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Publishing a book on women’s rights. Crafting a constitution for a fictional nation. Determining the real cost—economic, environmental, and social—of the T-shirt on your back. These are all real projects undertaken by real students in elementary and middle school. Each also represents the emergence of a welcome trend in education: the rise of project-based learning.

By putting students in situations that demand real-world collective problem-solving, project-based learning prepares them for the reality of work in the 21st century: team-based, collaborative, networked. Researchers have found that the amount of time employees and managers spend working collaboratively has grown by at least 50 percent since the 1990s (the same decade the internet became ubiquitous in the workplace). The need to prepare a workforce grounded in the skills needed to work together to solve problems has never been greater.

Perhaps the most important lesson today’s students—and today’s workforce—can learn about collaboration is how to cultivate and encourage trust.

Collaboration as a work style presents a specific set of emotional challenges. To get work done, especially creative work, in a collaborative setting requires openness. You need to let down your defenses to let the good ideas flow. But that vulnerable state can feel uncomfortable at best and downright scary at worst. Organizations that create environments where these anxieties are acknowledged and addressed are most likely to set their teams up for success. In a workplace where employees trust one another and the leadership that they’ll be heard—that there’s true openness to new ideas—teams are more likely to take creative risks that lead to true progress.

The question of trust

The creative work that leads to innovation always starts with a rough draft—something imperfect. For anyone, even those who see themselves as the smartest in the room, sharing your imperfect ideas means lowering defenses. In project-based learning, today’s young learners ideally are discovering that true collaboration requires trust. And not just trusting that their own ideas will be heard, but that sometimes you need to trust in the ideas of others.  

Similarly, team members will struggle to let their guards down and engage in the process that generates new, better ideas if they don’t feel they’re in a place where they’re safe to screw up. Today’s most forward-looking organizations have worked hard to cultivate that kind of organizational culture. But in times such as our present moment, which are defined by continuous change, trust can be especially hard to maintain.

In a recent study, Dutch researchers found that resistance to change in organizations stems in part from a threat it poses to a sense of group identity. Employees know who they are in the context of a group whose purpose and parameters are clearly and firmly defined. Change stirs uncertainty, which spurs protective impulses. “Leaders that communicate visions of change can address this resistance by assuring followers that the essence of the organizational identity will remain unchanged,” the researchers write in the Academy of Management Journal, “making their vision of change also a vision of continuity.”

In that sense, maintaining a culture of trust means projecting a sense of values that persist, even as structures and processes change. But getting team members to believe that commitment is real also demands transparency. Leaders can’t expect to foster trust simply by saying, “trust me.” They should assume that all employees operate under the “trust, but verify” dictum.

“According to one survey of more than half a million U.S. employees, almost one-third don’t understand why … changes are happening,” writes change management expert Morgan Galbraith in Harvard Business Review.

“When employees don’t understand why changes are happening, it can be a barrier to driving ownership and commitment and can even result in resistance or push back.”

Expert advice

When uncertainty prevails, trust issues don’t just arise between employees and the overall organization. Team members unsettled by change will also look to their most trusted colleagues—peers who have a demonstrated record of success. These successes could range from a specific business objective achieved—blowing past a sales goal, releasing a great new product—to exhibiting great people skills over and over again. Whatever the specifics, these anchors in an organization radiate competence that reassures others they have someone they can count on.

Leaders trying to navigate the process of change successfully need to identify these pillars quickly. Engaged managers can readily rattle off the names of their organizations’ roster of reliable experts across competencies. But leaning on these stars runs the risk of burning them out. To ensure the most reliable people in an organization stay engaged and actually stick around, they need to be rewarded for their efforts, whether in compensation or simply the time and room they need to get their own work done.

With these stalwarts in place, a culture of trust begins to radiate outward.Not that there’s a perfect storybook ending: the process of getting there can feel worse before it feels better. Trust grows only as teams put change into practice and gain reassurance that new ideas and approaches don’t have to undermine identity.

As this cycle continues, collaboration in the midst of change—or as a way toward fostering that change— starts to feel a little less scary. Trust grows—both in the process and each other. Teams’ mental and emotional resources are no longer taxed by concerns outside the actual work they need to get done to ensure the next important project succeeds. These are lessons that every organization should work to implement now—and not wait around for the next generation.

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