Something’s wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it…
We know the drill. Something doesn’t feel quite right within your business team. You’re not sure exactly what’s causing it, or even what the problem is, but you’re feeling the symptoms.
Perhaps your team members seem unwilling to speak up and contribute ideas. There’s been a rise in unhealthy culture habits, like gossiping or backchanneling. Or maybe there’s a general atmosphere of stress, and a culture of blame – with people pointing their fingers or trying to avoid taking responsibility.
If this all sounds familiar then we’re here to tell you what the problem is:
You have a lack of trust within your team.
And we’re not talking about trusting each other not to steal someone else’s lunch from the office fridge. (Though if you have been stealing someone’s homemade sushi rolls then you need to take a good hard look at yourself!)
You might be thinking:
Why does building ‘trust’ actually matter?
As long as we know everyone can do the work, isn’t that enough?
The short answer is no – that’s not enough. To build trust in a team, you need to move beyond simply believing your colleagues will get the job done, to truly knowing that no matter what arises, they have the best interests of the team at heart.
Why is this important? Well, the first version invites you to play it safe. Be average. Don’t rock the boat. The second? It gives you the space to take the risks that businesses need to take in order to succeed.
An employee who doesn’t trust their team members will be conflict-averse. In other words, they’re less likely to contribute ideas (i.e. value) to the business for fear of judgment or, to borrow Feltman’s definition of trust, for fear of “making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions”.
An employee who doesn’t trust their team will focus on personal goals over team goals. After all, if no one has their back, they need to look out for themselves.
And in a team where no one trusts each other? Your colleagues will spend more time looking for another job than finding ways to do their work better. Because, ultimately, this is not just a job; it’s the way you spend most of your waking hours.
… Is It Just Me?
Short answer, no.
Sadly, a lack of trust is a pervasive problem. According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, around 30% of employees don’t trust their employer. Another study, this time by EY, found that number to be even higher. Only 46% of people had trust in their organisation, and only 49% in their boss or team.
So this might be sounding pretty daunting to you now. A lack of trust is a very nebulous problem to solve. That’s probably why no business likes to admit they have a problem with trust.
Many leaders will point to employee perks, a fancy office and the energy of a minority of high performers, and say things like ‘Our culture is great! Of course we don’t have a problem with trust – we all get along fine and employees are happy here!’
This is the thing most people don’t realise, and you’ll understand it completely by the end of this article: building trust in a team does not mean building a ‘friendly’ environment. The two can go hand-in-hand, but team trust is more than remembering to celebrate your colleagues’ birthdays and the occasional team go-karting trip.
And anyway, there are far better ways to build trust in a team than driving around a circuit in a little box, while praying your CFO won’t run you off the track, as he tries to live out his dream of being Micheal Schumacher… But we’ll get to those in a minute.
“Trust is like the air we breathe — when it’s present, nobody really notices. When it’s absent, everyone notices.”Warren Buffett
So you know that building trust in your team is worth your attention. Now, where do you even begin?
You Want to Build Trust in a Team? Go Deep.
The key is understanding that there are levels of trust.
If we start with the basics, we might consider them hygiene factors. Trusting that we have a passable level of communication and understanding between us, that our colleagues have the necessary ability to deliver on their roles, and that we can count on each other, predictably, to do what needs to be done and not eat each other’s sushi.
When we’re lacking trust in communication, ability, or predictability, we can solve it in the usual ‘team building’ way. Team socials to help people get acquainted with each other, team bonding games, communication training, and upskilling anyone who’s lagging behind.
But what if this is not enough? What if you want to fundamentally rebuild trust?
You need to go deep.
Deep trust is about feeling confident that if (when) something goes wrong, the person responsible will make amends and try to set it right. That our colleagues are committed to our wellbeing as individuals and as a team. That they practise empathy, and understand the way we feel and what we need. And that they have the integrity to do what they say, and say what they think.
Taken together, this creates a much deeper and more meaningful kind of trust in a team.
