Trust is the confidence among team members that their peer’s intentions are good, and there is no need to be protective or careful around them. In essence, the team members are comfortable being vulnerable with one another in the conviction that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them, i.e. weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help. It is only when members feel truly comfortable with one another that they can focus their energy and attention on the task at hand, rather than being disingenuous or ‘political’ with one another.
However, like the familiar rhyming proverb ‘For Want of a Nail’, absence of trust goes something like this. In the absence of trust, there is a fear of honest dialogue, through fear of honest dialogue there is a lack of commitment to decisions, through lack of commitment to decisions, there is avoidance of accountability and through avoidance of accountability there is inattention to results. In short, why should I care if I didn’t agree in the first place (although I said nothing)?
Teams without trust conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another, hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback, hesitate to offer help outside their own area of responsibility, jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others, fail to recognise and tap into one another’s skills and experiences, and find reasons to avoid spending more time together.
In contrast trusting teams admit weaknesses and mistakes, ask for help, accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility, give one another the benefit of the doubt, take risks in offering feedback and assistance, appreciate and tap into one another’s skills and experiences, focus time and energy on important issues not office politics, and look forward to meetings and other opportunities to work together as a team.
Building Trust, however, requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes and contribution of team members. So how can you accelerate the process?
The role of the leader is critical. In the first instance, try loosening the reins. It is the leader’s job to initiate trust between management and employees. That entails gaining employees’ trust, but also conveying trust in them. Do this by delegating some of your tasks to them. But beware, giving up some control also means expanding your tolerance for mistakes. If mistakes happen, instead of taking swift corrective action, show staff how they can learn and grow from them.
Second, keep your promises. There’s nothing quite as powerful when it comes to building trust, as doing what you promised. When promises are met, other people can relax, safe in the conviction that they know what is expected and what they can expect. Holding each other to account and doing what you say you will is the foundation of trust. So creating an environment where promises are made and kept is important.
Third, demonstrate your own genuine vulnerability first. This requires that the leader risk losing face in front of the team, so that subordinates will take the same risks themselves. The leader must create an environment that doesn’t punish vulnerability and mistakes.
As well as exhibiting trust yourself, you might also like to try the following exercises:
• Personal Histories Exercise – members go round the table answering a short list of questions about themselves (number of siblings, where they grew up, favourite hobbies, first job, worst job). This helps team members to begin to relate to one another on a more personal basis, which encourages greater empathy and understanding.
• Roles and Responsibilities Exercise – members share the top three things everyone needs to know about their role; what they want from others, what don’t you want from others; what a good working day is like; and what a bad working day is like.
• Personality and Behavioural Preference Profiles, such as Insights or MBTI, to help people better understand themselves and their co-workers.
• Anonymous 360 Degree Feedback, which allows team members to identify strengths and areas for development without any repercussions.
• And if you’re feeling really brave try the Team Effectiveness Exercise, which requires team members to identify the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as the one area that they must either improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team. All members then report their responses, focusing on one person at a time, usually beginning with the team leader.
As Ernest Hemingway observed, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”