Trust is fundamental to the highest levels of collaboration, but how do you know if that level of trust exists?

The Chicago Innovation Awards’ theme this year was collaboration. It’s a principle of innovation we so commonly accept as true, yet fail to focus enough on. And, in times like this—of economic stress, downsizing and waiting for the other shoe to drop—collaboration can suffer. With lean staffing and an undertone of fear in the workplace, there is neither the time for the most effective collaboration or possibly the trust level needed for the highest synergy.

While not so much collaboration might be needed for serendipitous innovation, it seems essential for continuous innovation, which is what the marketplace demands. And, as the world of competitors grows, it is inevitable that innovation will be the global currency for success. I’d like to take a cue from the Chicago group’s timely reminder to think more and do more about collaboration.

A few years ago, I did a couple of case studies and wrote a journal article on trust and collaboration as related to innovation. In studying the two cases and other examples of continuous innovation, my co-author and I speculated that working/team relationships might fall into one of four categories along a spectrum:

  • Adversarial,
  • Competitive,
  • Cooperative, and
  • Collaborative.

Underlying these relationships were motivating forces ranging from “not to lose” to “for the good of all.” And, fundamental to the relationships were an assessment of trust—distrust, reluctant/cautious, transaction-oriented or highly invested.

The first step toward high collaboration is trust-building. (Duh! you might say.) But what does that really look like in your workplace?

  • Who can you trust and how do you know it?
  • Will your colleagues “have your back,” no matter what (short of something criminal or unethical)?
  • Does management give credit where due?
  • Who can be relied on 100%?
  • Do you keep/manage your promises?
  • Are people really competent or faking it?
  • Do your colleagues truly care if you are successful?
  • Are you happy or jealous or envious for their success?
  • Does everyone truly keep confidences… even when it doesn’t matter anymore?
  • How open and honest is competition for promotion?
  • Who is trying to gain favor of others?
  • Do people admit what they don’t know?
  • Do people ask for help without insecurity?

Trust is a thoughtful assessment — and yes, it includes feeling-tone. Along with judging reliability and competence, you would like to feel that the other is sincere and actually cares about you and your well-being. This kind of trust breeds open collaboration – the kind that can lead to creative breakthroughs.

What’s going on in your organization? Cautious or full-out collaboration?