Leadership 13: Building trust and a sense of community within your team

Art Credit: RelicsWorld

“If people like you, they will listen to you, but if they trust you, they will follow you anywhere.” Douglas R. Satterfield

As we discuss building trust and community on your team we are beginning to see the threads from previous posts start to weave themselves together.  We begin to build trust on the first day with our orientation creating the vision of a place where a new team member feels, safe, respected as an individual, and they are invited to become part of the team.  In the weeks and months that follow they can build trust as they see that the leader brings a calm presence to the office, and is someone who is willing to listen to them in a manner that makes the feel heard.  The leader is interested in helping them correct “learning situations” and develop the skills they need to do their job.  The new member begins to feel comfortable with the team as they see that the other team members are open, and willing to help when asked.  Let us see what else we can do to nurture trust on our team.

Betsy Allen-Manning has provided five steps to build trust by using each letter of trust as a keystone, and I will take her steps and show how I implemented them.  T for Transparent; R for Respect Everyone; U for Unite Your Team; S for Show You Care; and T for Team Building. Transparent: as a leader I was transparent by providing predictable behavior; coaching my team member with specific feedback; admitting my mistakes and using all mistakes as learning activities; being willing to admit there are things I am not good at; demonstrating my vulnerability by admitting when I was having a bad day and sharing emotionally important things. Respect Everyone: We will have an entire post on respecting our team members as people and also for their skills, here I discus how I respected the time of my team members; I taught them that when working on a large project they should check with me at an early stage because of the rule that there is one form of “yes” and two forms of  “no”;  I maintained confidentiality; I listened to my team and check in with each person every day. Unite Your Team: I united my teams by building a sense of community through first day lunches; stepping in to quash friction in the team; and avoiding gossip. Show You Care: Listening when someone is struggling; asking the right question; showing more confidence in my team member than they had in themselves; using little things to make the office theirs: personalizing their work area with their name; lanyards for only our team; pictures of former interns on the walls; and thank you notes posted on my door. Team Building: ensuring every member is included in every activity; rewarding the team for working well together; and having a dinner at my house so they could meet the really  interesting person in my family – Rebecka with whom I am married.

In a nutshell:

Credit: ThoughtCo

Trust and Safety are the Yin and Yang of an environment where people can thrive.  People will not feel safe if they do not trust their leader and team, and they cannot have that trust if they do not feel safe.

You can see the full video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQtKVtHb9co

As Simon says, when we do not feel safe, we must turn inward, build barriers around ourselves for our own protection, and that wall will keep trust out.

Leaders sometimes shy away from attempting to establish trust because it is not something you make someone do, it is not technical, it is not intellectual, it is a feeling, and like all soft skills we either have developed it from our life experience, or we need to be taught it.

Trust is a feeling, takes time and actions to nurture it in a team.

What are the concrete steps you can take as leader to nurture trust on your team?

LinkedIn provided a video by Betsy Allen-Manning in which she describes the five steps for building trust in the workplace by using each of the letters in the word “trust.”  I will use her video to organize my experiences on how I built trust on my teams.

You can see her entire video here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/5-steps-building-trust-workplace-leadership-speaker/ and her website: https://betsyallenmanning.com/   (As you can see, I am trying to get people to let me use their materials without getting mad at me!)

Here is her introduction.

One thing you can notice in her description of workplaces with and without trust, is that every factor she mentions relates to whether or not the team can cooperate.  In her description of a workplace where trust didn’t exist: unreliable, inadequate, uncommunicative, inconsistent in their moods and in their work, versus one where it did: taking ownership of their work, teamwork, speak highly of each other, communicate more.  Without trust there will be no cooperation.  Simon referenced this when he discussed how we turn inward for our own protection when there is no feeling of safety.  Let’s begin to see how Betsy Allen-Manning breaks down the elements of trust, and how I implemented them on my team.

T for Transparent; R for Respect Everyone; U for Unite Your Team; S for Show You Care; and T for Team Building.

