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Want to Win? 6 Ways to Build Trust in Your Team

Chicago Bulls team psychologist Dr. Steve Julius reveals how to help your team members trust each other, the strategy--and you.
Want to Win? 6 Ways to Build Trust in Your Team
photo by dupo-x-y

Imagine managing a team in an intensely competitive environment where you have to make split-second decisions, each one of them high stakes. How would you create a cohesive group? Steve Julius, Ph.D., director of player programs and player development for NBA’s Chicago Bulls, knows how this is done. A clinical psychologist by training, Julius–or Dr. J, as he’s sometimes called–has worked as psychologist to the legendary team since 1988.

According to Julius, the key is to develop trust–not simply in the strategy but in each other.  “The consistent winners have faith in one another, in the system, and in the leaders,” says Julius, who also heads a management consulting firm, HRCG.

In an interview with The Build Network’s editor-in-chief Michael Hopkins, Julius explained how leaders in any organization can create this sense of trust and avoid the “clone error”–thinking everyone reacts the same way you would.

1. Show empathy for everyone on your team.

A true leader — which is the role the coach plays first and foremost — needs to have a level of empathy, not only concerning how the players work collectively, but as individuals. Phil Jackson, Scott Skiles, and our current coach, Tom Thibodeau, recognize that their players are complex people who happen to be talented athletes. Coaches who approach their players like people try to create an environment that recognizes individual difference. In addition, they recognize that [the player's] confidence–in himself, teammates and the coach– is probably the most important additive to success.

My job is to be a subject matter expert, an arm’s-length objective observer of behavior. The majority of the players on the team went through a number of interviews and even psychological testing, so I have access to information that we can use to help in the areas of confidence and becoming more resilient under adversity. That information also helps us recognize that there are individual differences in how each player learns and adapts.

2. Acknowledge that everyone has different learning styles.

We all have preferred ways to learn. Our organization is dealing with players who come to pro basketball with various levels of experience academically and with different learning experiences with coaches. But once they’re in the pros, they’re expected to be much more independent, self-sufficient, and autonomous in their capacity to learn. And not every player has developed the kind of organization and what we call “executive skills” to prepare on their own. Add to that the different ways an individual processes information–auditory, visual and  kinesthetic. It is no wonder that the most successful coaches, or bosses, recognize and respond differently to individual learning styles.

For example, we had a rookie who was one of our top seven or eight players, and he was one of the first people that we identified who could not process information when it was presented just for him to hear. And we did two things. The first utilized Dennis Rodman, who was on that team and is the ultimate great teammate, very selfless, an extremely smart player. Dennis would take this kid aside and walk him through what the play required, right there on the court after the play was called.

The other thing we did took place at practice, where we taught this young man how to do what we call self-talk, which was basically sing to himself the steps that he needed to execute for a given play. We set up what was akin to an Arthur Murray dance studio, and one of the assistant coaches and/or Dennis would take him, after practice, and literally walk through the steps, so that he would begin to reinforce and internalize them sufficiently. Taking that time and effort to process the information in a way that works for that individual gives us a greater chance to ensure that that player will go out and execute.

Dennis was a superior observer, a visual learner. He would watch game film all the time. In fact, one of the things that we liked about him when we were considering bringing him to the Bulls was that he spent a lot of time watching film on his own, with specific objectives in mind. Michael Jordan was a good visual learner too, but his real greatness lies in his kinesthetic capability. He had this incredible degree of what we call proprioception, the ability to use your gyroscope in your brain to know where you are in space at any given time, even if you’re more parallel to the ground as opposed to perpendicular. Michael was just a guy who played not only by feel, but in many ways by intuition. He didn’t have to think. His body responded in time.

3. Don’t fall prey to the “clone error.”

When you’re in the middle of the fray, there’s a tendency to commit what we call the “clone error,” which means that we assume that everybody feels and reacts in the same way you would under those circumstances. So the coach can  miss the fact that even the great [players] can have doubts at crunch time. There are some players, even great players, who are wired so that, when under stress, their limbic system kicks on —the flight-or-flight response. And what they try to do is to not make a mistake.  They worry about the outcome, as if it’s all about not failing. Whereas the really successful athletes, like the successful business performers out there, the successful leaders out there, recognize that you’ve got to make a calculated decision, and then you’ve got to commit 100%. Whether you win or lose, are right or wrong, may be out of your control.

