What It Takes to Build Trust On a Team

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Oct 23, 2018

Early in my career, I believed that exceptional individual skills and hard work were the only qualities anyone needed in order to succeed. Experience quickly showed me I was wrong.

At the time, I had a strong friendship with one of my co-workers. I admired her intellect and strong work ethic. But our working relationship was never as solid as it should’ve been because she and our whole team suffered from a lack of trust: The team members sensed she didn’t trust them; they, in turn, didn’t trust her. As a result, we struggled to reach our fullest potential as a team.

Trust creates a psychological safe zone where team members can collaborate without fear of judgment. On our team, that safe zone existed only in some team relationships; it was conspicuously absent in others. That prevented us from leveraging our collective wisdom to tackle critical issues, many of which came back to haunt us down the road.

A lack of trust across the team is especially harmful during challenging times. In our case, an unexpected and unavoidable catastrophe threatened the success of a major project. Rather than pulling together, however, individual team members became overly territorial, even hostile to others. Because of this division, we were not able to reduce expenses as quickly as we needed to during a time of unexpected losses.

Improving communication might seem like an overly general or simplistic solution, but it carries enormous power in strengthening rapport and building meaningful connections. To leverage that power, consider these four communication tips that will help you build the strongest team possible:

1. Listen to everyone like you care as much about their issues as you do your own

I’ve been the beneficiary of working with a handful of great listeners during my career. By watching how they listened — asking questions that encouraged us to share more — and learning from their ability to build relationships and collaboratively solve problems, I improved my own effectiveness as a team member and leader.

Active listening and being receptive to your colleagues’ ideas encourages openness and begins to create trust. Practice active listening by paying attention to your co-worker’s word choice, tone of voice, and body language; by working to understand the points he or she makes by restating those points; by deferring judgment until you’ve heard it all; by asking clarifying questions and responding appropriately; and by retaining what’s told to you. Your openness and understanding will encourage others to consider your opinions and ideas as fairly as you consider theirs.

2. Agree to disagree constructively

Disagreement is both an unavoidable aspect of life and an important part of effective communication among individuals and groups. When I was a CEO, I appreciated most the vice president who was willing to respectfully speak up and challenge me when he thought I was wrong or missing a key perspective on an issue. It’s dangerous for a leader to be surrounded with yes-men and -women who agree with everything the boss says; it threatens the team’s ability to foresee challenges that will diminish future success. When shared constructively, opposing ideas can lead to a better understanding of the issue at hand and better solutions than any single suggestion made by either side.

To disagree more agreeably, set some ground rules for difficult discussions that help participants avoid laying blame. For example, try identifying a point of agreement, expanding on why you agree, and adding suggestions to expand or improve upon the ideas you’re discussing.

3. Err on the side of confidentiality

Breaking a colleague’s confidence might not violate any official rules, but it certainly violates all principles of trust. Nothing harms a relationship more than inappropriately sharing information that should be kept private. With nearly two-thirds of workplace chatter being gossip about other colleagues, employees perceive any unauthorized sharing as talk that’s negatively evaluating them.

That’s why, even if the information-sharing seems harmless, the violation can cause others to question your trustworthiness and motives and your overall esteem for them. Always keep sensitive information to yourself unless you have received explicit permission to share it.

4. Be honest, even when you disagree

Honesty might sound like an overly simple piece of advice, but it’s truly at the heart of building effective personal and professional relationships. Don’t share everything — see the point above — but when you’re presented with a straightforward, reasonable question, answer it truthfully, even if you know your opinion might be different from your colleague’s.

That includes admitting when you don’t know the answer or when you’re not at liberty to share certain facts or data. The first step is being honest with yourself about your knowledge, feelings, and boundaries. Take responsibility for your feelings and tell the truth if you’ve made a mistake. Modeling honest behavior will promote honesty within the team, which will increase trust and, ultimately, productivity.

The goal of a working team is to get things done in a way that best supports your organization and customers. As many of my former team members have taught me, trust and respect are at the heart of good working relationships. Without those relationship building blocks, you won’t be able to reach that goal.