T – Transparent

Betsy Allen-Manning begins with “T” for transparency, the way that the leader makes it clear exactly what to expect each day in the office, what you are supposed to do, and feedback on how well you are doing.  For me transparency is broken down into five categories of things to expect from your leader:1.  Predictable behavior; 2. Positive feedback; 3. Admitting mistakes and using them as learning opportunities; 4. Showing that they are not perfect, and therefore you do not expect perfection; and 5. Being vulnerable.

1. The behavior of the leader must be predictable.

Life under an unpredictable or bullying boss.

Recalling that feeling safe and building trust go hand-in-hand, you can’t trust your team when you feel nervous as you approach work with an unpredictable, volatile boss whose mood determines if you are going to have a nice warm breeze of a day at the office, or if there is going to be an 8-hour shitstorm of anxiety.  You are never sure exactly what you are supposed to do or how to do it, but you are afraid to ask for help because that will make you a target for personal attacks (“You went to college, right? Then you figure it out!”) As my Dad used to say, “You’re in trouble when you realize that nobody on your team would piss on you if you were on fire.” You are miserable at work, and you carry that misery home when worrying about work intrudes on what should be your fun personal time.

The leader who puts the team first acts in a predictable manner to maintain a safe and calm environment.

Coming to work in a safe environment starts with your trust that the leader will maintain a calm demeanor, no matter what.  When something goes wrong, the leader will calmly guide the team back on track. When mistakes are made, they are viewed as learning opportunities.  Your leader makes sure you know exactly what you are supposed to do, exactly how you are supposed to do it, and that if you need assistance you need only ask for it and it will be provided swiftly. When emotional factors intrude on your ability to work, the leader will sit down with you and listen.  If there is tension within the team, the leader will step in, listen to all sides, then help the factions work out a resolution to restore calm cooperation.  You know that everyone on the team is encouraging your growth, monitoring your well-being. Your team members are not just working with each other, they are working for each other.  You look forward to going to work, and that positivity carrying over to your home life.

2. Providing positive feedback and coaching appropriate for their experience.

Every new member of your team will be wondering: What should I be doing?  How should I do it?  Am I doing it right?  We can help keep all of our members working in a relaxed way by constantly providing individual feedback, and the manner in which we do that varies with their level of experience and competence.

When I worked in the Ottumwa office of Legal Services, I closely supervised the case progress for the lawyers and paralegals.  With a new hire I would have weekly meetings with them and we would review every case they were working on. What has been done since we met last week? What are we trying to accomplish before we meet next week?  As the new hires gained experience the weekly meeting changed to every two weeks, and eventually once a month.  I went over every case in the office every month, and we set goals, what we called, “next steps” on each case so the strategy was clear.  I sat down once a month with Jim Elliot who reviewed my cases and set my “next steps.” Good leaders are always willing to learn.

One of the things I noticed that if I was to meet with an advocate tomorrow, there was always quite a flurry of activity today, but that was fine, the goal was to stay on track.

With Jim Elliot on our way to court for a domestic violence case where the abuser was a member of a motorcycle gang and had told his wife the gang would not let us enter the courthouse. I took Jim along for backup and as we approached the courthouse steps, which were blocked by 20 leather clad, tattooed knuckleheads, they gave Jim a hard stare, looked at me, back at Jim and then parted like the Red Sea to let us walk into court. We won the case.

Our case review session caused a flurry of activity the day before I would sit down with each advocate, but that was fine, the goal was to stay on track.

