Team Trust: Why It Matters & How to Build It

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Can your team members freely share feedback and ideas? Do they believe that you care about them personally and professionally?

Team trust is essential if you want effective and happy employees. It’s important to understand what trust is, why it’s important, and how you can cultivate trust in three directions: from leader to team, from team to leader, and among team members.

Read more to learn the importance of trust in the workplace and practical ways to foster it.

The Meaning of Team Trust

Trust can be defined as confidence in a person and the absence of questioning of the person’s motives. That’s the view of Paul Marciano, as expressed in his book Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work. Some researchers contend that you must have two types of team trust: competence trust, or a belief that your colleagues will do good work, and interpersonal trust, or a belief that others are doing their best.

In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick M. Lencioni argues that “trust” is an often-misused word and tends to be used to signify predictability in someone’s behavior (as in, “I trust that you will get this done”). He believes that, when discussing interactions between members of a team, trust means something deeper. Lencioni defines team trust as the quality of being able to feel safe and unjudged by one’s teammates. It is the ability to be vulnerable with one another (by being willing to admit mistakes and reveal weaknesses). The root of this is fear that exposing your weaknesses will be used against you. You don’t believe that other people have your best interests at heart.

Simon Sinek agrees with Lencioni. In his book The Infinite Game, he explains that a trusting team is a team made up of people who feel safe around each other—safe expressing their feelings, asking for help, talking about problems, and admitting to mistakes. On a trusting team, workers know that their bosses and colleagues will support them through errors and will offer help in a non-judgmental way when asked. Thus, they feel safe being honest. Conversely, on a non-trusting team, people do not feel comfortable showing vulnerabilities and often feel compelled to lie, hide mistakes, and fake expertise rather than ask for help.

The Importance of Team Trust

Trust in the workplace is important because the workplace is made up of people, and trust is integral to human relationships. Team trust contributes to well-being, performance, and personal advancement. It also prevents something called ethical fading. Let’s look at each of these areas that illustrate the importance of team trust.

Trust Contributes to Well-Being

Studies show that people who are trusting are happier and more psychologically well-adjusted than those who see the world with suspicion, according to James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner in The Leadership Challenge. Brené Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, explains that team trust allows people to feel comfortable trying new ideas and relying on others.

Similarly, in Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Marciano explains that team trust engenders engagement by giving employees more ownership over their work and not wanting to let the supervisor down. Trusted employees feel more comfortable pitching risky ideas, and they’re more receptive to change as they believe the employer has the employees’ best interests at heart.

Marciano writes that, in a culture of distrust, ideas are not shared for fear of others exploiting or disparaging them. Motives are constantly questioned (“What is this person up to now?”). Untrusting people assume the worst. It crowds out productive thinking.

Trust Contributes to Performance

Building team trust is a foundational step toward your team’s success. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) published a report in 2017 that notes that team trust is a key element in a properly functioning organization. When workers trust each other, they unite towards a common goal, take risks with their thinking, and communicate openly. In the absence of trust, workers compete, hoard information, and don’t advance new ideas. Without team trust, a corporate culture defaults to the lowest common denominator of behavior and is unable to achieve anything truly meaningful. 

Kouzes and Posner (authors of The Leadership Challenge) report that higher levels of team trust strongly predict higher organizational performance across a range of markers, including customer loyalty, market share, ethical behavior, and profit growth.

In his book, Lencioni identifies the absence of trust as the first dysfunction of a team that leads to the other four dysfunctions. He writes that, without trust, you get politics. The consequences to the organization are severe: issues don’t get resolved, mistakes are repeated, and team meetings become meaningless. Taken together, the absence of team trust prevents colleagues from taking full advantage of each other’s skills.

Again, Simon Sinek agrees with Lencioni. In The Infinite Game, he writes that problems in an organization without trust are ignored or hidden. The team might never pull together in a meaningful collaborative way. Sinek points to the recruiting practices of the U.S. Navy SEALS. The SEALS measure candidates against both performance and trust. They won’t accept a candidate with high performance markers but low trust markers, as these people tend to be narcissistic, self-serving, and negative, which ultimately hurts the cohesion and performance of the team.

Trust Contributes to Personal Advancement

Peter F. Drucker, in his book Managing Oneself, writes that managing your professional relationships is an essential component of building trust with others. Trust gives you credibility, creating a pool of people who know your skills and track record. Another reason why trust is important is that most jobs involve working with other people in some capacity, so, if you can’t foster trust and collaborate well, it’ll hinder your ability to advance.

