Loosen the Rules to Unleash Teamwork

When you trust your team to do the right thing, without the need for lots of rules, you facilitate enhanced cooperation and teamwork.

tear up the rules
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When I was in college, I managed a small restaurant where I learned the value of trusting my team. The previous manager had set a rule that the wait staff must put half of all their tips into a tip pool to be divided among the rest of the staff, including those who work in the kitchen. The wait staff resented this rigid, unbreakable rule, and it created animosity between them and the kitchen staff. So I eliminated the rule and said "I trust you to contribute a fair portion for those who help you do your jobs so well."

Two weeks later, the head chef told me that the amount he could split among the kitchen staff had actually increased, plus cooperation in general had gotten a boost. Everyone was pitching in to help refill coffee cups or deliver checks to tables. Back then I knew intuitively that trusting people would make them more worthy of trust, and now researchers can offer a neuroscience-based explanation of why this happens.

The Research

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University, says that when someone shows trust in us, the chemical oxytocin surges in our brains. Oxytocin (not to be confused with the prescription painkiller oxycontin) is a small molecule, or peptide, that serves as both a neurotransmitter, sending signals within the brain, and as a hormone, carrying messages in the bloodstream. When oxytocin surges, people become more cooperative, more generous, and more caring with their teammates. Zak drew these conclusions from numerous trials of what he calls a "Trust Game" experiment. The experiment involves two scenarios involving monetary exchanges between an investor and an anonymous trustee.

In the first scenario, the investor starts with $10 and can choose to transfer some or all of it to an anonymous trustee. This initial exchange triples the transferred sum, so if the investor transfers the whole $10 to the trustee, that sum immediately becomes $30. The trustee then decides how much, if any, to pay back to the investor. The second scenario is exactly the same except the investor does not decide how much money to transfer to the trustee, but instead picks a random number out of a bucket.

In both scenarios, the trustee knows whether the investor or a random pick had determined the amount. When trustees receive transfers of money based on the investor's own decision to trust them, their oxytocin levels run 50 percent higher, and they return twice as much money as when they receive money based on random chance. This study clearly supports the contention that generosity and cooperation in a team increase when the members feel trusted.

Implications for a Tech Team

How do you instill trust in a group? You begin by placing your faith in them. Over the years, I have made this my motto: "Expect people to do the right thing, without the need for a lot of rules." This practice visibly lights up a team. It resonates. And it gets results.

In a lot of organizations, rules abound. Many of them, such as human resource regulations, arise as a reaction to one person’s bad behavior. Somebody abuses the telecommuting policy by going hiking while they should be taking customer support calls. Instead of dealing with that one incident, we burden the whole team with a new rule that nobody is allowed telecommute.

Resist the urge to impose restrictive rules on your team. When you show people that you trust them, you enhance teamwork. People feel more engaged in their work, and they don't need prodding to put in extra hours to complete a project on time. A bond of trust also lays the groundwork for creativity. Creativity depends on taking risks, and we tend to do it much more ardently when we totally trust our teammates for support and backup. Only in such a truly trusting environment do we feel safe offering our most daring, innovative and outrageous ideas.

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