3. Admit your mistakes and use all mistakes on your team as learning opportunities.

I have found that nothing is more endearing to a team than to have their leader admit to having made a mistake.  Unfortunately, I probably committed to many mistakes, giving my team too many  opportunities to become endeared to me.  When you come forward and admit your mistake, “Hey folks, hold up a second, stop what you are doing.  I have looked over the program design we came up with and I left out a crucial element, we are going to have to go back to square one and start over on a big part of this.  I apologize, it was completely my fault.”  Your team will accept that, they may be a little annoyed that their time was wasted, but they will forgive you.  If you pretend you did not make a mistake, or worse yet, insinuate that the team members made the mistake, they will eventually determine you lied and you will lose all credibility and trust.  And the bonus of admitting a mistake is modeling for your team how to admit making a mistake, and giving them permission to do so as well. As part of my first day orientation I addressed this:

2. I am giving you permission to make mistakes, we are human.  There is no mistake you can make here which cannot be corrected. You won’t get anyone deported, no one is going to die because you made an error.  The goal is not to avoid all errors, but rather, to not repeat an error. From now on we are going to refer to ”mistakes” as “learning opportunities,” so when you recognize that you have committed a “learning opportunity” that needs to be corrected, please come to me immediately so, together, we can learn how to resolve it.

Practice Pointer: Don’t bring your boss a mistake if you can bring them a solution.

As part of mentoring my team once trust had been established and they felt confident to admit mistakes, I would then suggest they take the procedure one step further, and rather than bring me a mistake, they should bring me a solution. “Don’t panic as soon as you see something went wrong, see if you can figure out a solution, and bring that to me.” A lot of times when we are leading, we are preparing our team not just for this position, but for the rest of their career, and this is one example.  And one way to make yourself a more valuable team member is to bring solutions, rather than just problems, to your boss. The way you do this is, “Remember that lunch order for the meeting that was supposed to go in on Tuesday?  Well, I forgot to do it, and now it’s too late to make an order with that vender, but I talked to another vender today and everything is squared away, lunch is all set, same cost.”  It’s not always possible to arrive at a solution yourself, but it is always worth a try.

4. Showing that they are not perfect, and therefore do not expect perfection

Be willing to admit there are some things you are not good at.

I used to always share the story of when I had to threaten to fire a lawyer if he didn’t stop overworking the support staff by leaving everything to the last minute because “he worked best under pressure.”  So I told him if he didn’t change his ways I would have to fire him.

“You can’t fire me, I’m a better lawyer than you are!”

I shrugged. “Every lawyer that hasn’t been disbarred is probably a better lawyer than I am.  What kind of a leader would I be if I only hired lawyers worse than me?  Assuming I could even find one!  I may not be a good lawyer. But I am a good leader of great lawyers!  I also protect my staff and will not allow you to burn them out.”

He refused to change and I did end up firing him.

(Regarding another personal shortcoming on my part, on our Annual Review there was a question, “How would you rate your computer skills?” I always answered, “The work product which comes off my computer is excellent,  I personally don’t know how to do many things on it, but whenever I am called upon to produce something beyond my skill set, such as in EXCEL, I ask Karen Castillo or Nicole Gasmen to do it, and when they finish I buy them a smoothie as a reward.  It is an excellent system.”)

5 When a leader shares their vulnerabilities and the obstacles they have overcome, it allows their team members to do the same and to see them as a real person.

I had an unusual opportunity to share how my struggles with PTSD in the fire department allowed me to become a better person and a better mentor.  Jill Skoneiczka was an intern at the ABA but not my intern and she was adopted by my team and she went back to school she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in being interviewed about my style of mentoring.  I agreed and the result was this short article in The Atlantic, the picture in the article was taken by Jill. If you click on this link it will take you to another page: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/09/mentorship-law-firefighter/540405/

With Jill in our office.

Be honest in admitting that YOU are having a bad day and may need some respite.

I have found that anytime I admit to a human frailty it results in greater trust with my team.  And on days when I came to work tired, or maybe a little sick and I just didn’t look or feel my best I would tell the team that I would be happy to answer their questions, but I really didn’t feel like interacting much.  They always gave me the space I needed because they had had days when I cared for them.  And throughout the day, every time I left my office, I would return and find something on my desk, a piece of chocolate, a silly cartoon, all signs of affection which comes with trust.