Trust Prevents Ethical Fading

Sinek points out in The Infinite Game that the trust that strong relationships are based on develops when a group of people consistently behaves ethically. Unfortunately, if a trust-based environment is not properly established, team members can start to suffer a gradual decline in their ethics. This is called ethical fading.

Ethical fading is when people engage in increasingly unethical behavior while convincing themselves that they are acting fairly and properly. If employees committing minor transgressions are rewarded with bonuses or promotions, other employees start committing small transgressions, which can lead to larger transgressions.

A company that suffers from ethical fading often runs into legal trouble or isn’t prepared for competitive challenges because their employees have been trained to look inward, at their own minor goals, rather than outward, at the company’s larger place in the world.

The 3 Directions of Team Trust

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner outline the three types of relationships within a team:

  • From leader to team
  • From team to leader
  • Among team members

Let’s look at each of these directions of team trust.

Direction #1: A Healthy Leader Trusts Their Team

You must trust the efforts of other people or you’ll end up as merely a manager or supervisor, micromanaging everyone’s work, instead of a leader.

A leader can show their team that they believe in them by sharing power with them and by setting high expectations. While these are connected, we’ll look at them in turn.

Sharing the Power

Have you ever been micromanaged? It probably felt like your manager didn’t trust you to do your job.Kouzes and Posner write that sharing your power with others increases trust in the group, as team members feel respected and valued.

Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor, explains that giving your team autonomy leads to better results and more accomplishments, because a sense of agency—not power and control—builds trusting relationships. Scott writes that, when employees feel that they have a trusting relationship with you, they’ll bring their best selves to their work, naturally collaborate better, and are more engaged with their work.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that you’re not giving up all control—you’re giving up control selectively, in a way that makes sense for everyone. Scott suggests that you put some research and thought into what duties or responsibilities make sense to give up.

Expecting the Best

Setting high expectations in your team says that you believe in them; you trust they can do something and do it well. In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner contend that your expectations of your team affect how they perform: When you expect people to do well, they tend to. Conversely, when you expect people to fail, they probably will. Your expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy; how you see them is how they will see themselves. 

You broadcast your opinions of other people whether you intend to or not, through body language, the way you phrase things, or even the type of work you assign. So it’s in your best interest to truly believe in the abilities of your team members, write Kouzes and Posner.

To show your team that you have high expectations, Kouzes and Posner recommend three actions:

  • Show them you believe in them.
  • Be clear about rules and expected outcomes.
  • Provide and seek feedback.

Harder work might seem more like a punishment than a reward; however, giving an employee a challenging assignment that plays to his strengths shows that you recognize his abilities and trust him to handle more difficult tasks.

Direction #2: A Healthy Team Trusts Their Leader

John C. Maxwell, the author of The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, believes that trustworthiness is the most important trait in a leader. If you don’t have your followers’ trust, or you’ve broken it, you can’t influence people. They won’t follow you. They won’t believe in your vision or put in extra effort to make it come true.

You can measure your follower’s trust in you by how much they share with you. If they share both positive and negative opinions, and both good and bad news with you, they trust you.

So, how can you win and keep your team’s trust? You must trust first, demonstrate good character (particularly empathy and care), bring your best self to work, and share your knowledge. Let’s look at each of these.

Being the First to Trust

Trust must be reciprocal; your team won’t trust in you if you don’t trust in them, and as the leader, you must be the first to demonstrate trust. This is the view of Kouzes and Posner, as explained in The Leadership Challenge. They explain that trust is contagious, so, once you demonstrate it, others are likely to reciprocate. Distrust, too, is contagious, so the reverse is also true: If you show that you don’t trust others, they’re unlikely to trust you.

Being a Good Person

Maxwell argues that you build trust (and rebuild trust) by having good character. If you’re honest, caring, fair, hardworking, admit your mistakes, and/or a variety of other traits followers find appealing, they’ll trust and follow you. If you lie and cheat, followers will turn away.

To develop your character, focus on three main traits:

  • Integrity. Develop this by being honest, even when it hurts. Don’t tell half truths, talk around things, or tell lies (even white ones).
  • Authenticity. Develop this by being yourself. 
  • Discipline. Develop this by doing moral things every day, even when you don’t feel like it.

