What Works (and What Doesn't) When it Comes to Cultivating Trust in Teams
Time and again, strong levels of trust in teams have been shown to build employee engagement, enhance customer loyalty, and drive profit growth. When team members have a high level of trust in leaders and each other, the group becomes notably better at achieving business goals.
But while the business case for trust is fairly straightforward, the "how" is considerably more complex. Specifically in relation to work groups, we can define trust as the state of being comfortable with exposing your fears, vulnerabilities, needs and weaknesses to others. By this definition, some personalities will have an easy time with trust; others will find it extremely challenging. The combined effects of personal perceptions, innate behaviors, individual experiences and an increasing sense that, in business, everyone seems to be in it only for themselves, can result in dwindling levels of trust in organizations. In fact, a recent poll by The Ken Blanchard Companies found that 59% of individuals had left an organization due to trust issues, citing lack of communication and dishonesty as key contributing factors.
For leaders, it's important to understand that trust can be created or destroyed. There are five key elements that leaders need to be aware of when they are looking to build trust with the people they lead. By focusing on these factors, leaders can create action plans to increase the level of trust in their teams.
#1: Asking for someone's input on decisions that affect him
Employees typically have increased trust in their organization if leaders practice more transparency in the decision-making process. This means that leaders should consult with employees before making decisions that affect them, and give context so employees can better understand the rationale for the decisions. Practically, leaders should ask themselves:
- Who will be affected by this decision?
- Who should have a stake in the decision-making process?
- What information should I share with those who are not directly involved in the decision making, but may be impacted by the actions we take?
Ideally, this type of transparency should be practiced up the corporate ladder as well as down. From a manager's perspective, trust is enhanced when the people she leads keep her up-to-date on the status of work that is not yet completed, and listens and responds to feedback. Employees should ask themselves:
- What information do I need to do to complete this task?
- What does my manager need to know as the task progresses?
- How can I resolve issues and let my manager know that everything's been taken care of?
This two-way flow of information allows leaders to move away from micromanaging their direct reports and instead focus on value-added business decisions. Employees, in turn, gain an opportunity to prove themselves, learn, and share responsibility for the success of the team. In a trusting environment, everyone wins.
#2: Give context so team members can understand decisions
Team members want to know what's going on in the team and the wider organization. They don't want managers to simply give them orders, as practiced in the command and control style of management. The less team members know about what is happening and why, the more they will suspect that someone is operating from a hidden agenda. Trust doesn't stand a chance when employees are wary of a higher-up's motives.
The solution here is simple: keep team members informed. The more information they have, the more in control they will feel, and the more willing they will be to trust executive decisions. Providing people with complete information communicates the sense that "we're all in this together." It also stops the spread of rumors, which has a ripple effect of trust erosion throughout the organization. Better to nip back-fence talk in the bud by telling it straight with solid facts and explanations.
#3: Set team members up for risk taking
High-trusting leaders allow their team members to take risks, and encourage them to put themselves at risk based on the needs of the team. They act as a literal and emotional safety net for when things go wrong, such that risk-taking is supported even if the end result is not ideal.
It's common sense that no one wants to want to be threatened by a critical supervisor or corrective co-worker. In the face of possible punishment, people will resort to covering up mistakes to protect themselves, and will not admit when something goes wrong. Trust cannot thrive in a secretive, self-protectionary environment. When failures are swept under the rug, people become suspicious and hyper-alert to the possibility of problems coming back to haunt them later on.
Leaders who embrace risk-taking as a constructive and necessary process open the lines of communication by scheduling regular progress-check meetings with their team members. This allows managers to reign in any unacceptable risk taking while supporting those who have tried and failed to take smart risks again. Leaders can also reinforce trust by being transparent about the risks they themselves are taking, including any mitigation they may have in case the risk fails.
#4: Don't engage in turf wars
Mistrusting people in other teams, departments or sections - or even colleagues in the same team - is regrettably common in modern organizations and can destroy productivity. Turf wars tend to be especially prevalent in small businesses where employees wear a number of hats, which makes it easy to step on someone's toes. When turf wars develop, there's a risk that each person or team will avoid accountability by pointing the finger at the other when things go wrong.
Turf wars tend to erupt in situations where neither group really understands what the other does, and fails to appreciate that their big-picture business goals are the same. Leaders can discourage turf protection and buck-passing in a number of ways, for example:
- Bringing people together from different groups or sections to problem solve, or setting up projects that involve intersectional teams.
- Reframing the question - when something goes wrong, it's not a question of who is to blame, but why the situation happened. What went wrong? What could be done to prevent it from happening again?
- Walking the walk. Great leaders personify trust. Those who are seen to work cooperatively up, down and across the organization act as effective role models for their teams.
#5: Don't shoot the messenger
One of the hallmarks of high-trusting organizations is the willingness of executives to look unflinchingly at the business situation, no matter how unpleasant that may be. Instead of hiding behind closed doors, high-trust leaders are receptive to people's concerns and make it easy for employees to share anxieties for the good of the organization without fear of recrimmination.
Follow through is important here. If a question can't be answered immediately, the leader should find the answer and get back to the employee in the promised amount of time. Doing what you said you would do demonstrates credibility and reliability that people can trust their leaders to look out for their best interest. Fundamentally, it's about listening to others and keeping your word.
Summing It All Up
Teams work best when everyone trusts each other and people assume the best of their peers, managers, and direct reports. Involving people in decision making, giving context, encouraging risk taking, discouraging buck-passing and generally being responsive to people's concerns are essential ways of cultivating trust in teams. Nurturing these behaviors can help leaders crack the code to building trust. The result is an organization that communicates better, cooperates better and supports people better, thus increasing the probability of driving growth.