Humans have been teaming up since the dawn of our species. Our society revolves around the idea of working together to accomplish goals, whether these are teams of analysts working to promote national security, a team of students working on a class project, or a sports team. I’ve been on many teams over the years, some were terrible, and other ran like well-oiled machines. Every successful team I’ve ever been on had trust between the team members. Trust is the cornerstone of a team because all other aspects of a team functioning properly are built upon that foundation of trust. Whether you’re trusting one another to do your respective jobs, to respect each other’s ideas, to hold each other accountable for quality work, or trusting the team leader to lead the team to success, trust is the base of all things in a functioning team. This synthesis will cover the different aspects of trust in teams: 1) How trust between team members helps team members to openly challenge one another for the good of the team, 2) How trust between team members will create an environment in which all members will fully commit to team goals for the good of the group, 3) How trust fosters an environment where respective team members will hold one another accountable, 4) How trust between team members results in increased focus and higher quality team products, 5) Different ways that teams can work to build that trust between members, and 6) How a team leader that is building a team can help create that culture of trust and then maintain it through time. All together these topics will demonstrate how trust truly is the cornerstone of a successful team and how it’s possible to build and maintain that trust between team members.
We’ve all been in a situation where we were afraid to stand up and speak our minds. Sometimes we’re afraid to speak our minds because we’ll be seen as dumb or stupid. This could be as simple as an ego issue, or there could be important issues related to it. For example, being seen as stupid could result in some sort of financial or status consequence. Perhaps we won’t get that promotion at work or a pay raise next quarter. Other times we’re afraid to speak our minds because we’re afraid that the person who we’re challenging might take personal offense to us challenging their ideas (Robbins & Finlay, 2000). Under the wrong circumstances, this could result in retaliation by the offended person or perception throughout the team that you’re a bully for speaking out.
I remember when I was a young adult in high school I had to do a class project with another group of students who’d been randomly selected by the teacher. Early in the process we had to brainstorm together to figure out the exact topic for our group paper. The group was leaning toward an idea that I personally thought wasn’t a good one. The topic seemed too diffuse and difficult to define; I thought we were creating more work for ourselves than we needed to. Despite my misgivings I kept my thoughts to myself. I was afraid that the other kids would disagree with me and judge me. Unfortunately, I turned out to be correct. The topic we picked was a bad one; it resulted in a poor class project and a bad grade.
The example above is a bit silly, after all, it was just a high school project, but the concept is true in all teams. Failing to trust one another enough to challenge one another’s ideas is incredibly counterproductive to a team’s ultimate purpose. The identity of the purpose varies among teams, but every team has a singular purpose. Part of a team’s job is to work together to figure out the best way to achieve that purpose. This requires a complete and open exchange of ideas between team members when there are discussions taking place about planning. Each team member has valuable input and ideas, even the least talented member of the team may have a brilliant insight from time to time and it’s important that they trust the rest of the team to listen to their idea open and honestly. Likewise, team members must trust one another to the point where receiving criticisms of ideas from other team members won’t result in damaged ego or damaged pride. The team members must trust that all ideas exchanged, if negative ones, are being exchanged for the good of the team and that these are never personal attacks on one another. If a team is unable to achieve that level of trust then all interactions will be, to some extent, tainted by a lack of openness and an inability for the team to truly achieve its full potential (Lencioni, 2002).
When I worked as a commanding officer in the Army’s Military Police, there was a clear hierarchy between the different ranks. Despite the hierarchy, open exchange of ideas, in the appropriate venue, was always valued. Soldiers were given the opportunity to share thoughts with the commanding officers and fellow soldiers, and this in turn increased the efficiency and functioning capabilities of the unit.
Commitment to a team’s purpose can be tough to achieve. This can be because of distractions, ulterior motives, or a simple lack of motivation (Robbins & Finlay, 2000). Everyone has a number of different things going on their lives. Some of these things might be truly important, like having a baby or wanting to spend more time with your family. For teams that have members like these, they might place their personal lives first for an extended period, above the team. In other cases, members of a team might be working toward some goal that will further their own interests and may work against the team, such as switching to another team, or getting a promotion. Finally, being a member of a team doesn’t necessarily create a deep-seated desire to achieve the goals of the team. Team members may be on teams simply for status and prestige, in the case of a board of directors, or just for a paycheck (Lencioni, 2002). Participation in the bare minimum is enough for these people to be satisfied.
Speaking from personal experience, I was a bare minimum team member on a sports team. My parents had signed me up for soccer, which I had no interest in, but I was forced to show up to practices and games. During the games I played pretty well, but I never truly hustled. This was a result of a lack of deep-seated commitment to the purpose of the soccer team, to win. In adult situations, it’s unlikely that you’ll find someone who has joined the team because they were forced to by their parents. But it’s not uncommon to find people who are forced to for other reasons, such as financial necessity or spousal pressure. So how does trust fit in?