Paul Marciano agrees with Maxwell, and he shares these additional trust-earning actions in Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work:

  • Keep your word on promises and commitments.
  • Give credit where credit is due; don’t misattribute credit.
  • Explain thoroughly when you override someone else’s decision, or they won’t trust you to uphold their decisions in the future.
  • Give bad news directly to an employee without sugarcoating; don’t let gossip spread.
  • Admit mistakes when you make them, and accept responsibility when your team fails.
  • If you’ve messed up, admit that you were wrong, apologize, and ask for another chance. Take personal responsibility rather than finger pointing.
  • If you’re starting with a negative reputation, address this upfront and get back to neutral ASAP.

Showing Empathy and Care

Empathy and care are aspects of being a good person that deserve emphasis in this context. In Radical Candor, Kim Scott contends that showing that you care personally about your employees naturally builds their trust in you.

Sinek, in The Infinite Game, implores leaders to listen to team members’ concerns and take those concerns seriously. If there are ongoing issues with workplace safety or scheduling, address them. Employees must trust that you have their best interests at heart before they can trust your leadership.

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner offer a practical way to show that you care about the team as a whole: Be personally involved in office celebrations. When you’re present to cheer on your team members, you send a stronger message than you ever could through any formal corporate communication.

Bringing Your Best Self to Work

In Radical Candor, Scott argues that self-care is important to creating opportunities for building trusting relationships, because it allows you to bring your best self to work. It’s difficult to correctly deal with tough situations when you’re not at your best. As a leader, your job is to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the situations you’re faced with—however, if you’re stressed at work and stressed at home, your problems will exacerbate one another. Tough work situations become insurmountable, or you may snap at someone who doesn’t deserve it. Also, it’s hard to care personally about other people when you’re caught up in your own issues.

Sharing Your Knowledge

Kouzes and Posner write that sharing your knowledge and insights with your team leads them to be reassured of your competence, which increases their trust in you. Conversely, if you keep information to yourself, they’ll feel you’re protecting your “turf” and looking out for your own interests over their interests, which decreases their trust in you.

Direction #3: Healthy Team Members Trust Each Other

Prospective Navy SEALs go through a six-month training program that has teambuilding as its main purpose, and trust is a central aspect. Stanley McChrystal, in his book Team of Teams, explains that teams whose members know and trust each other unequivocally perform better.

Kouzes and Posner agree that people work together best when they trust each other. In any team, it’s important that team members trust that they can express their thoughts openly and honestly with each other and, if they fail at a task, that their teammates won’t judge them.

Building trust in the workplace is about facilitating relationships, truly creating community among the team. Let’s look at several ways a leader can foster that environment of team trust.

Communicating

In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner recommend that you encourage your team members to share information with each other, as this will increase their trust in each other. Similarly, in The Infinite Game, Sinek says that you should get your team members to listen respectfully to each other’s concerns. You might do this through training seminars or regular meetings. Encourage them to form friendships with each other and to open up on a personal level, which can in turn help them work together on a professional level more smoothly.

Developing Common Goals

In Start With Why, Simon Sinek explains that inspired people realize that everyone—from the CEO down to the most entry-level worker—needs each other to reach their common goal. Healthy team members are less focused on self-gain but instead do what’s best for the mission and the organization as a whole. They truly see themselves as a team, on the same side.

Kouzes and Posner write that the first step to encouraging strong bonds is to enlist your team in a common purpose. Structure your team’s roles and responsibilities so that their individual objectives contribute to a larger objective, and make sure they see how the two are connected. This can also be effective in reconciling people who don’t particularly like each other: Assigning two people who don’t get along to work together can help them get past their distrust once they’re working toward a common purpose. 

Encouraging Reciprocity

Kouzes and Posner argue that reciprocity is the basis of trusting relationships: the belief that others will treat you as you treat them. If people don’t reciprocate someone else’s efforts, they end up in an unbalanced relationship where one person feels taken advantage of and the other feels superior. Cooperation is difficult in such relationships. Encourage your team members to be available to each other to help whenever any of them needs it. Additionally, model reciprocity by going out of your way to repay favors for those who have helped you.

Rewarding Joint Effort

Kouzes and Posner go on to say that large, ambitious goals can’t be accomplished by one person alone, and cooperative teams produce better results than competitive teams. So, when talking about the success of any project your team is working on, emphasize the collective results rather than individual results. This will encourage your team to see that there’s a greater payoff in working together than working alone.

