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Building a Culture of Trust

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Building a Culture of Trust

Trust is the foundation of great teamwork. Without it, teams will never become more than the sum of their parts and can’t achieve their full potential. As in all human relationships, trust can be built and can be broken, and in times of disruptive business change it is at its most vulnerable.
In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team¹, Patrick Lencioni describes a lack of trust as the reason why some teams can be filled with outstanding individuals, yet never achieve greatness as a team.

Warning signs of a lack of trust

Where trust is absent, team members:

  • Jockey for position and focus their energy on outmanoeuvring their peers; seeing others as competitors
  • Champion their own self-interest and concentrate on selfish goals
  • Protect their own work in silos and hoard information
  • Form cliques
  • Talk about others – rather than to them
  • Avoid accountability and responsibility, even laying blame on others
  • Engage in a conflict of egos
  • Dodge tough (but important) topics, leading to poor decision-making


Why trust is critical for teamwork

A team must be able to show their weaknesses and vulnerabilities in order to establish real trust. Several things are possible as a result:

  • Open and healthy communication can take place, even on tough topics
  • The team are comfortable engaging in constructive conflict and open debate without resentment, which leads them to make better decisions
  • The team flourishes in an environment of psychological safety
  • Team members genuinely care about one another and raise each other up
  • Individuals are more likely to take personal risks for the greater good of the team
  • The team is more resilient in times of change and disruption

How to build a culture of trust

As a leader there are several things you can do to grow a culture of trust within your team:

Lead by example: It’s an obvious starting point, but you must lead by example. Do you show the people around you that you trust them? Recognise that you must give trust to get it in return. Your example will set the tone for the team. Bring the principle of trust alive as the leader; people will follow your direction if you embody the values you’d like to see in them.
Encourage vulnerability: People don’t like to admit when they are wrong, or that they don’t know something. It can be easy to associate your personal success with that of your ideas. However, one of the critical skills you can establish in your team is the capacity for people to embrace their vulnerability. They can then ask for help, seek feedback and constructive criticism and focus on improvement.
A culture of trust encourages people to collaborate, innovate, play with ideas and test them out
Actively encourage your team members to be vulnerable with one another by being honest about what they’re good at or not good at. Lead by example by demonstrating your vulnerability and talk openly about your own strengths and weaknesses so that others feel comfortable beginning to have those kinds of conversations. Make sure the phrases “I don’t know” or “I think I was wrong” no longer have negative connotations.
As important as encouraging the right behaviours is challenging the wrong ones. You should actively confront actions that demonstrate a lack of trust, and that might sabotage the team’s progress.
Take the time to understand each other: Who are the people in your team? What are their backgrounds and their values? What is important to them, both at work and at home? What are their strengths, and their weaknesses? A lot of these answers will come from simply spending some quality time with them. A team based on trust will be keen to spend time together, both inside and outside of work. Once the team has built a rapport, there will be opportunities for better teamwork and a ‘safe’, constructive environment for collaboration.
Mistakes as learning opportunities: When trust is missing, people will try to hide their mistakes. A culture of trust encourages people to collaborate, innovate, play with ideas and test them out, take measured risks and even fail. As a leader, you can assure your team that mistakes and failures are opportunities for learning and encourage them to ‘fail forward’. Support this idea by ensuring that there isn’t an emphasis on punitive measures; people will become defensive if they feel there’s an environment that is designed to punish them.
References: ¹ Lencioni, Patrick (2002) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.