How to rebuild trust on a nonprofit team

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Often reduced to petty interpersonal disagreements, poor team dynamics impact every aspect of your organization, both internal and external. As a team dynamics consultant, I’m called upon when these team dynamics are challenging.

Common symptoms of my clients at the beginning are infighting, silos, personal disagreements, high rates of sick time and staff turnover, to name a few. Yet many executive directors negate the seriousness of these dynamics to being just interpersonal conflict.

Let’s take one nonprofit organization/client I worked with five years ago as an example. They had poor team dynamics and constant conflict in the organization. As a result, the internal staff did not want to come to work as they were highly stressed – many experienced burnout and felt negative about their work.

While this had a strong impact on employees, it also had strongly impacted their reputation in the community – community members did not like the rude treatment, the judgment and negativity they experienced when interacting with employees. If you had done a Google Search on this client at the time, they received very low star reviews (about 2). Today they rate at 4.5 – and the only difference is that they addressed the team dynamics and now their staff want to come to work and are happy at work.

Their poor reputation in the community had also strongly impacted their ability to fundraise. This year, in a single fundraising event alone, they surpassed the amount of money it took them an entire year to raise prior to our work together!

And it goes further! Unhappy employees, like unhappy customers, tend to chat, whether it’s to friends or on their social media accounts. Websites like Glass Door allow individuals to rate their employer. It doesn’t take many negative reviews before your reputation as an employer is damaged.

Rest assured, your potential employees are doing an online search about your organization before applying for jobs! The challenge is that a person who would be a great team member that values the culture above other factors, will not apply for your position.

Rebuilding trust in a team

When a team is struggling, often they are having a challenge with trust. Many teams have conflict and difficulty because there is little or no trust in one another. When this happens, it’s important to get assistance right away to rebuild the trust.

Let’s look at TRUST bit by bit.

T is for Transparency. Leaders that share freely and openly what is happening throughout the agency with others build trust. The old style of management was to hold the information and only share it as needed. High trust environments require leaders to communicate the information in a timely and clear manner. Consider a regular e-newsletter or meeting to share upcoming changes in your team, funding updated and other news, while ensuring every team member has the same access to the information across the organization.

R is for Relationships. The quality of your relationships with partner agencies, funders, team members and clients highly impacts your level of success. Ensuring that you are respectful, honest, using candor and listening to deeper issues, builds trust in relationships. Leaders who have positive relationships built on consistency, collaboration and congruency will build trust with their employees. Ensure you are consistent with what you say you will do, act in the same manner you ask of your employees and ensure that you are holding both yourself and your team members accountable.

U is for Understanding. Make the investment to fully appreciate what your staff is experiencing in terms of successes and challenges in their work. By fully understanding their world, you can ensure that policies and procedures serve both your team and your clients’ needs. When you don’t understand another individual’s perspective, ask open-ended questions that you don’t know the answer to. Also, regularly ask yourself what your assumptions are in the moment and ask questions with genuine curiosity to ensure you have a thorough understanding of the other person’s perspective.

S is for Shared Success. Creating a clear vision of shared success is important to bring your mission statement to life every day. Uncover potential barriers to good work and seek creative solutions to resolve them. Don’t just see these comments as complaints but, instead, investigate to understand and then seek solutions. Make time to celebrate your successes with one another to keep building your momentum, so that your shared vision comes to life. Begin each supervision or team meeting with a check in where individuals can share their biggest win or challenge they want help with. Celebrate those wins! And make time to brainstorm solutions to those challenges.

T is for Team. Creating teams based on mutual respect, communication and fair treatment is needed for trust. Holding individuals accountable even when it is difficult is important. Without accountability, trust is broken. If some individuals are allowed to engage in behaviour that is less than the definition of shared success, then other team members will eventually resent it and the result is often conflict. By upholding team expectations in this way, team members will trust that you have their best interests at heart and will give more discretionary effort.

When trust is lacking in an organization, there will be more conflict and a lack of appropriate accountability. However, with higher trust comes increased staff engagement, reduced turnover and deeper dedication to your organization!

Sylvia Plester-Silk has been described as an Energy Shifter. Helping individuals and organizations “shift” from struggle to success. With over 25 years’ experience in Executive Coaching and Social Work, she helps a wide range of clients find meaningful solutions.

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