Trust is the oxygen in a team’s lifeblood. Think about a team you’ve been on where trust was strong. You could breathe. You had the endurance to go the distance as a team. Like oxygen, trust is invisible, but life is unsustainable without it.
If you’ve been on a team where lack of trust was in the air every day, you know how it sapped energy and created watchful caution and anxiety. It was hard to breathe. It impacted business results.
It is possible to intentionally create a culture of trust on your team. We’ll describe three fundamental ways that range from very simple to not so easy but powerful. But let’s start with what doesn’t work.
Here’s what doesn’t work
The trust fall, ropes course, rock-climbing offsite may give team members a heart-stopping experience of trust, but that experience doesn’t often translate into sustainable change. The rush fades when the team gets back to work. It was an emotional and embodied experience of trust that without follow-up quickly becomes nothing more than a story. We’re looking for relevant and sustainable ways to create more trust every day.
What also doesn’t work: making a declaration such as “from today on we’re going to be a team that trusts one another.” Trust is built over time.
Building trust in the workplace
Here are three actions that do work:
Fundamental No. 1: Focus on reliability. It’s such a simple thing and so easily overlooked, but a focus on everyday reliability shores up the belief that “we can count on each other” and “I trust you will do what you said you would do.” If team members can be counted on for the small things, it means everyone isn’t holding their breath, wondering. They can breathe easier.
For team members to be reliable, there needs to be accountability. Let’s acknowledge that holding one another accountable can be tricky. It can feel uncomfortable, like judgment or nagging, so people avoid the conversation. The key is to shift the context to mutual support: “What do you need?” and “How can I help?” Enroll the team in making reliability part of the team culture—a core value.
Fundamental No. 2: Make human connections. When team members only interact from their functional roles, relationships are reduced to function. They need to get to know one another on a more personal level. Taking time to do this might seem like a big price to pay at the speed of business today, but the effort to make personal connections will pay dividends in better trust and collaboration. Trust on the team creates a bank balance of goodwill and regard.
The easiest way to do this as a team is through storytelling. The stories can be entirely business related. For example, you can start a team meeting with a question everyone around the table answers. It could be, “What’s a success from this past week?” This could be followed by, “What did you learn from it?” Telling that story requires a little stretch of vulnerability and that vulnerability helps to build trust.
Our firm worked with a team that chose the opposite context. They created a regular item on the weekly team agenda they called “spilled milk,” in honor of the old saying “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” It gave any team member an opening to share a story about something that week that had made a mess of things. The empathy and encouragement built stronger connections.
As team members become more familiar and comfortable with storytelling, the questions can become more provocative or personal.
Fundamental No. 3: Help the team survive conflict. Disagreement and conflict are normal on teams. Done well, those involved leave the experience without open wounds, and having gone to a challenging edge and survived, increase the bandwidth of trust. They push the envelope and create a stronger, more expansive field.
The key to a constructive result is to start by creating safety for team members involved in conflict. Many teams develop a list of agreements for those times when conflict pops up. These often-called “rules of engagement” create a safer environment to engage. Examples include:
- We assume positive intent
- Our silence indicates agreement
- We do not tolerate personal attacks
- We are open to influence, avoid defensiveness
- We look for the fraction of truth
- We practice standing in the other’s shoes
- We look for the learning, recognizing that mistakes are human
- We’ve got each other’s backs. We are mutually supportive
Honoring these rules of engagement creates a commitment to the team that builds a stronger foundation on which to stand when issues arise.
The business case for trust
Let’s be clear. The reason trust is important on teams is not only because it creates a supportive atmosphere. High-trust teams also solve problems faster, resolve conflicts sooner, brainstorm more freely, and are more inclusive and less hesitant to contribute. Building trust is simply good for business.
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