Deep trust is the kind of trust that allows great teams to accomplish what others can’t even dream of. Deep trust is what makes a team under pressure band together, instead of falling apart. Deep trust is resilient. And it is precisely this kind of trust that, when damaged, no amount of team dinners or fun games will fix.
In fact – if you’re already in a culture of distrust, then you’re primed to see the negatives in your colleagues (because confirmation bias), even during what should be a playful team bonding activity. You’ll see your Formula 1 loving CFO as being ‘reckless and aggressive’, rather than ‘brave and passionate’.
The very activities that were meant to build trust in a team only erode it further.
So what can you do?
Rebuilding Deep Trust in a Team in 5 Steps
Some people hire consultants to wave a magic wand and take the problem away. Others start by sacking the leaders (assuming them to be the problem) or by weeding out a few bad eggs in the company, and hoping the issue will disappear with them…
We prefer to do things that work. So here are the five steps to build trust in a team.
(By the way, we cover these concepts in way more depth in our Team Rebuilding Toolkit, where we’ve designed five team building workshops you can follow, step-by-step, to rebuild trust, alignment and commitment in your team. Consider this article the Lite version.)
STEP #1 TO (RE) BUILD TRUST IN A TEAM
1: Understand your emotional baggage
Whether you realise it or not, there’s probably some emotional baggage cluttering up your headspace. The same goes for your colleagues – if you’ve got trust issues in your team, it’s a safe bet that you’ve all got something weighing on you by now.
What does this ‘baggage’ look like? It might be heavy feelings, resentments, fears, memories, or stories you’re telling yourself about what someone did or didn’t do. These things are holding you back from being able to be your best self at work. Baggage is the first challenge you must overcome to build trust in a team that’s been losing ground for a while.
Set aside some time to get all of these thoughts out of your mind and onto a page. This is a process that you – and ideally everyone in your team – should do, ASAP. You might want to work with a coach for this kind of introspection, but you can also do it yourself.
Grab a notebook and pen, or a blank document, and let yourself write. Here are some prompts to get you started:
- How are you feeling about work at the moment?
- What are you sensing in the team?
- What would you need to feel trusting?
- What’s holding you back?
- Are you willing to commit to (re)building deep trust?
The more you write, the better. You’ll find that once you unlock your thoughts, they’ll flow until they reach their natural end. Ask yourself ‘what else?’ one more time before you put your pen down.
Nothing is too inconsequential. Don’t hold back, and be 100% honest with yourself. This is crucial. It’s also why we do this first step in private.
STEP #2 TO (RE) BUILD TRUST IN A TEAM
2: Talk through the lingering grievances as a group
Now, this step might sound like some sort of family intervention. It will almost certainly sound uncomfortable. But getting all of that baggage out into the open and investing in talking it out is such an important step when you want to build trust in a team. It’s the key to letting go of the past go so you can move forwards, together.
Arrange a time to bring your team together when you can all air what’s been weighing on you, and explain to them why this conversation is important – to them, to you, and to the business.
Make sure everyone is as committed to listening as they are to speaking. (You and the other senior members of your team will need to role model this.) Take it turn by turn. Avoid interrupting. And invite everyone to say whatever needs to be said in order for them to let go.
Your life will be a whole lot easier if you’ve all done Step 1 to find clarity. Nonetheless, we know this is hard, so we’ve created a FREE guide to help you prepare for difficult team conversations.
STEP #3 TO (RE) BUILD TRUST IN A TEAM
3: Distill your essence – what brings you all together?
Now that you’re no longer holding onto the past, it’s time to surface your shared identity as a team, and in doing so you’ll start to find alignment.
We’d typically run this as a group workshop. Here are some prompts to help you get started:
- As a team, who do you exist to serve? (hint: don’t forget that you’re one of those people!)
- What do they need from your team?
- How do you prioritise between the needs of the different people and groups who count on your team?
- How can each of you benefit from working together?
The key to this step is understanding everyone’s needs. This includes the needs of your customers, of your shareholders, and of every member of your team.