Encouraging Face-to-Face Interactions

Getting to know other people is important in establishing trusting and collaborative relationships. Having in-person face time is an essential part of this process, contend Kouzes and Posner. Therefore, encourage in-person or virtual “face time” meetings whenever feasible. This will make people feel more comfortable with each other and more ready to express their ideas. 

Face time also encourages collaboration because it makes people feel that their interactions with the other person will be ongoing. When people expect to interact with another person again in the future, they’re more likely to cooperate in the present.

Celebrating

Celebrations are naturally part of a community. Kouzes and Posner explain that celebrations motivate people to do their best because they’re thinking not only of themselves but of their peers. Their identity becomes linked to the group, making them more invested in the group’s success. 

Humans are social creatures, and social gatherings allow your team members to exercise their instinctive drives to form bonds with others. Strong social connections lead to team trust, which lead to success for your organization or project.

Safely Exchanging Feedback

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni writes that building trust in the workplace might require providing structured environments for team members to exchange feedback without threat of retaliation. This is important especially if team trust is absent. Once team members get used to being vulnerable, they can do it freely in less structured environments. Leaders should encourage team members to admit mistakes, ask for and offer help, and reveal their shortcomings. He shares four specific strategies to accomplish this.

Sharing Personal Histories 

This exercise requires teammates to answer personal questions about themselves and reveal some basic details about their lives (like how many siblings they have, where they went to school, and their hobbies). By revealing even these innocuous details to each other, teams can go a long way toward breaking down the barriers that inhibit trust. It is easier to trust someone and be vulnerable in front of them when you see them as a complete person, with their own unique life story, anxieties, and aspirations.

Team Effectiveness Exercise

Here, every member of the team identifies the most important contribution and the biggest area for improvement for every other member of the team. All team members share their thoughts, focusing on one person at a time, usually starting with the leader.

In a trustless environment, this could be dangerous, but the structure of the exercise makes it safer than usual to identify weaknesses. And on the positive side, everyone gets to see the talent and experience of their colleagues. This also breeds self-confidence, fosters assertiveness (since teammates can act knowing that they are respected and admired by the group), and checks egos (since everyone is laying their weaknesses on the table in front of their teammates).

Personality and Behavior Preference Profiles

These are diagnostic tools that provide behavioral and cognitive descriptions and insights into individual behavior. They can be useful in identifying how people think, speak, and act. Examples include the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Big Five Personality Test, Extroversion Introversion Test, and 16 Personalities Test.

Once you understand that someone’s psychology is wired a certain way, it becomes easier to interact with them, and see their behavior through a new lens. You can empathize with how they feel and how they behave.

These should be approached with some caution: people are far more complicated than a score on a test, and the tests shouldn’t be used as a guide for how to deal with individuals in all situations. They should always be administered and the results explained by a licensed, third-party professional.

360-Degree Feedback

Here, teammates issue specific judgements on their peers’ performance and engage in multiple rounds of constructive criticism. It’s called 360-degree because each person receives feedback from their supervisor, colleagues, subordinates, and from themselves.

As a warning, this should only be used as a developmental tool, separate from the formal performance evaluation process. Otherwise, politics will sneak in.

Identifying High-Trust & Low-Trust Team Members

In The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek offers one more way of building trust in the workplace. He recommends identifying high-trust and low-trust team members.

On an established team, it’s easy to identify the person everyone trusts. Make sure that person feels valued for her contributions. It’s also easy to identify the low-trust team member—he’s the one everyone considers “the jerk.” Make sure this person doesn’t infect your team with toxicity. Coach him to develop better interpersonal skills. If he proves uncoachable by resisting feedback and being unwilling to change, the best course of action may be to remove him from the team.

Wrapping Up

The importance of trust in the workplace should be clear by now. Your organization is made up of people, people work in the context of relationships, and trust is the foundation of relationships.

Perhaps you’ve had the painful and frustrating experience of a work environment where trust was absent. Maybe you’ve been blessed with an atmosphere of team trust. Either way, you now should be more equipped to win the trust of your team, demonstrate your trust in them, and cultivate trust among team members. Regardless of the direction of trust, you as the leader have the responsibility—and the privilege—to make it a reality.

Team Trust: Why It Matters & How to Build It

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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