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How to Build Trust in your Team

High-performance teams are vital to an organisation’s success. But they need TRUST first to succeed.

A common misperception by leaders is that trust will come naturally to their team. But the reality is that you can’t bring a talented group of people together and expect them to gel and work seamlessly.

In fact, the top team at Google learnt this the hard way. They would hire the best engineers, highest achieving PhD recipients and throw them all together with a couple of extroverts. To their dismay, this recipe didn’t create a good team, let alone a high performance one.

So they decided to investigate.

Five years of research (and millions of dollars later), they discovered that it doesn’t matter who is on the team. What matters is how they interact. And it all starts with leaders. Leaders who model the right trusted behaviours fostering the best environment for their team to thrive.

So let’s take a look at how to create trust in a team:

1. It All Starts with the Leader

In my research with CEO’s and executives, one of the standout qualities of a high performing leader was that they regularly reflected on how they could improve trust with others. They spent more time thinking about others than themselves.

But why they did this was even more interesting.  It wasn’t just because they thought trust was important for teams.

Instead, they were driven from a deep fear of breaking trust with others.  An outcome they knew that was difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.  With far-reaching consequences that could severely impact their leadership and vision.

If you want to avoid being categorised as a low trust leader, then you need to truly believe that trust is important and take action. Paying lip service to it being critical doesn’t cut it with your employees.  They want to see evidence that you are taking the time to build trust with each individual, championing trust within your team and acting in a trustworthy manner.

One of the critical ways to build team trust is during meetings. Little things really do count. Make sure you acknowledge and listen to others. Have eye contact with those speaking to show that you’re listening and seek the opinion of a team member who has remained quiet. Encourage people to challenge you when they don’t agree on something. And respond by listening respectfully and thanking them for their input (then taking action, where possible). This creates a safe environment where people can be themselves, speak their truth and be vulnerable. It also means calling people out on behaviours that are destroying trust and rewarding those doing the right thing.

2. Encourage Team Members to Understand Each Other

Team members often come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. These differences can make it difficult to understand and trust people who are different to us.  You’ll often find team members will pull back from interacting with their peers when there is a clash in communication, personality or work styles.  

One of the mistakes leaders commonly make is that they assume that to build trust you have to treat everyone the same. But it’s not true. You have to build trust with each person differently. Because (drumroll) – everyone is unique. All with different needs, expectations and requirements for trust-building from their leader.

This is why it’s so important to build trust one on one with people by openly discussing each person’s working style, expectations and communication preferences.  As well as encouraging each team member to learn how each of their colleagues prefers to operate.

The good news is that there are structured tools in the market place that make this all easier. Assessments such as Drake’s P3 and DISC provide important self-awareness, but also guide employees to share that information with the team.  This helps team members openly talk about their working style which helps everyone understand them better. Without this upfront information, people will tend towards making negative assumptions about their colleagues.  

Not only that, getting to know people at a personal level – their interests, career goals, family situation – is important for building trust as well. When we see people for who they are, a human being, rather than a tool for productivity, we are more likely to customise our interactions with them in a positive manner.

Of course, never underestimate the importance of socialising outside of work hours (or inside).

“If you can laugh together, you can work together” — Robert Orben

But just make sure that it is not all shallow fun and games. At most work mixers, most people hang out with those they know. Encouraging each person to connect with everyone and share past experiences or challenges creates deeper bonds.

3. Measure where your Team is for Trust

Trying to actively improve trust in a team can often be difficult. Particularly, when there is an uncertain work environment, rapid growth or team conflict. It can also be a struggle if you’re a new team leader of an existing team.

In times like this, it will be hard to move the needle on trust because there is too much emotional baggage or fear getting in the way. You’ll often find team members will actively resist any efforts to improve trust.

To get around this, it is often best to use an external facilitator who has no perceived bias, to help the team unpack what steps need to be taken to improve trust.  Alternatively, undertaking a team trust assessment that provides data around the issue can be helpful for those in denial about team performance. Our SuCCEeD Together Trust Framework® also provides a more efficient and effective methodology to help teams based on six trust drivers.  It’s like a tuning fork that helps leaders tune into what their team needs to get harmonic alignment.  Otherwise, you can waste a lot of time trying to improve trust in lots of different directions without much impact.

4. Have a Clear Purpose

Just like sports teams, great teams have a clear sense of purpose.

Purpose, team behaviours and strategy connect everyone together through being able to collectively see the meaning of their work. It’s how you get a diverse group of people aligned.

The central pillar for building trust is a corporate purpose that’s defined by a genuine commitment to the social good. It’s about focusing on the customer and delivering on their needs and desires. High-performance teams have their own clear sense of purpose or are closely aligned to the company’s purpose. This ensures that each individual is focused on the group’s goals, rather than automatically focusing on their own self-interest. 

5. Focus on the Achievement of Collective Results

“Individual commitment to a group effort: That is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilisation work.” — Vince Lombardi

In low trust environments, leaders pit employees against each other under the false belief that competitive pressures will lift performance. Unfortunately, all it does is create an environment where people are out for themselves; hoarding information and not supporting others.

If you think that’s not a big issue.  Think again.  According to a Panopto study, total annual productivity lost due to inefficient job information sharing, costs organisations with 1,000 employees $2.4 million.

In contrast, trusted leaders share and manage risk throughout a team. They focus on long-term impact, rather than short-term business performance. Instead of individual sales quotas, teams work together as a group to seize market opportunities. This fosters collaboration, innovation, sharing information and co-operation to bring in new business together. It avoids individuals being distracted by the need to protect themselves and their own self-promoting agenda.

In other words, high-performance teams share a joint commitment to achieving the highest standards and the best results. Everyone is aligned to achieving the group goal.

A common yardstick of success is that teams win together, not individuals. A leader’s ability to make the team accountable for success or failure, rather than individual success, increases trust and a sense of unity. However, this doesn’t mean employees don’t have individual goals. Instead, individual members establish a clear line of sight between their day-to-day responsibilities and the overarching, broader objectives of the organisation, as well as the over-arching team goals.

6. Have Regular, Open Communication

Communication is an enabler of trust. If there is one thing that employees often complain about – it’s poor communication.

That’s why sports teams always have a huddle before a match to align everyone to the strategy and the tactics required based on individual team member strengths. In the workplace, having regular, short huddles before work gets done centres everyone on the group goal and allows each member to open up about what they’re stuck on. In addition, weekly meetings can even be used to build trust through sharing recent success stories or examples of the right staff behaviours to help bring the team together.

Building High Performing Teams

There is no high performance without a foundation of trust within a team.

Without trust, you generate a dysfunctional organisation and teams. There is no meaningful connection between a group of people. It’s just meaningless coordination. It is trust that shifts a group of people into a team.

And it all starts with leaders.  Leaders who take action to build trust, rather than just pay lip service to it.  Because they understand that they both model and drive their team’s social dynamics and performance.