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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.
This leads to poor performance, seething resentment, and secrets being kept unnecessarily. Your team's creativity and productivity aren't at the level they should be.
It's not an easy thing to deal with, but fortunately, there are solutions. Both short-term actions and long-term strategies are available for building trust in the workplace - here's how you can do it.
You might have already spotted this problem in the world of sports. 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. Maybe even a few meltdowns. 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.
You might observe the way conversations don't flow easily between members. Collaboration isn't an easy, natural process, but a forced and uncomfortable one. People prefer to gossip and chat in private rather than out in the open. And changes are complained about rather than embraced.
While these things might not be so obvious on first glance, spotting them early is crucial for intervening to make a positive difference.
The importance of trust in building effective team dynamics can't be understated. Here's how you can cultivate more of it in your team.
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.
There are various ways to unlock the full potential of a trustworthy work environment. Every workplace needs someone to take charge of trust-building; whether that's explicitly through intentional actions and projects, or more subtly, through leading by example.
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. We can really miss that face-to-face connection that helps us bond in the real world, adding an extra layer of difficulty to developing kinship amongst each other.
But 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 that's worth cultivating. And members neglecting to listen properly 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's everyone really saying?
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 team building recreational activity provides the opportunity for 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 through hard work can give them a real boost in confidence that can last for days.
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 work environment.
Building 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.
Managing teams in the face of a lack of trust between members isn't going to work out well for anyone. If you want to be an effective team leader, you really have to investigate and deal with trust issues as and when they appear.
Remember - once you've built up trust amongst a group of people, it's startlingly easy to lose. All it takes is one breach of expectations and it can all come tumbling down.
Most people know what it's like to experience a betrayal. Whether it's a dreaded relationship-ender or your dog chomping down your freshly-cooked steak while you're not looking - it stings. It's hard to get over. It's not nice.
In the workplace, betrayal - the breaking of an agreement, or failing to deliver on a promise - can have lasting negative effects on your team culture. Which is why it's critical to understand what's happened, make up for it, and prevent it from happening again.
So how do you build trust after it's been lost? Here are the best approaches to take.
There are a few different ways that trust can be broken. Dishonesty is one of the more obvious offences that can damage team trust, and it comes in different forms.
It might stem from telling an outright lie. Maybe you said you'd consider pay reviews at the end of the year, but went back on your promise because of costs.
How did this happen? Did circumstances change unexpectedly? You might have a valid reason for going back on your promise, but that's not an excuse for making promises liable to be broken in the first place.
A good bit of self-reflection and a post-mortem of events need to be done first so you know which boundaries have been crossed, and why people feel disappointed or betrayed. That might require direct questioning of the affected people. Or if emotions are running high, you can use anonymous surveys so that people aren't afraid to voice their opinion on a sensitive topic, and conflicts don't arise unnecessarily.
It's time to admit that you've made a mistake. If things have gone wrong, take accountability for what happened instead of shying away from it. No matter how awkward it may feel, every strong leader needs a certain amount of humility for team members to really trust them.
Apologizing properly is going to require a good level of open communication, which might be something you're not entirely used to. It means explaining the situation from your point of view, and why you took the decisions you did. It might even mean divulging some corporate information that'd normally be kept away in silos.
Apologizing 'sincerely' means just that. Don't get your assistant to draft an apologetic email while you hide away in your office. Hold a team meeting - get everyone together (in-person or remotely if that's your only option) and explain what happened and why. Swallow your pride and tell the truth.
You might not be forgiven immediately, but this is the most important part of regaining trust from hurt coworkers.
You can't just keep doing bad things and apologizing your way out of the mess afterwards. Trust requires people to have hope for your future behavior, so now's the time to cultivate some foundations and help them believe that you're going to do better.
Making sensible assurances is something to practice when either attempting to build trust on your team, or to rebuild it back to an initial level of trust after something's gone wrong.
Going back to the pay review example - next time you're promising a review, make sure all eventualities are catered for and made clear to everyone. If financial circumstances might have a bearing on whether or not you're able to offer pay rises, make sure that's clear. Manage expectations so your team doesn't feel lied to if it doesn't come around.
You're going to have to follow up on these promises, too. Set reminders and put your accountability out in the open for regular check-ins with appropriate stakeholders. Even if this isn't in line with your usual leadership style, it's necessary to really build a safe environment where colleagues can relax in the knowledge that you're looking out for their interests.
Changing the thing you messed up as well as the way you communicate about things is going to be the most effective strategy for the long term.
Building a trusting company culture starts with pledging to act virtuously, then following through on those assurances, time and time again.
The result? Better employee engagement. Higher levels of team productivity. More streamlined project management.
And a company culture where honesty and positive behavior are the norm.
So how do you build trust with people before things go wrong?
Talk like a human.
People trust other people, not machines - and it's up to you to convince them of your humanity. The most important way to do that is through the way you communicate.
Writing or speaking in a way that confuses or alienates people is going to put up barriers to understanding, which is a huge obstacle to nurturing trust. But leaders sometimes do this without thinking.
Think of academic writing. It's often long, stuffed with rambling sentences, and full of obscure words that demands frequent trips to the dictionary. As linguist Steven Pinker suggests in 'A Sense of Style', the common theory is that it's intentional:
"Pseudo-intellectuals spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. Academics in the softer fields dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook."
But that's not actually the case, he goes on to say. What's actually happening is the curse of knowledge: the difficulty in imagining what it's like for someone else not to know something that you know.
In short - we write stuff without realising the other person doesn't understand what we're saying. That's a big barrier to establishing trust between the writer and the reader, or the speaker and the listener.
Remember - the purpose of communicating is to convey important information, both explicitly (in what you say) and implicitly (how you say it).
Imagine seeing this sign on a train:
Passengers are formally requested not to impair the placement of other passengers' belongings by placing their ambulatory appendages on the opposite seating units.
How many people are going to understand that it means not to put your feet on the seats? And are the people likeliest to read such a sign the ones who are likely to obey it?
If you're used to using bureaucratic, stuffy language because you think it conveys an air of professionalism, it's time to stop. Remember how humans speak to one another.
Please don't put your feet on the seats.
You don't have to try to be best friends with everyone, or use unnatural slang terms to try to fit in. Just don't hide behind a veneer of fancy talk if you want people to trust you. Speak clearly.
If you're applying this attitude to your written communication, there are software tools that can help you reword overly technical or formal prose into readable text. One example is Quillbot, which is a paraphrasing tool. You paste your sentences in, and let it reword them into something more readable.
This outlook applies to speaking, too: relax into a more personable style rather than being tense and overbearing. Don't hide behind jargon. Embrace your powers of nonverbal communication to build rapport and connection, and you'll quickly find team members start to open up and trust you a little more.