We know that teams function best when there’s a high level of trust among the members. We also know that trust must be actively built and earned. That doesn’t mean that it comes easily or automatically. The leader of the team needs to demonstrate vulnerability first, to model trust, and to show that it’s expected of everyone. Nevertheless, building trust is also up to each individual on the team.
What should team leaders and team members watch for and work on in order to increase trust within their teams?
1. Share personal stories
Stories are enticing ways to share information and create empathy. Everyone loves a good story. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni suggests sharing personal histories. Stories can connect us. They provide us with additional clues as to how someone is likely to behave.
Action: Each team member shares a story about their first job, their favorite teacher, a skill, or a life lesson they had to struggle to achieve. The subject matter should be an experience we’ve all had in one shape or another.
Action: The team leader or sponsor should make opportunities for storytelling and relationship building. These might be over a meal, during meeting breaks, or by establishing a shared working space. It could be as simple as ending a meeting with an activity such as everyone recommending their favorite book or productivity app for their phone.
Trust is the glue that holds people together and is the lubricant that keeps an organization moving forward.
2. Watch your reputation
When you join a team it is natural for other members to recall their previous experiences with you or to ask around about you if they don’t yet know you. Your reputation follows you and people will initially decide how trustworthy and competent you are based on it. Do you know what your reputation is? We all know we have one, but we don’t often hear it directly.
Action: Team members can briefly list one or two things they’ve heard about each member of the group in terms of their skills and abilities, their integrity, their goodwill, or their behaviors. The team leader can model this with direct statements like “Now that I’ve worked with Shannon on this team I’ve learned she only reads her email after lunch. I no longer worry if I don’t hear from her in the morning” or “I’ve never worked with Long, but I’ve heard that he’s a good poker player who enjoys winning.” After everyone has spoken, a few minutes can be given to anyone who feels that they need to clarify what they heard about themselves. This can also be an exercise in accountability.
Action: Be generous—particularly if you find that your reputation isn’t as golden as you’d like it to be. Acknowledge the work of others. Grateful feelings from the recipient of your generosity will improve your trustworthy status and also foster more trustworthy behavior from others.
3. Discuss values
What you value and what the team values will shape its performance. Shared values aid in building trust. It’s much easier to engage in conflict if you know you share the same values or respect the other person’s values. People who show that they act in ways consistent with their professed values gain in perceived trustworthiness.
Action: Discuss your personal values, values you see expressed by the team, and your organization’s values. Move toward the team’s agreement to aspire toward three or four. A few examples are making a difference, delivering quality, consistently ranking first, meeting deadlines, helping others, showing respect, being accountable, and getting challenging assignments. Schedule times to discuss how the team has been displaying these values and what the group could do better.
4. Set expectations
Your shared values will shape your expectations. If everyone can agree to the norms, then everyone knows if they or others are complying or not. A shared understanding of, and agreement upon, expectations provides a foundation for trust.
Action: Each member speaks for a short time about behaviors they feel contribute to group health and those that don’t. Be sure to cover issues such as uses of technology (are open laptops acceptable during a meeting), means of communication (does everyone agree to updating task status in a shared productivity tool, how will meetings be called, will everyone be expected to voice their opinions), methods of addressing problems (do people agree to ask for help and admit mistakes), and celebration of success (is everyone comfortable with celebrating after work hours).
Action: Identify what doesn’t need to be done collaboratively by the group. When are members expected to act on their own? How will you avoid groupthink? How will you know when your group’s work is finished and you should disband?
5. Acknowledge and create diversity
Teams are more effective if they can understand, appreciate, and leverage their diversity. Diversity can be cultural, ethnic, or sexual; based on age, skills, interests, or function in the organization; or even personality traits—anything that’s relevant to how you work together and bring different perspectives to the team.
Action: Each team member discusses what unique perspective, skill, talent, background, or experience of theirs they believe contributes to the team. Ask members to share what they appreciate or want more of in terms of the diversity of this team.
Action: Ask about what diversity the team might lack and how it could be added. Does the team need that additional diversity for a short time or for as long as the team exists? Might adding some diversity make your team more creative, innovative, results-oriented, or customer-focused, or reduce friction with another organizational unit?
6. Understand power roles
University of Cologne psychologist Joris Lammers has shown that a person’s honesty depends on that person’s feeling of power. Higher feelings of power correlate with less concern about the long-term consequences of being untrustworthy. We’ve probably all intuited these findings and feel at least a slight distrust of authority. In teams with a high level of trust, power shifts among members depending on the project or the stage of the project.
Action: Discuss how power is given and used by members of the group. What are the differences in power (perceived and real) in this team? Does power follow leadership? Does accountability shift with power?
7. Confront problems
Nothing builds trust like using teamwork to overcome an obstacle. A team is more likely to meet a challenge if they first know how to confront conflict and challenges within the team. Holding each other accountable is made easier after aligning to common values and set expectations. Many people are familiar with the phases of teams as being forming, storming, and norming. You have to find ways to make use of the storming periods.
Action: Answer these questions. How have we confronted internal and external challenges in the past? What worked and what did not? How will we recognize and acknowledge both productive and disruptive behaviors on the team? Are all disruptive behaviors unproductive? What are the consequences of violating team trust?
8. Show appreciation
Do you want to reduce friction and build some positive emotions so sharing and confronting problems are easier? A positive environment cultivates tolerance for the opinions, actions, and beliefs of others in the room. We all feel good when our contributions, perspectives, or personalities are appreciated. Expressing appreciation is also beneficial for the giver. The giver tends to feel more satisfied with the social relationship with the person he or she has just expressed gratitude for.
Action: The leader can actively set out to make sure each person on the team is recognized and appreciated. It can be as simple as agreeing with a comment or showing interest in someone’s ideas. It can be as specific as a public thank-you. Some teams regularly go around the table and state one thing they appreciate about each team member. Others have a Slack channel devoted to praising each other.
Building and maintaining trust isn’t a one-and-done activity. Trust is built over time and can easily be lost. It takes constant and consistent work and it pays off with teams that are committed to each other and energized by their work together.