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If your team lacks trust

8 min read

If your organization has an overall culture of trust, you might expect even newly formed teams to give each other the benefit of the doubt and to trust each other by default. They are productive and enjoyable to work with. But trust doesn’t always come easily or without effort.

Trust can be very hard to learn for someone who has experienced the betrayal of trust. That could mean something traumatic or a teammate failing to honor a commitment. If someone is suffering from PTSD, experienced a childhood trauma, or has a recent partnership characterized by mistrust, they might need professional help to learn to trust again. But if team members or two teams that need to work together have not yet developed trust there are some steps you can take.

Trust is the lubrication that makes it possible for organizations to work.

Warren Bennis

Predictive trust to vulnerability-based trust

Trust comes in several forms. If we believe a person’s declarations are credible and his actions are reliable, we can say we have predictive trust. We can predict his behavior. If someone claims she is an expert in Excel but can’t create a pivot table, then her words aren’t credible. If someone refuses to pay his share of the lunch bill, he isn’t predictable because he has violated expected norms. Predictive trust is the easiest type of trust to build.

Predictive trust is necessary, but not sufficient for, a deeper trust. For example, I could predict that you will catch me during a trust fall exercise when others are watching. That doesn’t mean that I trust you to assist me on a task I’m struggling through. Nor does it mean that I can trust that our exchanges will always be fair and honest.

If everyone agrees on the norms of the team and predictive trust is there, it’s time to work on vulnerability-based trust. This form of trust is built on empathy and contains a certain amount of risk-taking. It’s about being willing to share experiences, both good and bad. It doesn’t have to be about friendship or loyalty. But without this trust, team members aren’t going to be able to ask for help or admit to a mistake. They might not even be able to suggest new ideas or celebrate a team achievement without vulnerability-based trust.

Let’s say you’re working with a team that has worked together for some time, just took The Five Behaviors Team Development assessment, and scored very low in Trust. How can you help them build that back up?

Is the team leader the problem?

“The single biggest factor governing the level of trust in any organization is the behaviors of the top leader or leaders. Their actions set the tone for everything that happens in the culture.”
Bob Whipple, speaker and author

Leaders can make trust part of their organization’s culture by communicating a strong vision and clear expectations, showing high ethical and moral standards, creating clear structures, listening to people at all levels, empowering others, and showing a commitment to employees. They can also communicate and model mistrust by micromanaging, keeping secrets, giving preferential treatment, acting erratically, and other ways.

If the leader is the problem, then whatever work you do with the team might well be wasted. Coaching will need to begin at the top. But let’s assume that the leader is not the problem. Here are a few issues and activities you might want to present to the team with which you’re working.

If the team is large, you might consider working with smaller groups at a time. In other words, you could take a group of six and work first with two teams of three each, helping them build trust with each other before working with the entire group. This can be helpful for a leadership team with people from departments that typically compete for resources to first build trust with each other before adding additional people into the mix.

What behaviors does the team want to see?

Some groups struggle because members have never discussed what they expect from each other. We fail to trust people who don’t live up to our standards of proper behavior. And one person’s poor behavior can cause the entire group to misbehave. So take the time to talk about behavior that is easily observed. Take the focus away from “he’s a braggart” or “she always scoffs at everything” and move it toward positive behaviors you’d like to see.

What behaviors can the team agree are acceptable on the team? These examples might seem obvious or silly, but it’s much easier to hold someone accountable when they have agreed to a set of behaviors. Allow members to be as detailed as possible, but do not spend time giving examples of prior misdeeds.


Give each team member these questions and post their responses to whiteboards, flipboards, or other shared spaces:

  • What behaviors signal that someone is trustworthy?
  • What behaviors signal that someone is untrustworthy?

Read these comments to the entire group and ask them to rephrase them as statements they can all agree upon. Consider this exercise as the writing of a social and ethical contract. Ask members to individually signal their agreement with the contract via an aye vote or a signature under the list.

A list might include such items as the following:

  • We will not gossip or bad-mouth each other.
  • No name-calling or belittling, even in jest, will be tolerated.
  • We will share all relevant data received.
  • We will greet each other before beginning a meeting.
  • We will bring up problems with the entire group and not just one or a few members.
  • We will not shout down another team member during a meeting.
  • We will be sure that each member has the opportunity to provide input into any decision that affects the team.
  • We will end each meeting with an agreement of who will do what and we’ll each do what we agree to do.
  • Not one of us will agree to something and then complain about it later.
  • We won’t cover up bad news.
  • We will respect each other enough to hold them accountable for their behavior and bring up difficult issues quickly and concretely.
  • We will focus on the tasks of our team and not spend time speculating or gossiping about other teams.
  • If I don’t know how to do something or have the resources to do it, then I will let the others know.
  • I will not take sole credit for something the team did together.
  • Respectful debate will be encouraged.
  • We will focus on the future, not the past.
  • Within our team, we will focus on benevolence, not competition and back-stabbing.
  • We will hold each other accountable for the behaviors we have agreed upon.

