The Collaboration Hierarchy: Starting with Trust

The first installment of a 5-part series

Collaboration is the promise that when people work together, they are better than the sum of their parts. They are able to be more creative, communicate more effectively, and fulfill their full potential.

But what does it truly mean to collaborate? And how can a team set itself up for success? Over the course of this 5-part series, we will be examining what it takes to build a culture of collaboration.

Defining a Culture of Collaboration

On its own, a culture is defined as the attitudes and behavior characteristics of a particular social group. Collaboration is the act of working with someone to produce or create something.

 So ultimately, a collaborative culture is:

a social group whose attitudes and characteristics allow them to work together to produce or create something.

Cultures of collaboration really stand out when the pressure is high and your team needs to execute. A great example of is how NASA responded during the Apollo 13 mission. Two days after the launch of their lunar-bound ship, an oxygen tank for the Service Module exploded. As a result, carbon dioxide began building up in the Command Module. The three astronauts were stuck in space, running out of oxygen, and could only communicate with engineers on the ground via a radio – they couldn’t see each other.

The mission control team, though incredibly bright, didn’t have a solution ready for this urgent problem. They called the engineers to gather up the miscellaneous parts that would be onboard on the ship and make something work. In the picture at the top of this post, you can see the makeshift prototype that would need to be assembled onboard in order for the astronauts to have breathable air. Referred to as “the mailbox”, this contraption brought together a cubed-shaped canister with a cylindrical canister-socket through a return hose. Not necessarily the most intuitive device.

Once they had the design, mission control had to convey how to build this part to astronauts thousands of miles away over a radio before they passed out from asphyxiation. No diagrams, no video, but they got it done. While the mission didn’t accomplish its intended goals, it illustrated why collaboration and communication are so critical to mission success.

The Collaboration Hierarchy

To achieve this level of collaboration, teams need to embed it in their culture over time. For this ebook, we will be looking at collaboration with the same framing as Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. What are the fundamental components to build your culture around and where do you go next? For each level of the hierarchy, we will provide constructive tactics that will help your team collaborate more effectively.

The first part of forming a solid team is trust.

Starting with Trust

A Gallup poll in 2012 found that when employees trust their leaders, their engagement at work is better than 1 in 2. Inversely, when they don’t trust their leaders at work, engagement goes to 1 in 12! Trust is a short word, but it encompasses whether or not a team has a workable foundation.

So, think about it. Do you 100% trust your coworkers and your boss? What about your management team?

If trust isn’t woven into your development culture, many people may feel like they are in the Hunger Games, only looking over their shoulder and being defensive. At a minimum, some teammates may be afraid to be vulnerable and truly let down their guard. 

Maybe they don’t feel as smart as their coworker. Maybe their coworker took credit for something they did. Maybe they are a contractor and don’t feel like their position is secure. This could be for any number of reasons.

So how do you actually build trust?

  1. Promote positive, open communication
  2. Treat others with respect and courtesy
  3. Give trust freely and assume you’re not under attack

A good example of giving trust freely is in a relationship, when your significant other says something to you that makes you feel like you’re under attack. Take a second and assume that they don’t have malice towards you.  Whatever they just said isn’t an attack.

 Of course, there are going to be times when they are actually attacking you, but that’s likely not the majority of the time.

If you can promote positive communication, treat others with respect and give trust freely, then you will be fostering a free mental enterprise.

A Free Mental Enterprise

A free mental enterprise is a mental economy that can produce exponentially when given an open collaborative forum for ideas, fully unleashed and without judgement.

There are two critical ways to encourage free mental enterprise. They are active listening and asking quality questions.

Active Listening

Active listening builds trust because it allows for team members to feel heard while also sharing information on what they feel and think about a topic or situation.

Whether it is during a standup or sprint retrospective, if you are making an intentional effort to listen to concerns and make room for those concerns to be aired, it allows for open communication across the team.

Making room for communication means withholding outright judgment on comments, which can stifle honest feedback. It also means reducing distractions. For example, when everyone has their laptop open or when everyone is looking at their cell phone on a meeting, do you believe that the person speaking feels that they are being listened to?

Not only is it important to actively listen, it is important to remember that there are cultural differences between employees and English isn’t always the native language.

Active listening is a practice that shows respect and works toward building trust between two people.

The flip side of active listening is speaking, but rather than telling people how or what to do, or what you think, you might get further with quality questions.

Asking Quality Questions

Which of these questions below will encourage a quality answer?

  • “Are you sure that is the best way to implement the algorithm?”
  • “What was your process for deciding on how to implement the algorithm?”

It’s the second question, but why?

The first question allows the person to just respond with “Yes” or “No”. No further conversation necessarily. The second framing encourages the individual to reflect on why they did what they did. It allows them to fully explore their work and then articulate their thought process to the person asking the question.

In The Coach Model by Keith Webb, he describes 7 different types of questions:

  1. Closed questions – Do you agree with this logic?
  2. Open questions – What is happening in this method?
  3. Directive questions – When will you take the time to finish fixing this defect?
  4. Emotion questions – How do you feel about the current project you’re working on?
  5. Fact questions – Who are the members of this team?
  6. Why questions – What factors did you take into account before you wrote this program?
  7. Permission questions – Do you mind if I ask you a question?

It can be helpful just to be self-aware about how we are framing and potentially limiting communication by using too many closed questions when trying to get to the truth.

Charles Price from the People’s Church in Toronto once told a story about an old man that was walking along the side of the road with his dog, and his mule. A truck came flying around the corner and knocked the man, his mule and his dog into a ditch. The old man decided to sue the driver of the truck for damages.

While the old man was on the stand, the counsel of the defense cross examined the man and asked him this question. “Didn’t you tell the driver of the truck, at the time of the accident, that you were perfectly fine?”

The man responded by saying, “I was walking down the road with my dog and my mule…” The attorney cut him off and said, “It’s a yes-or-no question. I’ll ask you again. Didn’t you say at the time of the accident that you were perfectly fine?”

The man looked up and said, “I was walking down the road with my dog and my mule.”

“Stop, stop, stop!”, responded the attorney. “Your honor, would you please insist that this old man simply answers my yes-or-no question.”

The Judge said, “He obviously has something to say, I’ll let him continue.”

So, the old man starts again, “I was walking along the side of the road with my dog and my mule when that man drove around the corner too fast and knocked us into the ditch. He got out of his truck and saw that my dog was in pretty rough shape. He went back to his truck, got his rifle, and shot my dog. He then noticed that my mule had two broken legs and he shot it. Then he looked at me and said, “How are you?” I told him, “I’m perfectly fine.”

Quality questions build trust, allow for open communication, and convey respect because they indicate that you are trying to better understand their position and are seeking additional clarity.

Quality questions allow for free mental enterprise because they deepen our understanding and invite new information to broaden our understanding of a problem or situation.


Stay tuned for our next post in the series, "Setting Clear Expectations".

If you want to read the full ebook on "Building a Development Culture of Collaboration", you can download it here:


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