Take some time to share emotionally important things

I always told my team the story of once when I told Rebecka that I was a shy person.  She thought for a few moments and replied, “No, you are not shy.  There is something wrong with you, but it is not shyness.”  (we later decided I am timid – I am reluctant to try something for the first time.)

Now this may be some sad part of my psychological make up, but I think it is important to share things with your team members which evoke emotions in yourself.  Because I have always worked trying to help people, in particular working with people in crisis, I have always recruited compassionate people to work with me.  And sometimes I would share a video with them that touched my heart as a way of reminding ourselves how one person can change the world of other people.   The power comes from a compassionate heart.  And I was never ashamed for my interns to see tears in my eyes, because we connect with people when we share emotions.  I believe these sessions help us bond us as a team.  This kind of emotional openness may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was essential for me. I want to share with you three of these things.

Social justice is always difficult, we lost a lot because we were fighting the powers that be and the cards were stacked against our clients.  When someone we had sent materials to lost their case and was deported, I would do something to raise morale, I might take everyone out for ice cream or we might watch this video which is of a demonstration at Dallas Fort Worth airport after President Trump imposed his first Muslim travel ban which was found to be illegal, and we did, indeed, win that round.

Credit for video: Turd Doodlesworth

Sharing my vulnerability.

Betsy suggests that it is valuable for the leader to show their vulnerability and one of the ways I did was to present some moving stories of success to the team. I had two favorites from StoryCorps and although I had heard them scores of times they always brought tears to my eyes.  And I don’t think it’s a bad thing for a team to see their leader moved to tears.

Credit: NPR

Herman and Sydney Blake. “When I was growing up the great emphasis was on being able to get a job because we were on welfare, and it was so humiliating,” Clicking on this link will take you to another page where you can hear the story: https://www.npr.org/2013/04/26/179015473/from-poor-beginnings-to-a-wealth-of-knowledge.

When she was in high school, says Linda Hernandez, her guidance counselor told her she shouldn’t bother aiming high academically because she was Latina. Credit NPR StoryCorps

Linda Hernandez. “Growing up in the 1960s in one of the few Latino families in Lincoln, Nebraska, Linda Hernandez and her sister were not treated well by the other students or staff at their school.” Clicking on this link will take you to another page where you can hear the story: https://storycorps.org/stories/linda-hernandez/

R – Respect Everyone

Respect the time of your team members.

Betsy begins by showing that respect includes respecting your team member’s time. This is so important to me that I will include an entire post about how to safeguard the time of your team.  And I am not just talking about not making people wait before you arrive for a meeting. (Although I did have a boss who always made everyone gathered in the meeting room wait 15 minutes before making a grand entrance.  What that boss didn’t realize was that those first 15 carefree minutes of laughing and chatting were the best part of the day.  Then the boss arrived and the oxygen left the room.  Don’t be that kind of boss.)

My guiding principle is give your team uninterrupted blocks of time by minimizing interruptions. The most valuable commodity a leader has is their team members’ time and attention.  Therefore, your goal is to allow your team members to own the vast majority of their time by minimizing interruptions.

In the upcoming post about respecting the team member’s time I will discuss how to avoid making your work environment an interruption factory; how to assign work intelligently taking time into consideration to avoid “dreadlines”;  allowing your team to work in a quiet atmosphere; scheduling time for questions; and respecting lunch times, and establishing the expectation that emails will not be answered immediately.

Credit: Instagram Rachel S-A Unaconstelacionamental

Say “no” to unimportant urgencies – The leader must learn to say ‘no’ to requests for which there are no resources.

We discussed in the last post the four types of situations a leader must deal with and the biggest time waster of all was unimportant urgencies.  These are the all-too pervasive poor relations to false emergencies,  they arise when a supervisor sees a shiny object and decides that your team must drop what they are doing, pivot, and in most cases, immediately ride off in all directions in an attempt to accomplish something significantly less important than what they had been working on. Whenever possible the leader must refuse to move resources away from important work. When the power imbalance makes refusal impossible, try to postpone the work because that which is delay is often forgotten, and finally, if resources must be moved to deal with an unimportant urgency, use the fewest people and have them do a “quick and dirty” job, just enough to satisfy the boss.

