The Trust-Communication Trade-Off

There are three factors that influence the efficiency of a team. Teamwork, open communication, and collaborative problem-solving, all play a role in success. A leader should ensure that his team has the right tools to address these instances.

Trust plays a vital role in how member’s of a team communicate with each other. When trust and communication are mismanaged in an organization, interpersonal conflicts and poor execution of work multiply.

What is the trust-communication trade-off?

The trust-communication trade-off is a concept that establishes that for accomplishing any desired goal with two or more people, the amount of trust between the team members and the amount of communication required is inversely related. 

In this vision, a team is likely to accomplish the desired goal if it falls anywhere along or above the illustrated line. If the team has a lot of trust amongst the members, it will require relatively lesser communication. If there is little or no trust, the team will need more communication to accomplish the same goal.

The cost of low trust

When a team is at the top of the line, its members are accomplishing their goals, but are doing so in an environment where there is little trust amongst them. Additional energy is used to keep everyone aligned towards the same goals. When these circumstances arise, a team gets less return on investment and is likely to experience a higher burnout rate. In cases like these, a leader must assert top-down control and micromanage decisions made by the team. Micromanaging is recommended because not only is the leader’s trust in the team low, but the team will likely have a hard time coming to clear decisions even after repetitive briefing sessions. Anxiety and fear of negative consequences are at an all-time high and job satisfaction declines quickly.

Results of inefficient communication

When a leader overestimates the amount of trust between his team members or does not prioritize communication within the team, the team and its members fall below the line. In this situation, the team is likely to witness high interpersonal conflict due to a lack of trust. This is combined with inadequate visibility and poor output towards achieving the goal.

Results of excessive communication

On the other hand, if a leader encourages excessive communication amongst the team when there is already a high level of trust, then the team is likely to be placed above the line. In this case, the team is likely to meet its objective, but it is also using its resources inefficiently and paying the associated opportunity cost.

The benefits of building trust

When a team is at the bottom of the line, it delivers the same desired output for less work. Stress and anxieties decrease and job satisfaction grows. A leader of such a team will spend less time giving top-down direction and resolving disagreements and will spend more time vision setting, planning, and coaching. In addition, an environment with high trust among its team members encourages creativity and innovation. Team members are likely to be more risk-tolerant in an environment where there are fewer negative consequences for failure. Therefore, a leader should not only aim to be on the line but should also aspire to move the team down the line as well.

The art of building trust

Trust cannot be built in an environment that is unwelcoming of change and innovation. The first step is to urge team members to communicate. It is important to note here that while frequent communication is important, the quality of that communication matters as well.

Once communication has increased amongst team members, the team will be at the top of the line and risk burnout. This is where the leader needs to focus on building trust. Fortunately, an increase in communication will increase trust amongst the members. Over time the team will end up above the line.

For teams that have developed trust, and are now above the line, the leader must continuously evaluate and subtract communication where it does not add value. Since team dynamics are always evolving, there will be a constant flux of adding and subtracting communication to stay close to the line.