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Trust in software engineering teams

High levels of trust within an organisation improve performance, but trust is complicated to build in software organisations

Daniel Jarjoura

in France, the lockdown just got extended until May 11th with many questions yet to be answered by a government, which is less and less trusted by its citizens. From 55% mid-March, the trust in the French government to effectively deal with coronavirus has eroded to 47% in 2 weeks and will probably go down even more. While I have a lot of empathy for government officials dealing with such an unexpected and complex event, I can’t help but also feel that my trust has been broken by poor management on their side.

Repairing broken trust is not a task stranger to leaders, and was the challenge given to Frances Frei, a professor of technology and operations management at the Harvard Business School when she joined Uber in 2017. At the time, Uber’s CEO had been caught on video, disparaging an employee, and there were countless mentions in the press of a culture of bias, exclusion and worse.

While not all of us have to deal with such complex trust challenges, there are many situations where we have to build trust (like becoming the manager of a new team), or rebuild it (like after a crisis). Let’s talk about trust.

About trust

Trust, in the organizational setting, is the reciprocal faith in others’ intentions and behavior. In a 2017 experiment, Paul J. Zak, a Professor of Economic Sciences, and his team measured the OXYTOCIN factors, health, happiness, and work-relevant performance indicators in a nationally-representative survey of over a thousand U.S. working adults. They found that those working in companies in the top quartile of trust, compared to those in the lowest quartile, have 106% more energy at work, are 76% more engaged at their jobs, are 50% more productive, and suffer 40% less burnout. Said differently, high levels of trust within an organization improve performance, efficiency, productivity, creativity and the overall results achieved. Trust is especially vital in distributed teams (or teams forced to work remotely during a health-related lockdown), due to the lack of personal face-to-face interactions. When trust is low or missing, it reduces the transfer of information between members, makes them feel the need to double-check work performed by others, and, finally, decreases their productivity and quality to lower levels. So trust is important for a well-functioning organization.

How to build more trust

Can you think of a recent example where you did not build as much trust as you wanted? It can be in any context, personal, professional. With this recent example in mind, ask yourself: what went in the way of someone fully trusting you?

For Frances Frei, trust has 3 components: authenticity (am I being real and honest), logic (is my thinking rigorous and transparent) and empathy (am I focused enough on the other person).

So, thinking again about your recent experience where you didn’t build enough trust, did they doubt you were completely real or honest with them? Did they question your analysis or the rigor of your thinking? Or did they wonder if you were more focused on yourself than them? Whichever trust driver got in the way, identifying it is the first step to overcoming your trust-building challenges.

Let’s first address empathy. Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others. It means discerning what some other person is thinking and feeling and responding in an appropriate way. Assessing our own empathy can be quite difficult but I have a quick test for you. When was the last time you listened to someone or attended a meeting while looking at your phone? Got it? At that time, you were definitely more focused on yourself than the other person. And it’s no wonder. We are all so busy with so many demands on our time that it’s really hard to focus on others. To build more empathy, we should work on removing the distractions.

The second component of trust, logic, can also easily disappear in organizations, especially those experiencing high-growth. At Uber, managers were getting promoted again and again, until they ended in positions that they had no business being in (this is called the Peter principle). As a result, their decisions suffered and it was clear for team members that they had no idea what they were talking about. The solution: a massive influx of executive education that focused specifically on logic, on strategy and leadership. It gave people the rigor of the quality of their logic, and it turned a whole lot of triangles, right-side up, so people were able to communicate effectively with one another.

The last component of trust is authenticity. One key reason why governments aren’t trusted right now is their inability (or unwillingness) to be fully transparent with us. They either pretend to be in control (when they have no clue what they should do) or hide information to “protect us”. They’re not real and honest. In an organisation, a lot of leaders tend to act the same way. Because they’re in charge, they believe they’re expected to know everything and be in control and, sometimes, hide information to protect their team. As an entrepreneur who went through difficult times and tried to protect my team from it, I can assure you it ended being much worse. It’s always better to know what to expect than to imagine the worst.

Trust dynamics in Software Engineering

In software engineering teams, like in any team, trust is one of the key factors that determine the success or failure of any software project. I’ve found that software engineers are very sensitive to logic. They will trust more easily people (and managers) that are able to generate and articulate logical arguments, especially in ways they understand. That’s why non-technical founders have usually challenges in establishing trust with engineering teams. Software engineers tend also to favour leaders that are very transparent, perhaps a by-effect of the open-source culture. A lot of technology organisations embrace transparency, like Buffer or GitLab. I’ve found that brutal honesty usually works well with developers. Finally, while software engineers are not known for their empathy (though they are), they are very inclined to participate in the decision-making process, hence favouring a culture of collaboration where they can share their own views and feel they have been taken into account.

In summary

  • High levels of trust within an organisation improve performance, efficiency, productivity, creativity and the overall results achieved
  • Trust is complicated to build (or rebuild), especially in software organisations that deal with complex products and distributed teams
  • Trust has 3 components: authenticity, logic, and empathy, and you should work on each of them to enhance the trust people place in you
  • Software engineers also need trust and respond well to the 3 components above

Additional resources

📖 The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything- by Stephen M.R. Covey

📄 The Neuroscience of Trust- a Harvard Business Review article by Paul J. Zak

💻 How to build (and rebuild) trust- a TED Talk by Frances Frei, also the author of Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader's Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You (coming out in June 2020)

People Management