If you have kids or have walked by a soccer field or baseball diamond at this time of year, I am sure you have seen that one child sitting on the bench, head down, looking somewhat dejected and forlorn because everyone else is on the field except for them. The child is probably wondering why they’re not good enough, if the coach doesn’t like them, or if they are being punished—and they’re afraid to put their hand up and ask any of those questions.

At the same time, the coach is likely trying to figure out if they have enough of a lead in the game to put this kid in, or if they can call a timeout in the last 60 seconds, so that getting them onto the field won’t do any damage.

There have been many movies and TV shows inspired by this underdog. When the coach finally does put them in, something miraculous happens—they score the goal, hit the home run, or make the play that ends the game. Cut to the former underdog with a huge smile on their face, the whole team piling onto them in celebration.

As coaches and consultants, we are responsible for giving feedback to our clients about how their teams are functioning, how they can better leverage the resources available to them, and how to create the right conditions for achieving excellent results.

How do we learn to help our clients (and our kids) raise their hand and ask the hard question—why aren’t you putting me in coach? And as coaches and consultants, how do we reach out to the benchwarmers in our client organizations, and give them the feedback they need to get in the game?

I can easily say, it starts with creating an open environment where people are not afraid to ask any question, and where the leaders in those organizations are ready and able to respond in a clear and caring way. You need to build trust, and foster the conditions for effective communication—it starts with your interactions with your clients, and extends to the conversations they have with their teams. Taking the time to build trust in relationships can result in increased engagement, agility, and collaboration—the qualities that teams need to thrive in a rapidly shifting business landscape. But how do you create this environment?

From practical work with clients, here are a few thoughts on how to build that safe, trusting and caring environment.

Note: safe, trusting and caring does not mean a wishy-washy, be a doormat, everyone gets a medal environment. It means an open, honest, forward-moving dialog that allows for interaction, growth, vulnerability and deep relationship-building.

1. Get to know your people and let them get to know you.

This means learning about them, hearing their thoughts on the business and strategy, learning simple (human) things like favorite foods or sports, inviting them to participate in the company in different ways, and sharing a little about yourself. This does not mean you have to be best friends, connect on Facebook and follow each other around. It does mean that your conversations need to go deeper than progress updates or quarterly check ins.

2. Ask how they would handle a problem you’re currently facing.

Asking for help is a great way to give people an opportunity to stretch outside of their comfort zone, and to give you insight into their process for thinking through challenges. Actively requesting input on a problem that you’re currently facing can also give the confidence boost that some people will need to be more comfortable jumping into the mix, instead of waiting to be explicitly invited.  

3. Give feedback in a way that resonates best with each individual.

Positive feedback can be a powerful tool to boost confidence, increase engagement, and build trust that is required to have truly candid conversations. However, it’s important to note that people have individual preferences for hearing feedback—some prefer a quiet thank you, while others respond better to the ticker-tape parade. This means you need to go back to the first point, and figure out where your clients land on this spectrum.

4. Be present and give conversations your full attention.

Whether in 1:1 meetings or group sessions, remove all distractions (yes, put the phone away or turn it over on silent) and be present in the discussion, offering your thoughts and challenges along with everyone else. Most importantly, seek clarification for opinions and thoughts that are not clear to you—seeking to understand will help you build trust. This is all true for any conversation, from a brainstorming session to a feedback discussion to a performance review or all hands town hall.

I am sure that as coaches and consultants, as well as people in the workplace, you have many more to add to this list. The first and the last points are the ones that have challenged me the most, as well as provided the most reward. I focus here daily. What we are all striving to create is a world where our benchwarmers can jump up and say “put me in coach”—and we do so because we know they are passionate, and learning all the time (#1), that they have a cool way of thinking that is different from our own (#2), that they want to celebrate the wins as much as we do and in their own way (#3), and they know we are there for them (#4).

Building a safe, trusting environment takes deliberate and sustained effort—but the results are worth it. When your clients know they can trust you, they are far more likely to ask the tough questions—why aren’t we getting the results we want? Why does my team have such a hard time working together? Why do I feel like a benchwarmer, when I want to be out on the field? Furthermore, as you build trust and create the conditions for effective communication, you will model those behaviors to your clients, who can then adopt new approaches for communicating with their teams.

Do you want to be the kind of coach who keeps star players on the bench? Or the kind who gives the feedback they need to get in the game?

Build Trust