How to build trust in a team and why it matters
So you’ve assembled your group of superstars. The project brief is ready. You know the goals, and so do they.
Everyone figures out their roles, discusses a plan, and gets to work.
But as time goes on, something seems wrong. Things aren’t really glueing. Team members don’t seem to be communicating, and ideas aren’t being shared freely.
Nobody seems to trust each other, and you're left wondering how to build trust in a team that isn't jiving.
It’s a familiar problem in sports teams. Rich clubs spend huge amounts of money buying elite talent from all over the world. They assemble super-groups of top performers. Fans are delighted, opposition teams are scared, and the season kicks off. And nothing much happens.
A few wins, a few draws, a few losses. Nothing spectacular. Possibly even a meltdown at points. How can it be that collections of highly talented individuals don’t seem to trust in each others’ abilities?
The pattern manifests in business, too. On paper, each skill-set might be covered, but individuals aren’t comfortable slotting in with their peers.
So how can leaders spark cohesion between team members, helping them do their very best work? All it takes is a few strategic moves in your interpersonal game plan.
Listen and promote listening
Listening is the most important of the four types of interpersonal communication.
It’s especially important in the age of remote communication, where our sense of non-verbal understanding is messed up when we’re separated by screens.
Listening well is something that can get you far in life - it helps you learn, it fosters relationships, it helps you solve problems faster - but it’s not always recognised as a skill to cultivate. And members not learning to listen means that team dynamics can really suffer.
Here’s why: can you really trust someone who doesn’t listen properly to what you’re saying? What about the ones that hear your first sentence, then swing the conversation around to their own interests? It’s safe to say you probably won’t warm to them too fast.
If you’re listening to someone properly, you’ll frame your responses as supporting, rather than shifting. As Kate Murphy puts it in You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters:
“The shift response directs attention away from the speaker and toward the respondent. The support response… encourages elaboration from the speaker to help the respondent gain greater understanding.”
Take the following example. A team member tells you that they’re sad about theatres being closed during the pandemic.
The shift response would be: “I don’t really like the stage, I prefer watching movies and I can do that at home for cheap.”
The support response would be: “Yeah, that’s a real shame. I hope it’s safe enough for them to reopen soon. What do you like so much about watching a play?"
Which one of those do you think will build more trust?
Listening effectively isn't just important to avoid missing key bits of information in a conversation, or hearing what’s directly said. The subtext of a sentence can be more important than what’s on the surface.
“I’m having a problem with these long email threads” could be approached by an engineering-minded manager as a tech-support request that needs a systematic response.
A more interpersonally-minded manager with a keen ear and sense of empathy will hear what’s being implied underneath those words: “this method of communication is burdensome, it causes conflict, and I want someone to understand this and help me by introducing a different system."
With scenarios like this, team members can trust they’re being listened to and not forgotten. Leading by example, they’re more likely to see this from leaders and implement it in their own communication with other members of the team.
What is everyone really saying?
How to build trust in a team by telling stories
Effective narratives drive a huge part of our emotions. People respond to stories much more than to directives and raw information. So when considering how to build trust in a team, you can use storytelling to help persuade people to open up and trust each other more.
Packaging information into narratives makes it easier to understand and helps us figure out how to feel about things. Rather than throwing information at team members, why not spark a little curiosity between them?
As Will Storr puts it in The Science of Storytelling:
"The place of maximum curiosity - the zone in which storytellers play - is when people think they have some idea but aren’t quite sure… this pleasantly unpleasant state, that causes us to squirm with tantalised discomfort at the delicious promise of an answer, is undeniably powerful."
If team members are curious about each other, their assignments, and the purpose of their work, they’re likely to be more invested in the journey and work together to make a success of it.
Think of case studies. The best case studies don’t start with “we revolutionised performance in Company X…”
They start with a hook, to spark curiosity - “We increased Company X’s inbound leads by 800% in three weeks with a tactic found in Homer’s Odyssey.”
Then, they begin the journey - “It all started when we met CEO Y in Library Z…"
And through the story, details are eked out as you go along.
Taking that structure and using it in your comms, presentations, and briefs can really help invest members in the project.
Encouraging your teams to tell stories to each other and about each other is a great way for them to build empathy and understanding. If you’re kicking off a project with a group of talented individuals that don’t know each other, they’re not going to work well together if they don’t know what each others’ strengths and interests are. So a ‘fireside chat’, informal networking session or recreational activity session provides the opportunity to trust, as well as new interpersonal stories, to emerge.
Telling stories is also a great way to celebrate wins. Helping team members thrive involves appreciating the work they do, and making darn sure everyone knows about it. Sure, some avoid the limelight, but even the most attention-shy introverts enjoy a bit of praise and adulation now and then.
Maybe don’t plaster their photo all around the office, but a quick email or Slack message to the group showing how a team member produced great results can give them a real boost in confidence that can last for days.
Build a culture of trust
It’s no easy task, shaping organizational culture - but it’s one of the most important things you can do. And it starts at the top.
Whether it’s through official policy, informal conversation, or behavioural example-setting, positive culture can be shaped intentionally over the long term. And assembling a team within a trust-positive culture will be so much easier than trying to develop a trusting team in a toxic, fear-based, or secretive environment.
A culture of trust has to involve multiple different touchpoints. Firstly, it starts with transparent communication.
This means sharing the goals the team has, alongside the purpose of those goals. Members need to be really clear on why they’ve been put together and what their project is designed to achieve. And along the timeline of a project, they need to be able to trust their work is effective - and if not, why not?
Sure, there’s a certain amount of discretion needed when it comes to leadership. Not everything needs to be shared; not everything is relevant to team performance. But being honest and open sets the example for everyone’s communication style.
As Amy Jen Su writes in Harvard Business Review, being direct rather than tip-toeing around a problem can cultivate better team behaviours:
"Be willing to have a direct conversation. Don’t reward bad behavior. If someone is overly self-absorbed, explain that they are hurting, not helping, themselves. Remind them that leadership roles require cross-functional and team collaboration and that their success will be determined, in part, by how well they work with others.”
Teamwork and collaboration can’t thrive in a culture of secrecy. Can you do a better job in opening up these important conversations?
Secondly, fair and effective delegation is crucial. To build trust in a team setting, those team members need autonomy in their roles. This way, they gain trust in themselves and each other by taking on responsibility and showing they can handle it.
Delegating properly and avoiding micromanagement is a bit of a learned art, but it boils down to providing really clear goals and tasks. Setting defined goals for team members and giving them freedom to figure out their own way to achieve them is the way for both parties to benefit.
If your outcomes are clear, and you’ve assembled the right talents, let them at it. If you’ve cultivated that culture of transparent communication, they won’t be afraid to raise it with you if there’s a problem.
It goes back to narrative-building. There’s a timeless maxim given by accomplished writers to every budding storyteller: show, don’t tell. This applies to delegation - people will only trust themselves and each other by getting stuck in, doing the work, and proving they are worthy of that trust. Don’t make them tell you how good they are - let them show you.