People are the most important resource a company has, but in agricultural economics, we tend to run away the minute human resources comes up in discussion. Sooner or later, we have to stop running. What should we do about the people side of the business?

When I took over as director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business six and a half years ago, I wasn’t fully prepared. There was every indication that I had the skills necessary to succeed: I’d been studying business strategy throughout my career and I had been promoted to full professor. But what I didn’t know was just how much time it would require to create and foster a healthy organization and a stronger, more capable team.

Patrick Lencioni outlines what a poorly functioning team looks like in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The dysfunctions he identifies are absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and a lack of focus on results. He presents these dysfunctions as a pyramid, and absence of trust is at the base. If you don’t have trust, it undermines everything else. Creating trust is the first step toward creating a healthy organization.

Absence of trust is really about vulnerability. Vulnerability is a touchy-feely concept that we aren’t always comfortable with in agribusiness. But we see time and time again that the teams and organizations that are able to succeed are the ones that have mastered these areas. We have to spend time talking about uncomfortable subjects, because they are critical to getting the maximum amount of output from a team of talented people.

Fostering trust and creating vulnerability

Think about your star employees. You trust them because they’ve performed well before. It’s not hard to trust them to succeed, and that’s because of past performance. Maybe you think, “She’ll do a good job because she always does.”

But that isn’t the kind of trust that Lencioni is talking about. It’s not a trust based on predictability or past experience. Instead, it’s based on vulnerability.

Gaining that kind of trust means starting with the belief that our peers’ intentions are good. If we believe that about others, then we have no reason to be guarded, protective, or careful around the group. To get to that level of trust, we need to be willing to be vulnerable with each other, admitting our shortcomings and mistakes.

When trust is present, team members take risks in asking for help and accepting questions and input about their areas of responsibility. They trust their team members not to try to do their job or take their job away – they’re just trying to help them be better. This kind of trust is built over time. It’s not much different than a family.

Distrusting teams, on the other hand, conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from each other. They hesitate to ask for help, provide constructive feedback, or offer help outside their own areas of responsibility. They jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them, instead of asking the purpose behind those actions or what the other team member is trying to achieve.

Members of distrusting teams jump to conclusions about each other’s motivations. That shows up the most after meetings, when everyone leaves and two people walk away talking about someone else. It’s unfortunate, but it happens all the time.

Building team trust

Creating that kind of trust requires a shared focus around shared experiences, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility.

You have to be together in order to be trusting. In agribusiness, a lot of us have teams that are spread out geographically. But you need to make intentional efforts to get people together periodically. Things like facial expressions and eye contact don’t show up over the phone.

Lencioni also suggests focusing on the unique attributes of each team member through sharing personal histories. When team members share stories about their lives, they begin to see each other as real people. A personal connection develops, and it gets easier to be vulnerable with each other.

It can also be helpful to be honest with the team about what it means to be effective or conduct personality and behavior assessments, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). At one Syngenta office I visited, the nameplates outside people’s offices had their Myers-Briggs type right under their name. When you walked in to talk to someone, their MBTI type outside their door reminded you about their communication preferences.

Creating an environment of trust leads to a high-performing team. Team members are comfortable asking for help, they tap into one another’s skills and experiences and they are willing to take risks and provide feedback to each other. These teams retain star employees because those employees want to stay, and our businesses get stronger.