Schedule time for questions if you are overwhelmed by work and cannot accept all questions as they arise.

When I was in Texas in 1989 launching the ProBAR project with volunteer lawyers doing political asylum cases, there was a period when I was also acting Executive Director of a sister organization, Proyecto Libertad.  That meant I not only had to mentor my volunteer lawyers and interns at ProBAR, but also answer questions for a dozen lawyers and paralegals at Proyecto.  This lead to not a stream of questions, but a deluge.  Eventually I had to a time schedule for taking questions from each group.

The system worked well and whenever I opened my door for a question period there would be a line of advocates.

When assigning  a large project, explain about the Rule of 1 “yes” or 2 forms of  “no”

Whenever I gave someone a large assignment, (Please make a chart with the names of all the 250 detention centers, alphabetically by state, with a column for the phone number of the facility, the number of detainees, whether they house women, and which ICE Field Office is responsible for it.) I would suggest that rather than complete the task and bring it to me, they should start it, and then show me what they had because they could get 1 “yes” and 2 forms of “no”.  The “yes” would be, “Yes, that is exactly what I wanted, it looks great, keep going.”  The first “no” would be, “No, that is not what I was trying to describe, let’s make these changes.” The second “no” was, “No, that is exactly what I wanted, but now that I see it, I don’t like it, let’s make some changes.”   This saves time for the team member, and avoids frustrating them.

Maintain confidentiality.

You respect your team members when you maintain their confidences. usually this is not a problem, what is said in my office stays there.  But there are some confidences that fall into a gray area, a mistake that perhaps should be reported to someone else, but that could result in a problem for the team member.  This is where leadership can involve taking a personal risk by not reporting it, to help build trust with your team member.  Nobody said leadership was easy, and sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

Practice Pointer: From time-to-time a team member may come to you with a request which falls in a grey area, you don’t care if they do it, but there is a possibility that your boss might say no. The safe thing to do is ask your boss if it is okay. In such a situation I usually followed the rule, “It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission. That way if you tell your team member to go ahead, and later your boss finds out and is mad, make sure you take responsibility, ask for forgiveness, cross your fingers as you promise it will never happen again.

Credit: ShermansTravel


As you recall we had two posts about listening, Leadership 8: The Most Important Skill for a Leader is Listening, and 9: Making Active Intentional Listening Part of Your Daily Routine.  Listening is a tool that allows you to reach many of the goals that Betsy Allen-Manning suggests: establishing relationships with your team members as people, giving feedback, and soliciting their input.  Nothing builds trust faster than spending time listening to your team member and having them walk away feeling heard and valued.

Check in every day with every member.

One of the most important elements in developing the trust of your team members is to make them feel supported and valued. As we saw in the section on listening, I checked in every day with every team member for two reasons.  In the morning I asked each member how they were doing so I could gauge their physical and mental health, and their energy level.

Later in the day I would casually chat with each person to get to know them better and to demonstrate that they were important to me as people.  On Fridays I would ask them about their weekend plans, on Mondays I would follow up to see how their plans worked out.  I used to joke that in my dating years that the single most attractive characteristic in any woman is that she liked me even a tiny bit.  All of us like it when people show interest in us, and when it is the leader shows interest our trust and loyalty grow.

Checking in casually also gives you the opportunity to observe how your team members are interacting.  Are they laughing from time to time, are they interacting with other team members, are they energetic or lackadaisical?  Does it appear that the work is no longer interesting, can they be moved to another activity?  We want to keep people in a place where they are energetic and motivated to accomplish the mission and where they work with joy.

