Learning how to build trusting teams at work is critical if you’re going to be successful as an employee, a manager, or an effective leader. If you don’t have trust, it’ll be more difficult to communicate and coordinate with your peers or colleagues. If teams lack trust, it’s difficult to achieve true collaboration and create performance greater than the sum of each individual’s talent.
A team isn’t a team without trust. Without trust, it’s just a group of people who share the same boss—who they probably don’t trust either.
But with high levels of trust, teams can do amazing work. People who work at high-trust companies experience 50% greater performance and 74% less stress. The opposite is also true. A low-trust team underperforms and unnecessarily stresses out for everyone involved.
In this article, we’ll outline four ways to build trusting teams—and hence unlock that greater performance.
The first way to build trusting teams is to signal vulnerability. Especially if you’re in a leadership role, it’s important to signal vulnerability and admit weaknesses from time to time. This doesn’t mean “deal-breaker” mistakes or weaknesses that would undermine your credibility. But in those moments you’re willing to admit you don’t know the answer or haven’t figured out the solution, you send several signals that create trust on your team. You signal to the whole team that they don’t have to be perfect all the time, and you’ll still support them. You also encourage the team to contribute, which helps them feel their opinions, ideas, and experiences are valued. Signaling vulnerability kicks off what can become a virtuous cycle of trust—where people feel trusted and so they respond with trustworthy behavior and a positive feedback loop begins. Absent vulnerability, when everyone is pretending to be perfect and unwilling to admit any mistakes, trust can diminish just as quickly in a negative feedback loop.
Welcome Task-Focused Conflict
The second way to build trusting teams is to welcome “task-focused” conflict. This might seem counterintuitive but conflict, done well, can not only be productive for a team it can increase trust. Conflict around the task—debates around ideas or solutions done respectfully—helps teams find better quality ideas and sends the message that all ideas are welcome even if they aren’t ultimately chosen. Obviously, conflict around people, personalities, or other immutable attributes diminishes trust and should be avoided. But when people speak up to disagree, and offer respectful counterarguments, that ought to be treated as a form of collaboration—because it is a form of collaboration. And over time, teaching a team to “fight right” will help every team member know they can jump into discussions earlier and not fear being judged or punished just because they disagree. And that will help everyone on the team build greater trust in their teammates’ ideas and intentions.
The third way to build trusting teams is to celebrate failures. Failures are an inescapable part of work. Projects will go awry. Changes in the environment will happen too rapidly to make adjustments. And when those failures happen, teams need to have an honest conversation about what went wrong so they can extract the right lessons from them and make future failures less likely. That learning is what teams should celebrate. When team members are transparent enough to properly dissect a failure and learn from it, we need to celebrate the transparency (and vulnerability) that allowed it to happen. In some cases, this can go so far as creating specific moments in time—failure funerals—that allow teammates to mourn the loss of the project but celebrate the lessons learned together. In the long run, celebrating failures creates an environment where people feel safe to experiment because they know learning gets celebrated—and because they trust they won’t be punished for taking intelligent risks.
Establish Help Times
The fourth way to build trusting teams is to establish “help times.” Help times are either specific times on someone’s calendar—or permission to spend a certain amount of someone’s calendar—helping a project someone else is working on. This should be less of a mandate and more of a cultural ritual. Helping other people or team’s projects reinforces the idea that no one individually is at the center of the organization—they’re all interdependent. And it helps cross-pollinate ideas and potentially find new solutions. But more specific to trust, it’s impossible to be on the receiving end of help and not trust the person helping. And when you do receive that help, you realize just how good the intentions of your teammates usually are. In too many organizations, colleagues are often seen as competitors in the climb up the hierarchy. But establishing a regular ritual like help times reinforces the idea that we’re all on this mission together.
While these four methods may seem equal at first, one is much more important to start with than the others. If you’re in a leadership role, you must start building trust by signaling vulnerability. You cannot pretend to be perfect and convince your team to trust you at the same time. But when you admit your flaws, you make it safe for the team to let down their own guard and make it more likely the other three methods will work. And when they do, they’ll create a climate of trust that helps everyone on the team 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.