What Can Team Leaders Actually Do About Trust in Teams Anyway?

Trust in teams is a fundamental pillar of employee engagement and ultimately team performance.  But what can team leaders actually do about it?

In his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey says: “Without trust we don’t truly collaborate, we merely coordinate or, at best, cooperate. It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team.”

Strong peer relationships is so important to team collaboration and team effectiveness it can’t be left to chance.  It needs continual nurturing and TLC.  Every team is different and trust is not a static element. It can fluctuate over time and be affected by a number of factors, so building trust is part of the team leader’s on-going efforts to support the team.  Spotting potential trust issues before they grow and start impacting on team performance and productivity can save a lot of heartache later.

There are a number of indicators that might suggest team trust isn’t as strong as it could be.  Typically:

  • Team members jump to conclusions about teammates intentions and skills and knowledge
  • Team members go to the team leader to voice problems rather talk it through with each other
  • Team members hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility
  • Feedback among the team is hesitant, if ever offered
  • Team members are hesitant about expressing their true thoughts, feelings and concerns
  • Team members avoid discussing weaknesses or mistakes
  • Palpable tension is perceived between team members
  • When operational or performance issues arise the team hesitate in problem-solve collectively

Team trust-building is an on-going process that is influenced by a number of factors, but the team leader can set the tone by demonstrating trust behaviours.  For example, establishing open communication in a psychologically safe environment, fostering collaborative relationships among team members, encouraging a climate of valued feedback and empowering team self-direction. 

“It is trust that transforms a group of people into a team.”

Stephen Covey – ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

Open Communications

People want feel heard by colleagues. This boosts a sense of feeling valued by their peers and line manager.  Open dialogue where honest opinion is shared leads to feeling of greater connection and understanding.

Team leaders can set the tone in open and honest communication by:

  • Openly admitting they don’t have all the answers
  • Being willing to admit mistakes and disclose weaknesses
  • Sharing their own personal stories, feelings and concerns
  • Personally demonstrating a willingness to discuss ‘elephant in the room’ subjects
  • Inviting team members to talk openly about difficult issues
  • Demonstrating empathy and supporting individuals who may be more reticent to express their true thoughts and feelings

Empowerment and Autonomy

Empowerment and autonomy can also be a significant contributor to team trust.  Nobody likes to be micromanaged and if teams feel they can self-organise within limits they are more likely to feel trusted by their immediate line manager.  Teams that self-direct and have the ability to participate in decisions that directly affect them at work tend to be more motivate and productive.

Team leaders can directly influence these feelings of empowerment and trust by:

  • Creating clarity about roles and responsibilities and reinforcing the importance of interdependencies
  • Creating regular team decision-making opportunities and empowering team members to take the lead
  • Focusing conversations about performance objectives on the options and choices team members have for completion
  • Enabling team members to have regular conversations about work plans, accountabilities and progress
  • Providing team members with the freedom to innovate, iterate, test and pioneer new ways of doing things

Quality Feedback

The frequency and quality of feedback in a team is central to team trust.  It will seem difficult if inter-personal trust in the team is perceived to be low.  The key is to encourage appreciative, reinforcing feedback first.  This creates an atmosphere of appreciation and of being valued.  When people feel valued they then become more open to developmental feedback from peers and they are more willing to accept that the intention is unconditional positive regard. 

Team leaders can influence an environment of quality feedback in the team by:

  • Being observant first and identifying good work rather than quickly spotting when things are not working so well
  • Shifting their bias towards providing more reinforcing feedback
  • Genuinely asking for feedback from team members
  • Encouraging team members to provide reinforcing feedback to one another
  • Role modelling how to offer high value, skilfully delivered feedback to team members

Collaboration and Cooperation

Fostering a collaborative atmosphere among team members and encouraging mutually supportive behaviours can also boost trust in teams.  Teams that problem-solve together or who explicitly see the interdependencies of their activities have greater bonds.  Facing new challenges together and having to creatively come up with solutions not only builds ownership, it solicits a team climate of open-mindedness and cooperation.

Team leaders can influence this through their own behaviour by:

  • Soliciting team members observations about what’s working elsewhere in the business that could be applied in their team
  • Inviting and taking people’s ideas and suggestions seriously and being receptive without discounting them too soon, even if not agreeing
  • Provoking the thinking by asking how team members could increase their interactions with one another
  • Holding ‘hackathon’ team meetings to solve customer, product or operational problems

By understanding how trust is developed and sustained in the team, team leaders can create highly engaged working environments where people feel intrinsically motivated.  They feel heard, empowered and enjoy collaborating with their colleagues.  By being alert to factors that may either nurture or diminish trust among their people, team leaders can take timely and appropriate action to ensure that it is developed and sustained.  Team leaders directly influence the state of trust in their teams through their own behaviours and can create a conducive team climate of collaboration, productivity and engagement.

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