U – Unite Your Team

“Community is built on establishing bonds between the team members. You want them to care for each other, cheer each other on, pick up a member who has fallen.  Members learn that if they support the others, they in turn, will be supported.  We cannot succeed alone, we can only succeed in a community.” Simon Sinek

Betsy suggests assigning a project for the team to work on together so that they succeed or fail as a team. I have seen the positive effects of working together (and sometimes being miserable together) in the army and the fire department. I did not need to use this in my social justice work because the work required the team to work together.

Uniting the team by building a sense of community.

The first lunch As you know, I always took all team members out for lunch on their first day.  We had four to six interns in a group, and Karen and Nicole and I would take the first intern to lunch on their first day. Financially it didn’t help that the interns usually never started on the same day.  We might take the first intern to lunch on Monday.  The second intern may start on Wednesday and now it is myself, Karen or Nicole, first intern on her second free lunch, and the new, first day intern on their first day lunch. By the time the fourth intern started our team were regulars at Jack’s Fresh, a cafeteria style eatery which I chose because it had some type of food acceptable to every diet.  With the amount I spent there (we often also did “last day lunches”) Jack should have put up a plaque with my name on it. 

Rebecca, Grace, Karen, Marina, and a random vagrant at Jack’s

Once we were all seated, the one strict rule at these lunches was we would not talk about the work.  The goal of the lunch was to begin the process of turning a group of strangers into a loyal team that knew each other and cared about each other, and could trust each other.  Everyone would go around the table, talking about where they grew up, where they are going to school, what they want to do in the future, what they do for fun. I had two favorite ice breaker questions. “Where did you grow up and what was that like?” and “When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”

The question about where you grew up was good because, a.) the new person knows the answer, and b.)when they described what their youth was like most people could share happy thoughts, so it put them in a good place, mentally. Often the answer made a connection with someone on the team, “Hey, I grew up in Arizona, too!” or I could follow up with, “What was that like?”  And that answer told you a lot about a person. 

The leader steps in when there is friction in the team.

If there is tension within the team, the leader will step in, listen to all sides, then help the factions work out a resolution to restore calm cooperation. It is important that you are seen as being fair and consistent when settling any conflicts.

We all think we are good people, and therefore treat people fairly.  But we all have our prejudices and one of mine is I prefer to work with women.  This is the result of extended periods working in male-only environments, eight years in the fire department, my time in the Army and National Guard, I was bored and turned off by how men act in those situations.  Then when I became a lawyer I started working representing women who had been abused through domestic violence so I was being exposed to very bad men.  At the same time, I was starting a new, state-wide program for representation of domestic violence cases and this was with an all women teams which I enjoyed very much.  In social justice work I was usually working with women because there seems to be about a 10 to 1 ratio of women to men in this work.  I believe that disparate comes from the fact that social justice work involves working with people in crisis, and a compassionate spirit is important.  My women friends tell me that classify them as more giving is demeaning. 

Recognizing my own prejudice against working with me, when we did have a man on our team I always asked my co-coach and the women on the team to carefully monitor how I interacted with the man to make sure I was not overlooking them.

Practice Pointer: Over my 20 years at the ABA I noticed that many of arguments between co-workers outside my team were about “territory.”  Someone was encroaching on another person space, or using someone’s stapler, or going through their desk. When we were in our old building we had storage rooms in the basement and the key to our storage area was kept by Ms. Carrie Coleman.  One day I went to ask her for the key, but she was out of the office, and although I knew it was in the top left drawer, I didn’t feel comfortable going into her desk, so I withdrew. The following day I explained to Carrie that I didn’t want to go into her desk and she made an observation which would solve much of the conflict in an office. “It’s not my desk, Bob.  It belongs to the ABA, they just let me use it.  Next time you need the key, just take it.”  If we stop thinking of things as “our” office or “our desk” we can work in greater harmony.

Team members are rooting for the success of other team members.

One of the things that made me happy as I observed my team was seeing them help each other out by passing along information.  “I know how to do that, let me show you.”  Those words are music to the ears of a leader because you have a team which is helping each other succeed.