Clarify roles and passions

Some teams can get derailed because not everyone is heading in the same direction or views an issue the same way. I recall frequent bickering about break room cleanliness that was finally resolved when we all described what “clean” meant to us. The resolution was as simple as not leaving the sponge wet in the sink and placing the towels in a certain spot. Perhaps neither issue mattered much to me, but the shared standards were easy to keep once they were understood.


Ask to answer and then listen to the responses of their team members. (Remember that introverts might need time to think about these questions before responding.)

  • What skills do I bring to the team?
  • What do I need in order to feel productive or successful on this team?
  • What are the standards by which I judge my own performance?
  • What are the standards by which I judge the performance of others?
  • What about our team or its mission do I feel optimistic or passionate about?

This activity will build the team’s emotional intelligence and help members read each other and build on each other’s strengths. Teams seldom have this type of conversation that can create or solidify the feeling that everyone’s on the same team, playing the same game.

Having a clear team charter can also help keep the team aligned. Adding an executive sponsor to the charter also helps keep the team accountable to someone and lets them know that their work matters.

How old and rooted is the mistrust?

“If you’ve dealt with a rude colleague, you probably know how hard it can be to get over it. Perhaps no feeling is more difficult to overcome than a sense of injustice. Neuroscientists have shown that memories attached to strong emotions are easier to access and more likely to be replayed, and ruminating on an incident prevents you from putting it behind you. This can cause greater insecurity, lower self-esteem, and a heightened sense of helplessness.”An Antidote to Incivility, Harvard Business Review, April 2016

We can only allow ourselves this hurt, indignation, or outrage for a limited time before it starts to fester in us and infect those around us. So coaches and facilitators can help a team that has hurt members name it, acknowledge that it’s part of their history even if not everyone agrees on the details, and agree that they want to move past it. Each member can be asked to speak to their desire to move ahead to repair the relationships within the team.


Ask team members to privately

  • Name a situation in which your trust was betrayed.
  • Describe your feelings around this. How strong are they?
  • List one to five beliefs related to the situation. (Examples: “I believe he intentionally took credit for my idea so he could look good in front of the CEO,” “Because I was left off the distribution list, I think they don’t want me on this team,” or “I believe she wants our project to fail so her department will get our budget.”)
  • List any facts supporting these beliefs.
  • List any facts against.
  • What new beliefs would be more adaptive and help you move forward on this team?
  • Reassess your feelings and decide if you need to share any of this with the team or with a team member in order to move on.
    • Do you need an apology? Do you want to have a facilitator present when you talk to the team or team member?
    • If you receive an apology, will you agree to leave the offending incident in the past? Are you willing to work to repair your relationship?

If the team members cannot agree that they will work to rebuild trust, then it’s unlikely that this team will produce positive results.

If it is obvious that two team members have a loss of trust and are in conflict, then it might be necessary to work with the two of them outside the team. (This should not be kept a secret from the team, however.)

On the lighter side

Group of people taking a cooking class

Prepare a meal and eat together

Meal preparation naturally leads to sharing of personal stories and shared experiences or preferences. I’ll trust you to cut the carrots. You trust me to peel the potatoes. Everyone has a task to accomplish that will benefit the group.

The sharing of a meal is an informal act that encourages conversation and reflection on safe topics. It’s easy to share a story about cooking with an aunt, growing tomatoes, or shopping at the farmers market. These reveal something about us but are not sensitive topics, so sharing comes easily for almost everyone.

Even better, have the team learn a cooking technique none of them has used before. This joint learning puts everyone on the same footing. Then each person uses that technique to create a dish to share with the other team members.

Dance together

Mirroring the movements of others helps us to form a connection with them. Dancing might even encourage social bonding. It feels good and gets your energy level up. It might be a fun way to end a long Zoom call.

The dancing must be done in step with one another, however, to encourage bonding. So teach everyone a few steps. As reported by Scientific American, according to one study “participants said they felt closer to their dance partners than to others in their classes after dancing the same steps at the same time than they did when doing different moves, no matter the level of exertion.” Positive endorphins are released as we dance, and we tend to associate those feelings with the people who were our dancing partners.

Play a game

According to another study, as reported by McGill University, playing Rock Band together can increase the participants’ empathy for the other players. So why not include a cooperative game in your next team-building session or as a 20-minute break after identifying or addressing a conflict? One team we know sent members small LEGO sets and they all put them together before their meeting “officially” began.

Whatever methods you use to increase the level of trust on a team, it’s important to address the issue head-on and not allow distrust to grow or fester. It’s a developmental task, just as learning to read a new set of data can be.


Kristeen Bullwinkle

Steeped in Everything DiSC since 2010. Strongly inclined CD style. Leadership style and EQ mindset: resolute. Believes strongly in the serial comma.

Certifications from Wiley:
Everything DiSC, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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