building trust

Trust is the Foundation of Every Successful Team. Here’s How to Start Building It.

“To make someone trustworthy, first you must trust them.”

“To make someone trustworthy, first you must trust them.” I heard this saying from my parents often, but it took me years to really understand its value. I don’t know if it’s a quote or if they came up with it themselves, but I believe it’s an absolute truth in leadership. As a leader, you must make the leap of faith to trust your team — even before they’ve “earned it.”

According to HBR, companies considered to have high trust see 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 13% fewer sick days, 76% more engagement, 29% more satisfaction with their lives and 40% less burnout than companies with low trust.

When successful companies are compared with unsuccessful ones, trust (or lack of it) within and between teams plays a major role, but it’s rarely the subject of deliberate strategic focus. If you’ve already worked on developing self-awareness as described in my first post in this series, your next step to becoming an effective, modern leader is to start thinking deeply about trust: how to build it, and how it gets broken.

Lack of trust is at the root of team dysfunction

In his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” organizational health expert Patrick Lencioni identifies trust as the foundation of a successful team — and absence of trust as the top factor that will keep teams from achieving their goals.

To be successful, team members must feel comfortable being vulnerable enough to admit mistakes, ask for help, share tasks and work together effectively. When this trust is absent, it leads to negative team politics, protectionism and friction — contributing to the other four dysfunctions identified by Lencioni: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.

These issues not only make the work environment unpleasant — they can also prevent productive work from getting done. For example, if only one team member can perform a particular task, and they don’t trust their colleagues to execute it, they may refuse to train anyone else and insist on handling that task themselves. That task will likely become a bottleneck that will hold up the entire team whenever that particular team member is busy or absent. Or worse, that team member becomes a single point of failure and when they leave, the whole team has to scramble to fill the gaps.

To build trust, take a leap of faith

An effective leader models the behavior they want to see from their team, including trust. So, rather than expecting our team to trust us and expecting them to earn our trust, we need to invert the dynamic. We should give them our trust first, and then work to earn theirs. That means trusting our people from the earliest possible opportunity.

Now, this does not mean that we throw caution to the wind. As the leader, overall accountability still sits on our shoulders. For a new manager on a team, nobody can expect trust to be as high as it would be if they had been working with that team for years. So, the leader should lean on the experience that got them to that position, and deliberately choose to act from a position of trust rather than self-preservation.

Here are some examples of things we can all try:

1. Have members of the team drive the regular meetings and discussions themselves (internal and customer facing).

This gives members of the team opportunities to demonstrate micro-leadership and allows us, as leaders, to practice courage and trust. We must, however, use good judgement when delegating these opportunities.

2. Ask for team members' opinions on things we’re working on that are outside of their “official” work streams.

This gives them visibility into the bigger picture and makes them feel valued. Plus, we’ll get some great input that we would not have had otherwise.

3. When faced with challenges, ask them "What would you do?"

Like the item above, this approach helps widen a team member’s experience and demonstrates that we value their input.

4. Lead your team to discover solutions on their own.

As the team leader, if we have a solution in mind for a problem, rather than simply instructing the team on how to implement our solution, encourage them to arrive at a solution their own way. If we feel the team's solution is flawed, ask fundamental questions, like:

  • What happens if x happens?
  • Do we really need that?
  • Have you considered y?
  • What happens if I press this button?"

Allow the team to discover weaknesses on their own and train them to ask the same types of questions. Keep in mind:

  • If we think the team’s solution is awesome, ask the same questions anyway. It’s always good to stress test an idea.
  • If the team arrives at the same solution as we did, let them take the credit for it.
  • If the team's solution is more effective than what we came up with, tell them that, use their solution and make sure they get credit for it.

5. Respond with genuine curiosity.

If a team member does not deliver what was expected, try being genuinely curious as to why it happened, rather than instantly holding their feet to the flame and demanding accountability. How we respond will directly affect how much they trust us the next time they are struggling with something. It will also determine how the rest of the team handles similar issues.

A team in which trust has been developed properly will begin to hold each other accountable constructively and support each other. The team will focus on achieving goals as a cohesive unit rather than as individuals.

The weight of leading with trust

Being the first to exercise trust is hard in any relationship. It forces us to willingly expose ourselves to other people’s intentions. We fear the repercussions of getting it wrong, so we protect ourselves by withholding decisions and responsibility. This is a short-term approach that inherently builds toxicity and resentment, which will only fracture and divide our teams.

People inherently (and often subconsciously) know the difference between someone who is genuinely authentic and someone who is faking it. If we can’t bring ourselves to take a risk and put our faith in our team for anything, they will know. As the leader, if we find it too much of a challenge to trust our team, then it’s possible we’re not the right person, or at least not in the right frame of mind at the current moment, to lead them effectively.

However, by developing self-awareness, being ferociously eager to learn, committing to growth and practicing the empathy that comes with social and emotional intelligence, we as current and future leaders equip ourselves with the strength to carry the weight of trusting others. In doing so, we earn the trust from our teams in return.

Ultimately this is called “the burden of leadership” for good reason — and accepting it as a fundamental part of the responsibility is very important.

Building on trust’s foundations

Along with demonstrating these behaviors to encourage confidence within the team, there are other key areas where we can continuously make deliberate efforts to improve.

  • Listening

Practice active and deep listening. Learn about our team members as individuals and be considerate of their personal needs and challenges in and out of work.

  • Providing challenge

Most people are looking for a forward-moving career, so we should work to provide appropriate challenges so that when we or they move on, they are better off having had the experience.

  • Coaching

Helping others understand how to take ownership and move their own careers forward is a gift and is far more effective than trying to motivate them down a path based on our own interpretation of what is good for them.

  • Holding them accountable and encouraging them to do the same for themselves and each other

Agree on an “ethos” for how your team works and behaves. Practice open, constructive debate, and encourage everyone to voice their concerns and make the environment safe for them to do so.

Be sure to never let the elephant sit in the room for long — instead, raise issues and moderate the debates. Also, always assume positive intent when listening to people’s concerns. This is important to call out when any team members are voicing concerns, and especially important when receiving criticism.

  • Encouraging them to hold us accountable

Continuing the theme of practicing what we preach, we can’t expect people to receive criticism from us if we do not demonstrate the same ability.

  • Advocating for the right environment and tools

Ask our team what they need to be successful, but also understand the existence and nature of unarticulated needs. Identifying these requires deep listening over time.

  • Providing air cover

One of the biggest mental blocks that prevents a team from making good decisions is individuals’ fear that any mistake will result in some sort of punishment. Ensure, when speaking with our own leaders, that we are taking accountability for our teams. If the team fails at something, we should stand up and own it. If they succeed, we should stand back and let the team have the credit they deserve.

If you come away from reading this with just one, tiny nugget of information to think about, let it be this: When we display genuine trust, we create a trusting environment. Our team members will emulate our behaviors, trusting each other as we show trust in them.

Of course, trust isn’t sufficient to solve every issue on its own. In the third and final post in this series, I’ll discuss a few specific strategies that can help a trusting team perform effectively and deal with problems as they arise. But none of those strategies works without a foundation of trust — which can only grow when we as leaders make the first move.


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Effective Leadership Starts and Ends with People

Effective Leadership Starts and Ends with People

About the Authors

Andy Birchall

Lead Engagement Manager

Andy Birchall

Read more about Andy Birchall