I also encouraged team members to come to me when someone else was struggling.

“Mr. Bob, I think you should talk to Maria, she just had a hard call and I think it upset her.”

When your team is working together like this, you have a united team.

Avoiding gossip.

Gossip and personal attacks are two of the most destructive  things for team unity.  I always prided myself on not gossiping, but I was taught a lesson by my former intern Janeth.  A supervisor had done something particularly insulting to me, and I was describing it to Janeth and some other interns and I was putting a funny twist on it, by making fun of the insulter.  And everyone laughed except Janeth. And I saw such a wave of disappointment wash over her face that my heart broke.  And the message I took away from that was that she expect more from me, that I was a better person than that.  I learned my lesson. I changed my ways.

With my teacher Janeth who became a paralegal at ProBAR, 30 years after I founded it.

S- Show You Care

Credit: Facebook empathsoldsoulsintroverts

Betsy emphasizes that we can show we care by showing them we truly value them as person not just employee, by learning about them personally, praising them daily, asking them for input more often and listening to them.

Listening shows you care.

I Think that by now we can agree that the best way to show a team member that you care about them as a person, that you value their input, their struggles, and their successes, is to listen to them with complete attention.

Credit: Proactive Coaching

Sometimes the most important part of listening is asking the right question.

As we saw in the section on Leadership as a sacred trust, it is important that our team members can bring their personal problems to the leader.  Although it doesn’t happen very often, when a team member is struggling with something at work or at home, their concentration, creativity, and energy will suffer.  They should be encouraged to come to you and you should help them find solutions.  I know we are not psychologists, but listening with a compassionate ear, and acknowledging their seriousness of the issue goes a long way in helping the person solve the problem themselves.

Sometimes coaching is simply a matter of observing behavior and then asking the right question.  I once noticed that one of my law student interns was struggling to finish a task.  She kept writing, discarding, and rewriting a short explanation of a recent court case and what it meant for immigration detainees. We called these “one pagers” and I believed that she was learning how difficult it can be to write something which is both accurate, complete and short.  If she ever managed to finish it we would put a copy in every packet we sent out to detention centers because detainees followed the news and we were receiving many questions on our hotline about the case.

I invited her into my office, and we had the following exchange.

“You seem to be struggling with that one-pager you’re writing.”
She shrugged.  “What can I say, I’m a perfectionist.”

“That’s interesting, what have you ever been perfect at?”

She jerked back as if I had slapped her, jumped up and rushed out of my office. Clearly I had insulted her and planned to give her some time to cool off before I apologized.

An hour later she came back into my office and said, “I have never been perfect at anything. That’s the answer to your question. And you just lifted a huge burden off my shoulders!” and she burst into tears and came in for a hug.

The leader sometimes must demonstrate that they have more confidence in the team member than the team member has in themselves.

Credit: RelicsWorld

One of the fulfilling experiences with a former intern was actually a series of worries and sleepless nights over 18 months.  Gabriela had gone to law school in New York City and when she was preparing for the bar exam she was offered a job at Legal Services which she happily accepted.  On the day of the bar exam, a series of mishaps threw her off her stride and she failed, which is not unusual in states like New York with the more difficult bar exams.  And Legal Services told her not to worry, they were sure she would pass the next time.  

As she studied for her second bar exam, I sent her positive messages from time to time. “You will be the most prepared person in that room because you have been through this before.” “Now that you know what the questions are like, you can study more effectively.”  “You are much smarter than me, and I passed the California bar exam, for crying out loud!”  

Gabriela took the second bar exam, and after months of worry the results came out, and she failed again. She wrote me over the weekend after receiving the results. “I know they are going to fire me on Monday.  She expressed doubts about the decisions she had made and wondered whether she was cut out for the legal profession. Early on Monday I sent her a supportive message as she prepared to walk the plank at work.  

