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Why trust matters in teams

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

Teams that are synonymous with high levels of trust demonstrates high morale and productivity, information and ideas flow freely and team members offer assistance to one another without taking over. In essence this translates to a healthy, cohesive, collaborative team that delivers consistent results. These are all characteristics of high performance teams.

So how do we enable our teams to become highly trusting? Start by assessing if trust was present before and whether it was broken along the way, or was there no trust to start off with. Each of these cases needs different treatment.

What are some of the costs of not having trust in a team?

  • Fear: People don’t want to take opportunities to speak up, perhaps from fear of judgement or humiliation. In addition, where a fear culture exists, innovation will naturally be low too.

  • Secretive, territorial and everyone in it for himself: Team members keep valuable information from the team. Collective ownership doesn’t feature and we’re quick to blame others.

  • Disengaged: The culture is of such a nature that people don’t support each other which leads to team members operating on their own, being quiet in meetings and team discussions and decisions.

  • Defensive and negative: There is clear unwillingness to collaborate as implied by closed body language. Positive language (compliments to people/ talking good about a piece of work) doesn’t feature.

  • Judgmental and condescending: The team has a habit of dismissing good ideas without due consideration or criticized unfairly.

  • Passive aggressive behavior and lack of truthfulness: Typically manifested as people saying one thing in meetings and then doing the exact opposite.

  • People are easily agitated and generally impatient: There is tension in every work interaction whilst concurrently lacking initiative and patience.

  • Gossip and complaining runs like wild fire: Gossip about team members is the order of the day, and most humor is ill natured.

As a leader of such a team, looking at the above characteristics may seem depressing at first, especially when the realization hits home that we can’t change people. You cannot make people trust each other. Issuing commands for people to suddenly trust each other is fiction, unfortunately.

If the situation is such that once there was trust but this trust has been eroded, then the task at hand to rebuild trust within the team is so much harder in terms of effort to be invested, and chances are, this trust relationship will never be as strong as it used to be in the past. If the situation is found to be that trust was never developed, then the task is slightly easier.

Approaching the trust problem as a leader

As a leader, observe the team to find areas of low trust and possible reasons. Next, have confidential one-on-one sessions with the team members to ascertain what is working and what isn’t working. If they could use a magic wand to fix issues, what would those issues be and why? Ask which are the obstacles that are prohibiting them as individuals and as teams from reaching the next level of success. Ask about what the factors are that could improve the team’s chances of delivering on their objectives. Most importantly, ask the individuals whether they trust everyone on the team. Also take note of whether the team members feel they have the right people on the team, and that the they have the required knowledge, experience and commitment to complete the objectives.

Gemba (walk the floor) to see and hear how the team is working together, observe their interactions, the way they speak and joke with each other. Look for trends and threads of common patterns in your observations and interactions with the team. Hearing one person’s name over again throughout the analysis is a clear red flag of key man dependency. If so, you’d need to make creative plans such as amending the team agreement to cater for positive ways of working with the individual if the team or objectives are heavily reliant on this individual.

Creating a trust culture

Is this as simple as only hiring trustworthy people? I’m afraid its not. In most instances you inherit a team or the team is given to you. To start this process of cultivating trust in a team you would need to start with yourself first. You must be authentic as people can see right through inauthentic people, teams are no exception. By being trustworthy you need to own up to your past, your mistakes and shortcomings. Be vulnerable with your team and answer all their questions, and if you can’t, tell them why. Next you’ll want to concentrate on creating a culture where team members can build trust among themselves. Here are a few things you can experiment with:

  • Remove incapacitating fear

  • Use team based measures

  • Agree on small deliverables in short iterations

  • Expect success and allow mistakes to enable learning

  • Remove the fun from being mediocre

  • Focus on strengths rather than weaknesses

What next?

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