And sometimes coaches forget that. They are human. Sometimes, they are so intensely focused on the outcome that they wind up causing their players to play not to lose, rather than willing to put it all on the line to win. In those moments, coaches essentially forget that they’re the real team leader. No matter who’s on the floor, when you call that time-out and you’re calling the play, everybody’s listening to and watching you. And their mood is going to rise and fall with yours.

4.  Recognize that a leader’s mood has an outsized effect on the team.

Just to give you a simple example: Say a boss has a flat tire. He comes into the office and he’s grumpy. Everybody sees it, and everybody assumes they’re in trouble. They don’t know that the boss might just be having a bad day himself, you know what I mean?

But imagine that the boss instead comes in and says, “Listen, I know I’m a little grumpy. I gotta go wash my hands; I got a flat tire; I’ve got a white shirt on. So just ignore me for a few minutes until I get myself oriented again.” That can make the difference between employees being productive for that next hour or only marginally productive.

5.  Become psychologically attuned to the team.

What you should do, as trite as this might sound, is: listen. Ask questions. Ultimately, have you helped your people understand the dynamic interplay between the team’s vision, the tasks that are necessary to succeed and their role in achieving success?

I’d also be listening to what they worry about most. Leaders are at their best when they’re helping people eliminate obstacles. Every leader wants to hear confidence; but you also want to make sure that there’s still humility, and the recognition that there’s always room to improve. A shrewd leader builds and maintains confidence while also keeping people sharp and hungry for more.You want them to know that there’s always somebody willing to take that championship ring away.

6. Give your performers a chance to rebound from mistakes.

Scottie Pippen felt personally responsible for the success of the team in 1994. [ED: The Bulls forward Scottie Pippen famously refused to get off the bench with 1.8 seconds left in a playoff game against the New York Knicks in 1994.] He felt that moment in time was the opportunity for him to demonstrate that he could lead when Michael [Jordan] wasn’t around. He had a momentary lapse of reason. He has told several of us that the moment he said no to running the designed play, he knew he was wrong, but there wasn’t enough time to take it back and get back in the game. So the play unfolds, we hit the winning shot, and then the team goes into the locker room.

A less experienced coach than Phil Jackson would have gone in there and lectured Pippin; instead, Bill Cartwright, who was the emotional and mature leader of the players, really laid into Scottie. I wasn’t in the locker room, but I understand that Scottie took full responsibility for his actions and said so to his teammates. That team, once they had their come-to-the-mountain meeting right after the game, never, as far as I know, breathed another word of what transpired. It was time to move on, because like family, a good team has to recognize that there are times where each of us has to have the other guy’s back. This was one of those times where Scottie didn’t have the team’s back, but they had his, and he never forgot it.

Rather than sulk or pout, Pippin contributed as a true leader down the road. A couple of years later, in a game against Utah in the playoffs, Michael Jordan, with 103 fever,  scores 34 points, I believe, and we win a very crucial game.  Michael came off the court with his arm around Scottie, and it looked like he was just leaning on him in exhaustion.

But you know the reason why Jordan was hugging Scottie Pippin? Because through the entire game, without ever calling attention to it — in fact, most people don’t know it today — Scottie not only was covering his own man defensively, but he was covering Michael’s, so that Michael could have whatever gas he needed to play offensively.


Oh, those glorious days of Michael Jordan at his best: here’s a highlight reel, from when Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009....And here's Rodman's highlight reel, from his 2011 Hall of Fame introduction. For more about team dynamics, Pat Lencioni’s Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team [Jossey-Bass; 2005] highlights five typical problem areas: trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and focus on results. Also check out Lencionci’s 1:11 video on “Achieving Buy-In.”

.. image courtesy of flickr user, bobaliciouslondon

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