This identifying and prioritising of needs is about defining the challenge that your team is choosing to embrace together. (And also, by proxy, the battles you’re choosing not to pick.)
In the Toolkit, we work this into a Guiding Question. This is the thing that binds you all together, a key ingredient in building deeper levels of trust because it means you’re all clear on what you’re committing to, together.
STEP #4 TO (RE) BUILD TRUST IN A TEAM
4: Imagine the ideal future of your team
Your shared challenge is only as powerful as your team’s belief that you can achieve it, together. There will understandably be doubts, and overcoming these doubts requires high levels of motivation.
How to build this motivation? You need to make success feel possible and worthwhile, and for that, it’s essential to visualise what your success would look like.
Take some time, as a team, to paint a picture of your ideal future – your utopia, so to speak. This is not about coming up with some catchy one-liner of a vision statement. It’s about allowing yourselves a chance to imagine a desirable future, and your role in it. And the more detailed and vivid you make it, the more powerful it will be.
Take yourselves forward, a year into the future, and ask:
- What have you achieved by working together in a trusting way?
- How does it feel?
- How is it helping you to meet the shared challenge you surfaced in the previous exercise?
After you’ve gotten it all out, go back and reflect:
- What key themes do you see in your imaginings?
- What seems to be most important to your team?
STEP #5 TO (RE) BUILD TRUST IN A TEAM
5: Explore the specifics of how you’ll work together
But of course, what good is a beautiful dream if you’re not making it happen? This final step is about grounding your enthusiasm in something real. We’re talking about getting specific about how you’ll work together to maintain that high level of trust.
And what you’ll do when you falter. Because as we said before, deep trust is not about being perfect. You need to co-create a culture in which all team members feel safe to take risks. This is often called ‘Psychological Safety’ in the workplace.
Sadly, you can’t copy and paste a ‘high performing culture’ (no matter what the listicles might tell you). The truth is, you need to start where you are now and design your culture by reflecting and refining over time.
So, what do you do?
Schedule a team session and use the following prompts to begin defining how you’ll commit to working together:
- What principles and behaviours create trust within your team?
- What principles and behaviours erode trust?
- How will you encourage each other to demonstrate more of one and less of the other?
- What symptoms do you notice when you’re slipping?
- And when you do fall off track (as humans are prone to do from time to time), how will you hold yourselves and each other accountable?
The more detailed this is, the better, as long as everyone in your team is truly invested in your shared challenge and the plan you’ve created to solve it!
A Final Tip to Build Trust in Your Team…
We know this sounds daunting when you’re doing it alone, and it’s easy to brush a ‘lack of trust’ under the carpet – something that might solve itself, or just not matter too much.
You might try to ignore the awkward silence when someone asks for ideas, the backchanneling, the “it’s not my problem” attitude, and the tasks that fall through the cracks because no one asks for support until it’s too late.
But if you’re willing to do the work and tackle the trust issues in your team head on, it has the potential to be hugely rewarding.
Keep at it.
Conversations like these are the start of something. Not the conclusion. If you run the 5 Steps once and forget about them, you’ll have a nice time then drift right back to breaking point.
So here is our invitation. When you do reach the end, have a conversation about what you’ll do next. Design your own Step 6. Schedule it in the team calendar.
Make deep trust an active choice.
Your investors, your employees, and your clients will thank you for it.
The Team Rebuilding Toolkit
For the leaders of SMEs and startups, we’ve created a digital Team Rebuilding Toolkit with:
- 12 Training Videos.
- Step-by-step guides for 5 Team Building Workshops.
- All the Interactive Worksheets you need to run this process with your team.
- AND 1:1 Coaching Support in case you get stuck.
It’s everything you need to rebuild trust, alignment and commitment in your team, on a budget.
Recap: How to Build Trust In a Team in 5 Steps
Here’s how you rebuild deep trust in your team – trust that’s grounded in integrity, empathy, commitment and accountability:
- Understand your emotional baggage
- Talk through the lingering grievances as a group
- Distil what brings you together
- Imagine the ideal future of your team
- Explore the specifics of how you’ll work together