Trust makes a massive difference on the performance of teams. And that fact has been found in research on teamwork over and over. For example, a 2011 study of nearly 200 teams from the United States and Hong Kong, found that when trust went up, so did performance.
In a way, trust on teams acts as a social lubricant. When teams trust each other, the social frictions are reduced, which makes it easier to collaborate and easier to share one’s true perspective on any challenges the team faces.
Without trust, people hold back their brilliance. They don’t share their unique perspectives and insights. With trust, those hesitations disappear and ideas and information flow freely. Teams with trust explore more possibilities than teams without trust. And teams with trust willingly put forward their ideas and aid to others on the team. Trust even makes working on a team more enjoyable.
But building trust on a team can be mysterious for many leaders. One overlooked reason is that there isn’t just one form of trust that matters on a team: there’s two. In the 2011 study mentioned above, researchers John Schaubroeck, Simon Lam, and Ann Chunyan Peng distinguished two types of trust: cognition-based trust and affect-based trust. And it’s worth examining each in turn before considering how to build trust on a team.
The first type of trust on teams is Cognition-based trust. This refers to how well the team trusts that each other are competent and reliable. It’s how well team members trust that others will coordinate and complete their tasks as promised. It’s how well the teams knows each other’s strengths and weakness. As teams grow in their cognition-based trust, the information they share with each other increases and their understanding of how best to work together grows as well.
To get started building cognition-based trust, start holding regular “huddles” where team members meet briefly to report on their progress and coordinate any outstanding tasks. These meetings are usually brief and sometimes they’re not even conducted as a meeting, but rather a regular report that gets sent out across the whole team (this works especially well in geographically dispersed teams). As team members get a chance to “work out loud” and report on what they’ve done, what they’re working on, and where they might need help, the rest of the team gets a chance to see that everyone is delivering on their promises and learns what teammates do particularly well. In other words, they build cognition-based trust.
The second type of trust on teams is Affect-based trust. This refers to how much the team genuinely cares for each other as people and wants to see them succeed. It’s how well team members care about the person, not the project. It’s how well team members know each other’s personality differences and little quirks. And it’s also how well they’re willing to be vulnerable around each other—it’s hard to be vulnerable with someone who doesn’t care.
To get started building affect-based trust, start finding each other’s uncommon commonalities. These are elements of someone’s personality, preferences, or experiences that they have in common with one member of the group but are uncommon to the whole group. It may sound odd, build trust on a team by focusing on things in common with individual members. But uncommon commonalities are how friendships get formed. And as people become friends with individual members of the team, their trust and emotional connection to the whole team grows as well. You can find these uncommon commonalities through structured activities like icebreakers or you can leverage unstructured time—time spent doing nothing—and help people self-disclose during “water cooler” moments or shared meals. When people talk about nonwork parts of their life, they start to grow in their connection to the people they work with. In other words, they build affect-based trust.
Both forms of trust are important, but you’re probably wondering if the study examined differences between cognition-based and affect-based trust. And indeed, it did. While cognition-based trust increased performance, affect-based trust increased it significantly more. And that’s a lesson worth remembering. Because many team leaders focus on the project and what it takes to help people work better. So they build cognition-based trust. But focusing on the people, and helping them build affect-based trust, is what helps people do their best work ever.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.