Building trust requires courage: the courage to be vulnerable, to listen to feedback on what you, as a leader, do daily, and the resolve to follow through on your commitments to change, even if those changes are uncomfortable.
This trust-building activity takes guts because it opens you to feedback you may not have heard before. It’s uncomfortable. This workshop, which I have used successfully, is a much shorter version of the excellent process described in the Harvard Business Review article “Blue Ocean Leadership” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.
This activity can be used in (1) large organizations that have several layers of management and several departments (or functional “silos”), or (2) individual departments. The workshop below, which may last a couple of hours, assumes the former as an example.
The senior leader in this workshop engages an objective facilitator for a session involving dozens of leaders at all levels in the leader’s organization. Here are the steps involved:
“Blue Ocean” Trust-Building Workshop
- The senior leader at the meeting announces that the purpose of the meeting is to positively influence the behaviors of all the leaders in the organization, including his or hers.
- Honest, constructive feedback is needed from everyone on what the top, middle, and front-line leaders are doing day-to-day.
- There will be no negative repercussions for the insights shared. That’s a promise.
- Four stations of the room are designated, perhaps the four corners of the room, and three flip charts on easels, or with pages posted on the wall, are at each corner.
- Each station has the flip chart pages titled:
- Top management on one page
- Middle management on another page
- Each station has the flip chart pages titled:
- Front-line management on the final page
- Under the management title are four quadrants spaced out with the subtitles: Stop, Less, More, and Begin
- A sample page may look like this:
- The facilitator divides the group of participants into four smaller groups each consisting of representatives of their management rank. So, two groups of front-line managers may be at two locations respectively, while a single group of middle managers are at another, and a single group of top managers may be at the fourth station.
- The most senior leader should excuse themself from the room for this portion of the exercise.
- Each group spends five to ten minutes at their first station, writing on the flip chart page what they think the manager level indicated on the chart should:
- Stop doing (e.g., micro-managing)
- Do less of (e.g., spending time in meetings)
- Do more of (e.g., praising trust-building activities of individuals)
- Begin doing (e.g., putting trust on the agenda for periodic discussion)
- After five to ten minutes, the facilitator rotates each group to spend five to ten minutes at the next station, adding their ideas, building on the ideas already marked there, until all four groups have visited all four stations.
- Then the facilitator reassembles the entire group, including the senior leader, to tour all the flip charts around the room, facilitating a discussion of what is there, circling, underlining, adding clarifications, and making any group-recommended alterations.
- The senior leader(s) should ask clarifying questions but not engage in defensive remarks.
- From these notes and modifications, a summary list of “Next Steps” can be created by the group and documented by the facilitator of what each level of management will commit to stop doing, do less of, more of, and begin doing.
- This is the critical “Commitment Stage” for each level of management, who should also agree to report back periodically to the group on progress they have made on their “commitments.”
The benefit of this short workshop is that participants can, perhaps for the first time, and in a safe, group environment, express their feelings about what leaders at all organizational levels are actually doing, or should be doing.
The challenge with this workshop is that it may provide some uncomfortable (but essential) feedback to all levels of leadership.
Changing behavior, stopping or lessening negative behaviors, or doing more of, or beginning to do positive behaviors, is hard because many management habits are deeply ingrained. But once a group has spoken out about what they want more of and less of, and once those results are actually delivered, then trust is built, engagement is enhanced, and more heart-driven commitments are made by the people involved.
This shorter, Blue Ocean workshop is not a replacement for the deeper dive into Blue Ocean Leadership as well described by Chen and Mauborgne in their HBR article, but I have found it to be a highly effective way of building organizational trust.
 This technique is known a “brainwalking,” invented by innovation consultant and author Bryan Mattimore. Brainwalking is preferred to seated brainstorming because it gets people up and moving and has them divided into smaller groups where it is easier to express ideas. See Idea Stormers by Bryan Mattimore, pp. 25-29, for an explanation of brainwalking.
Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, trainers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards, and called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great.” Take their Leadership Derailers Assessment or sign up for their newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!