

  • The VP Operations finds waste on one line to be very high and decides to decommission the line. Unfortunately, that line was required to service a small customer. The sales person who works with that customer feels sold out and starts to feel she can’t trust operations. Her frustration bubbles over and taints how many of the sales reps feel about the manufacturing organization.
  • The Director of Food Service Sales has a potentially lucrative opportunity to sign on a new restaurant chain for a Saint Patrick’s Day special. He goes to his friend in product development and asks to have a set of sample green juices expedited. This bumps the scheduled R&D projects and infuriates the brand leaders whose new lines are delayed. This creates angst within the marketing department and between marketing and product development.
  • The account representative for the company’s largest customer lands a blockbuster deal to provide all their private label juices. The deal includes a large proportion of refrigerated juices. This causes the logistics costs for refrigerated storage and shipping to skyrocket. The head of supply chain is frustrated because they had just finished moth balling a large refrigerated storage facility and now she’ll have to lease space and her KPIs will look terrible.

I could go on. But you see the theme. In each case, a lack of alignment from the layer above has ripple effects on the performance of multiple groups. These negative effects lead to the conclusion that people can’t be trusted.

None of these scenarios is inherently problematic as long as the cross-functional team has an opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of the decision and to fully consider the repercussions on different parts of the organization. As the new plan emerges, the leaders need to consider how the changes impact each group’s priorities, goals, and targets so no one is [sold up the river, thrown under the bus, etc.].

Unfortunately, getting aligned around these changes in direction is exceedingly rare. You probably take unilateral action without considering the impact. That’s not to say that the changes aren’t absolutely the right thing to do. You just can’t make those changes without accommodating the downstream impact.

In the first example, when the line is decommissioned, the sales rep needs support to find other solutions for the customer or needs to be given other accounts to pursue. In the second example, the whole team should be aligned around the St. Patrick’s opportunity and the timelines for the other product development should be extended. In the refrigerated juice example, supply chain needs to be given additional budget to accommodate the new products.

If leadership teams consider the cross-functional impact of decisions, there is an opportunity to get aligned around the best path forward and to make adjustments that take into account the ramifications for everyone. When these changes come from one stakeholder and fail to appreciate the implications for others, trust suffers.

Think about the trust issues in your organization. How many of them trace back to misalignment? I bet it’s a lot more common than you think.

Further Reading

How to Make Mid-year Corrections to Your Objectives

5 Practices That Bolster Trust on Your Team

What Can You Do To Accelerate Trust on a Team?