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TRUST and the Dreaded Decision to Remove a Team Member


Did you ever have a situation when the team didn’t trust one of its members? This article discusses first why it happens, what the impact it has on team performance, and what you can do about it, all the way to the dreaded decision of removing this member from the team, but with several other alternatives before it gets to that.


Why do you keep a person on the team when the team doesn’t trust them? There are typically several reasons. It could be because that person is competent or skilled in a technical area that is needed for the team. It could be because there is a vacancy on the team that must be fulfilled quickly, or maybe because of a looming deadline that might not be met without that skill on the team. Maybe it’s simply because you believe the team is getting used to “the devil they know,” or you are afraid of the consequences (potentially legal ones) of removing that member from the team or the company altogether.


Either way, you should know there is a price to keeping a member on the team when the team doesn’t trust them. A study done by Prof. Will Felps of the School of Management at the University of New South Wales showed that when you introduce a member who constantly complains about the nature of the task, doubts the team’s ability to win, overly criticizes team members’ ideas or demonstrates an “I don’t care” attitude, the team will adopt that member’s behavior rather than maintain its prior productive behavior. That “bad apple” has a bigger impact on team dynamics than the team has on that member.


Team dynamics significantly impact team performance, including creativity and productivity. When the level of trust in the team is low, team members are ten times more likely to consider disagreement unproductive, feel uncomfortable disagreeing, or avoid disagreements altogether. When the trust level is high, members are 240% more willing to be vulnerable (ask stupid questions, suggest stupid ideas, and not worry about what other team members will do with them), 106% more willing to give other team members the direct, unfiltered feedback they need, rather than what they think they want to hear and are 76% more receptive to feedback.

But, think about that: while you may trust four members of your team enough to be able to do all that, how do you feel when a new team member, a team member you don’t trust yet, or a team member you don’t trust anymore is part of the team? Are you still willing to be vulnerable in that team member’s presence? Are you still willing to give feedback or be receptive to feedback? Probably not.


What should you, the team leader or human resources professional, do in this situation?

  • The first step to solving this problem is to acknowledge there is one. Is there a trust issue in the team that results from one team member not being trusted by the rest?

  • The second is to understand why that member is not trusted and handle it according to the reason.

  • Suppose the team member is not trusted by the rest of the team simply because they are haven’t spent enough intimate (in person, rather than communicating over email) time with the team. In that case, you can increase that time and force meetings to occur in person more often to accelerate trust building.

  • If there is an organizational asymmetry in the team (different levels in the organization’s hierarchy, different access to resources, etc.), change it. Maybe the new member has a fancy office while the others work out of cubicles. This could hurt trust in that “privileged” member. If the asymmetry is due to the member not contributing as much as other team members, that’s a conversation that must take place with that member. Contribution symmetry has a significant impact on trust.

  • Maybe the team member is not competent enough in their role on the team. This could be addressed by professional training, experience, or accepting that level of competence and setting the expectations, if possible.

  • Sometimes there is a moderate personality incompatibility between the team member and the rest of the team. Moderate incompatibility may include different personality types, preferences such as procrastination and risk-taking, preference to hear the bottom line first or last, etc. In these cases, the team and the member must first understand those differences. In many cases, simply understanding them would go a long way to learning to deal with them. Sometimes, this could be addressed by changing roles and assigning the team member to a role they are much more competent in.

  • The problem starts when the team member has significant personality incompatibility with the rest of the team, especially around strongly held opposite values. Unfortunately, politics are creating a foothold in the workplace, and opposite political views could become significant value differences. There is a strong 86% correlation between trust and the existence of shared values. In this case, emotions tend to take precedence, and the situation is likely unresolvable without the removal of the untrusted team member.

To be clear, when referring to “untrusted team member,” considering the relativity of trust, that member could very well be trusted by other teams, and just not this one. Removing a team member is uncomfortable and awkward and could feel risky from a legal liability perspective, and it is typically an earthquake to the team. However, avoiding that decision when all other options have been exhausted is not the answer. Keeping a team member on a team that doesn’t trust them sacrifices team performance. If you are willing to sacrifice team performance to avoid removing a member the team can’t trust, at least do it consciously.

Finally, know that not being trusted by the team hurts the untrusted team member, in the form of feeling less joy at work, lower job satisfaction, and higher stress levels and burnout. You are not doing the team member any favor by keeping them in a team that can’t trust them.


 



Dr. Yoram Solomon is a trust expert, author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop that helps build trust in organizations.


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