Monday morning when she arrived in the office, the Project Director told her she wanted to speak with her.  The Project Director came to her small office.  “I see you failed the bar exam again. I know you can do this, and you will. What do you need?” 

That is leadership at its finest! Leadership which builds trust in a team member and can inspire undying loyalty. The Project Director facilitated access to better study materials that made all the difference. Gabriela passed the bar exam. She now works as lawyer for a nonprofit, a position with more opportunity for leadership. 

I remember the morning I found out she had passed the bar and I happily announced it to  Rebecka as I brought her breakfast in bed.  Rebecka smiled, “That must be a big relief to you, I know how worried you have been.”

Gabriela being sworn in to the New York Bar.

“It’s the little things that make a house a home.” 

In my post about the importance of the first day setting the tone for the years to follow, I mentioned several ways we made the new team member feel valued and part of our team.

Personalizing the work area.

Something as simple as putting the names of the interns and their school on the cubicle meant a lot to the interns and they often told me they had sent pictures of that to their families and friends.  In addition, it allowed other workers in the office to make connections because they had attended the same school.

When Adiba texted me her picture for this post, her message shows exactly why these small touches can be so important:


We had special lanyards that were only for the Detainee Hotline Team members.

2150# was the number that immigration detainees used to contact our office.

We posted pictures of former interns in one of the cubicles to show they would be remembered when they left and we wanted to keep in touch.

On my office door were notes of appreciation I had received.

T – Team Building

What activities can raise trust?

Betsy is focused on trust building activities, and her note card suggestion is interesting and I would try it if I still had a team.  Because the nature of our work required everyone to pitch in on most projects, I never had in office activities to build team spirit, but we did have many other activities.

Make sure every team member is being included.

A leader is always learning, and in building community they are studying how their team interacts.  Is everyone included when they leave for lunch?  Is there a clique of people which is excluding someone?  If these divisions are noted, you have to talk to the “in crowd” and discuss how they, as leaders in the group, need to include everyone. 

An example of inclusion at one of our “first day lunches.”

As an example of how I would observe my there is an example of spotting a leader during a “first day lunch.”.  It was the first day for the fourth and final intern in our group.  The other three interns had been working together for a week and knew each other.  As we left the office and headed for lunch I tagged behind and was observing my team and I noticed the three who knew each other were walking ahead and chatting happily and the new person was walking alone behind them.  We had walked for just a few steps when Brandon looked around for the new person and saw her lagging behind.  He stopped and waited for her and the two of them chatted as they walked to the restaurant.  I try and choose people for my team who have a compassionate heart.  When I saw Brandon make sure the new person was included in our team, I knew I had made the right decision. 

Reward the team for working well together

From time to time I would surprise the team with a bonus, I would take them across the street for smoothies, or I would suggest we have lunch together where work talk is off limits. We might take our lunch outside on one of the seven days with lovely weather in Washington, DC and sit on the grass. We would often have lunch in front of the Whitehouse back when that was a place people wanted to be seen.

It gave me a chance to observe my team in a relaxed manner so I could better judge when something was wrong and their demeanor changed.  Plus, I just liked them and enjoyed their company.

Marisa, Morgan, Alexis, and Maria getting a well-earned reward!

Dinners at my house

Another one of our team traditions was having the interns over to my house for dinner.  I always told them that the purpose of this dinner was to meet Rebecka with whom I am married because she is much more interesting than me.  They weren’t sure that was true until they met her and listened to her stories about working around the world on family planning, maternal and child health, and gender equality projects.  Then they agree that I was the runner up in our family. The dinners also offered an opportunity for people to bring their  significant others, thereby widening the circle of our team.

In summary, Betsy has provided the five steps to building a trusting team. I hope some of my ideas may be helpful in suggesting ways you can implement her steps for your own team.

Coming Attractions: Leadership 14: A leader must create a place where people feel respected as people.

A leader builds respect by taking the welfare of their team members more seriously than any particular task.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

One thought on “Leadership 13: Building trust and a sense of community within your team

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