Trust allows team members to participate fully in the process of forming a team plan or team goal. When we participate fully in a plan then we begin to take ownership of that plan. Each team member who trusts their team mates enough to fully participate, is, in effect, buying into the team and its purpose. Once you, as an individual, have placed your mark and your stamp of approval on the plan of a team, you now have a vested interest in committing to that plan because it’s your plan too. Achieving that sort of buy in among team members is only possible if the initial trust is there to get team members to open up and participate in the planning process (Lencioni, 2002). In the soccer example from earlier, perhaps if I’d been brought into the planning process for plays or position selection, if I’d been consulted in any way, I’d probably have had a more positive experience and committed more during the games. Instead, I felt I was being bossed around, and so I did as little as possible to fulfill my obligations to the team, without ever going above and beyond those minimum requirements.
If you’re a member of a team and you see that one of the other team members isn’t doing something they should be doing, it is in the best interest of the team that you step up and directly address the situation. This is holding the other person accountable for their actions. If the environment is such that team members don’t feel comfortable doing that, then counterproductive or inefficient behavior will continue to occur. Over time this works against the ultimate goal of the team, which is to achieve that singular purpose.
Years ago, I personally worked as a door to door salesperson selling satellite and internet plans. I was in charge of a team of three salespersons. Our singular goal was to meet and exceed sales quotas and make money. While individual sales figures were important for individual salaries, as a team we also received group bonuses for good selling among the salespersons. It was in our best interest to work together and all have great sales. My salespeople ranged in talent from an individual who could have sold ice to Eskimos, to a person who just didn’t have the confidence and gift of gab to be a great seller. The poor seller didn’t just lack confidence; they often incorporated poor selling tactics. They failed to make customers feel comfortable. I did my best to help when I observed this behavior, but often I wasn’t physically there, so it was up to the other salesmen to hold the bad seller accountable for their actions. The united purpose helped sharpen their focus, and the good salespeople helped the bad seller overcome some of their issues. Ultimately this wasn’t altruistic behavior; this was for the good of the group. The fact that they were all friends and trusted one another made it easy to hold each other accountable for their actions and not take it personally when they offered constructive criticism.
In many ways this is similar to the earlier concept about trust allowing for an equal and free exchange of ideas. When team members trust one another, and trust that they are all working toward that common purpose, there is little fear that criticisms are simply designed to undermine one another. Instead, team members can freely challenge each other when they feel they aren’t pulling their weight in some way. If the trust between team members isn’t there, then members will fear that they’re going to offend someone or be the recipient of some sort of retaliatory act resulting from hurt feelings.
As stated above, teams exist to serve some type of purpose. Some of the examples I’ve already given include winning a game, selling more products, or producing some sort of assignment. The success of the team is measured by the quality of that the final product. Were the goals met? Was it a winning season? Did the team sell enough internet accounts to reach the monthly quota? Did the group get an A on their assignment? These are how we measure the success of the team, but do the individual members of the team want the team to succeed?
It may seem silly, but just because you’re a member of team doesn’t necessarily mean that you care that the team is successful. As mentioned above, team membership can be a result of status or a result of necessity. So how can a team achieve a situation where all of the individual team members have first and foremost, the team’s overall success as their individual goals?
Financial incentive is probably the first idea that comes to mind. In my days as a salesperson, the incentives for the group to sell at or above the monthly quotas lead to bonuses for everyone. In some industries the financial incentive is everything. Car dealerships subsist on monthly quotas to the point where they will sell cars at a loss to meet the quota. But this cannot always be effective. People aren’t motivated by just finance; we have deep seated needs that transcend money.
When the team members trust one another, they share ideas in the developing strategy. This results in a complete buying into the ideas by all team members (Lencioni, 2002). The buy in, or ownership, among team members creates a strong bond of trust in one another that results in increased attention to detail, holding one another accountable, and ultimately producing a better final product. One great example of a company that really fosters this environment without financial incentive is Southwest Airlines (Novak, 2012).
Southwest Airlines has the motto “Happy employees = Happy Customers. Happy customers keep Southwest Flying”. The company has grown every year for the past 37 years. They have the lowest job turnover of any airline. On average, they receive 60 applications per own position. Despite all of this success, desire to work there, and employee fidelity Southwest doesn’t pay more than other airlines. In fact, in many cases it actually pays less (Novak, 2012). Despite the lack of a financial incentive the employees want to work there, they love working there, and they put all of the effort in helping the airline succeed. The members of the Southwest team are valued, their ideas are respected, the focus is on the team experience as an employee, and together they have a great time while also producing a great outcome, a wildly successful airline.
