Wednesdays are fun. After work I rush home, have dinner with the family and leave for basketball practice. Wednesdays are also a typical night to watch medical drama television series on television. And so, after practice, I join my wife in that activity. At this moment, it’s the series New Amsterdam: the story of a doctor, Dr Max Goodwin, who is asked to transform one of the oldest public hospitals of the United States and bring them into the 21st Century and so, provide exceptional care to patients. In his journey, he needs to tear down bureaucracy, build on few people to initiate the change, improve gradually. It is a true change story, with all unpleasant people things exaggerated for the sake of drama. What runs like a thread through the series is the way the organization is improving continuously while remaining open for ‘customers’. It could easily have been an Agile transformation story. 

In the episode ‘The big picture’, the doctor decided to hold a hospital wide census to get to know the staff and learn how to help them. So, he organizes coffee sessions and opens up to people, stating that he really wants to know what is holding them back to do better and give the patients better treatment. It takes some time for people to trust this process, but eventually they dare to speak up. It is fiction, and logically there will be a solution for the problem. Nevertheless, there is much value in his action.  In order to move forward, leaders of an organization need to know what is beneath the surface. They should try to connect to the people on some sort of personal level. It’s all about trust. The key element in this episode was the fact that the good doctor kept on creating opportunities in which people could open up to him. Creating those opportunities is something all leaders should do. The other side of silence is not the place you want to be.

We all know the value of the coffee machine or water cooler talks. It’s a moment when people are ventilating, expressing their frustrations, sharing thoughts or others might just have a laugh. Whatever the sound, from coaching perspective, sometimes it’s interesting to explore the reasons why people are sharing their thoughts. Listen, actually listen, to the stories people have to tell and you’ll be able to bond with them in the (near) future. People daring to share their stories are opening up and showing vulnerability. This is saying: “We trust you.” As a leader or as a coach, you know the importance of water cooler talks. But I firmly believe we need to create extra opportunities for people in our office environments in which they feel confident enough to speak up. People have a desire to believe and to trust so why not create extra opportunities? It’s more than just having a coffee together. For sure, it takes time to build the trust. But in your process of building (trust),  it’s equally important to capture the moment when a group of people show first signs of testing your trustworthiness: we have a concern, what do you think,  what’s your vision on, can we talk for 5 minutes about stuff, … Those hints are pretty straightforward. It gets tougher when the team doesn’t give it away that easy. This is the moment you want to create the environment in which you offer them multiple opportunities to start trusting you. Easier said than done. 

So, what is trust actually? Let’s define it as a strong emotional bond that connects people to one another. It gives safety in a world where betrayal and screwing is right around the corner. To become a trustworthy person, you’ll have to stick your neck out and actually be a person who is to be trusted. Are you able to create trust… create the opportunities in which people feel safe enough so they trust the leadership and the other team members? 

Comfort Zone – Stretch Zone

We like it when it’s comfortable, but at the same time we also know that in order to make a significant move forward, we need to stretch ourselves and do things that we haven’t done before. It makes us feel ‘uncomfortable’. If it feels like a challenge, not stress, that’s the moment when the actual learning takes place. Besides the learning, it often boosts trust inside teams. In the end, what you gain as a team is for sure something better than you have right now. The trick to gain progress and build trust is by setting small attainable goals and then celebrate them. I’ve been a basketball coach for about 15 years, and each season I’ve had the opportunity multiple times to stretch the team and gain extra trust. When a game is locked and both teams go head to head, it could be an opportunity to gain trust. Obviously, it comes down to knowing the capabilities of your team: individually and team. It’s making a judgement call in that specific moment to decide whether that is the right moment or not to create the opportunity to gain trust versus the possible result of the game. But it’s also about having passion for people and giving them all the trust to make it happen. So, picture this: a close game and you make the call to try to unlock the game. Knowing your players’ capabilities, you draw a play on the board that wasn’t trained yet, but it is something your team could execute. You’ll make them focus on getting that ball to that one specific place where a player gets an open opportunity to score. The success of the action is not the fact whether you score or not, but it’s about delivering the ball to the place where somebody gets an easier chance to score. This is a perfectly attainable goal and something you can build on. I can truly say that in about 80%, the players on the field did actually score, just because they believed in each other and the opportunity. What I’ve gained as a coach was trust. So, what about creating those opportunities in the workplace and build trust? 

The topic of leadership is a touchy one. A lot of leaders fail because they don’t have the bravery to touch that nerve or strike that chord. Throughout my years, I haven’t had that fear.
— Kobe Bryant — 

In essence, it’s all about knowing the environment, have passion for people and daring to create chances to build trust. Even if you fail in the result, you might win trust if you’re open and honest about it afterwards. Just remind the team of what goals they’ve actually did achieve. This is building trust with firm foundations. And it will be in that kind of setting you’ll be able to discover what lies beneath the surface or is holding teams back to the evolve in better versions of themselves. In the end, you’ll gain something better than you have right now.

Your coffee talks will be of much more value when you work in full trust with each other.