In retrospect, this is true of the great teams that I’ve personally been a part of. Being a part of a successful team feels great. This is not just because the end goal gets achieved, but because the team itself is a fun and positive thing to be a part of. That positive dynamic and shared responsibility in achieving success simply is not possible if the members of the team don’t trust one another.
Building trust among team members doesn’t have to be difficult. There is a long history of different types of team building exercises within a corporate framework. The major ways are activities where team members get to know one another, working to increase the clarity of communication between team members, and activities outside of normal team activities. All of these things have the same fundamental goal, showing team members that they can rely on another other and are able to be open and honest with each other.
In many team environments the people know little or nothing about one another. When you don’t know the person you’re working with, it’s easy to depersonalize them. Lencion recommends that simply getting everyone to sit around a table and share a personal detail of some sort, maybe they’re favorite food, or favorite sports team, is enough to start that process (2002). Once the process starts it gets easier and easier to share with one another and get to know each other better. This in turn will help foster trust.
Communication is another important part of building trust between members of a group. Not just the simple act of communicating, but also learning how to communicate. Often two people will speak with one another and neither will actually hear what the other person is saying (Dizazzo, 1997). In fact, they might not even be saying what they mean! Without effective communication it isn’t possible to build trust, so team members need to work on focusing their message, communicating clearly, and just as important, listening with clarity to ensure that they understand their team members (Dizazzo, 1997). That type of communication will also contribute to the building of trust between team members.
Getting outside of the normal team setting and working on something is another way that members of a team can build trust with one another. Everyone is probably familiar with things like trust falls or high ropes courses. These types of activities are designed to put the team into a different situation where they will work together and forge trust between one another. The hope is that this trust will remain when the team returns to normal team activities. Lencioni cautions that these aren’t always effective as a trust building exercise (2002), however, in my personal experience I’ve found these types of team building exercises to really help forge trust among team members through shared experience. It’s possible that this technique is more effective after some earlier team trust building exercises have occurred.
If the team has a leader then it is really up to the leader to foster the trust between team members that results in a successful team (Hobbs, 2009). The team leader can help organize and encourage the type of activities that are discussed in the previous section. Beyond that, the team leader can lead by example. Some leaders feel like they always have to be right, or refuse to show weakness, this is a big mistake. When it comes to sharing ideas, the team leader must be willing to be just as open and honest with their ideas as any other member of the team. Importantly, they need to be willing to be legitimately wrong in front of subordinates and admit that they are wrong when they are challenged by another teammate. By doing this the team leader helps create that culture where it’s okay to trust one another not to jump on signs of weakness.
The team leader can reward team members for behavior that further fosters that environment of trust and chastise those that appear to be undermining trust among teammates. If a teammate is refusing the respect the ideas of others, then it is the responsibility of the leader to fix it. Likewise, a teammate who is having trouble trusting the team will need more encouragement from the team leader to open up.
A team leader can also create trust in the team by working to serve the team purpose and the team members (McNair, 2009). A good team leader can show the team that the team purpose is just as important to them, perhaps more so, than it is to individual team members. Some of this is accomplished by the leader being equally open and honest as other team members when planning. The team will then see that the team leader has an equal ownership of the plans of the team. By doing so, the team leader is demonstrating that the team purpose is worthwhile. The team leader can further support this by serving the needs of the individual team members to ensure they are able to perform their respective duties to the best of their abilities (McNair, 2009). In doing so the team leader isn’t bossing the team around, instead the team is acting as a support system for the hard work that the leader is doing. The leader is putting the efficiency of the team above their own ego or goals. This again creates a trust between team members that they can count on the team leader and that their work is valuable.
In conclusion, a team that is built on a foundation of trust is more likely to be successful than one where the team members don’t trust each other. Trust allows team members to open up and freely share ideas without fear of being judged or offending others in the team. When everyone is contributing to the team effort in this way, everyone buys into the team and therefore has a vested interested in seeing the group be successful. Trust further allows team members to hold each other accountable for their actions in the same way that trust allows for open communication. All of this together results in a greater attention to detail and a better work ethic as a group, resulting in a successful team. The leader of the team can help facilitate a culture of trust by leading by example, by showing that the group’s purpose is worthwhile, and by creating opportunities for trust building. Building a great team means building a trusting team.
DiZazzo, R. (1997). Saying the right thing: the four secrets of powerful communication: a business parable. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks.
Hobbs, P. (2009). Project management. New York, N.Y.: DK Pub..
Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: a leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
McNair, F. (2009). The golden rules for managers: 119 incredible lessons for leadership success. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks.
Novak, D. (2012). Taking people with you: the only way to make big things happen. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
Robbins, H., & Finley, M. (2000). The new why teams don't work: what goes wrong and how to make it right. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.