Trust in Teams: Building Unity and Avoiding Pitfalls

Saturday morning.

While seated and having my morning coffee, I tended to look at my past week for alternative ways of achieving the same or better outcomes. Sometimes, I need help finding any particular event that deserves this time slot, but this week was different. I had a couple of events with the same topic – Trust.

After more than two decades in the workforce, I have seen the constructive power of trust and the destructive power of lack of it. In almost common sense, people state that trust is a vital building block of team dynamics and good team health. And yet, I’ve seen some of those same people collapsing to pressure in such ways that power struggles and gimmicks came into play and eroded the trust that was once in place.

Building trust is easy. Losing trust is even easier. However, regaining trust is probably one of the most difficult tasks. Trust is a delicate commodity, and its absence can unravel the tightest of teams, leading to miscommunication, conflict, and a decline in morale and productivity. The catalyst for a team’s demise, lack of trust introduces an undercurrent of suspicion and dissonance, undermining the very foundations of collaboration and team spirit.

In this article, I intend to delve into the intricacies of trust in team dynamics, exploring how it solidifies teams and how its absence can lead to their downfall. I will also discuss practical strategies for building, maintaining, and restoring trust in teams, ensuring that your team can harness the full power of this critical component for success.

How do you define Trust in a team context?

In a team setting, trust is the assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something. I do appreciate this definition. It’s the foundation upon which the team’s interaction, collaboration, and success are built. Trust within a team means that members have confidence in each other’s capabilities and intentions, believe in the reliability of their peers, and feel safe to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns without fear of retribution.

Using this definition, we can rely on fundamental elements to create Trust.

Trust thrives in an environment where there is open and honest communication. Team members need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, giving and receiving feedback, and discussing their challenges. So, Openness and Transparency are needed.

Trust is built when actions are predictable and reliable. Team members must follow through on their commitments and act invariably over time. Humans don’t fancy change that must, so Consistency is the keyword here.

We need to depend on each other. When people say they will do something, they need to do it. This builds a sense of Reliability and trust among the team.

Integrity is crucial to building trust. This means honesty, keeping one’s promises, and adhering to ethical principles.

Trust requires Mutual Respect among team members. This includes valuing each other’s input, acknowledging each other’s strengths, and showing appreciation for each other’s contributions.

In sum, the elements necessary for trust are Openness, Transparency, Consistency, Reliability, Integrity and Mutual Respect.

We can reference the book “Speed of Trust” for some good examples of trust in action.

In his book, Stephen M.R. Covey highlights the example of Southwest Airlines as a prime example of trust in action. The company’s leadership has fostered a culture of trust, resulting in a loyal customer base, dedicated employees, and impressive financial performance.

We have another excellent example in Toyota. Toyota’s commitment to transparency and continuous improvement has helped it build trust internally and with its customers. Covey points out how Toyota’s swift response to quality issues, including public apologies and comprehensive recalls, helped maintain customer trust even in difficult times.

In Life-or-death moments, we also find some excellent examples of Trust in action. NASA’s Apollo 13 Mission is a good example. You don’t need to read all NASA reports. It is enough watching the 1995 flick with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Bill Paxson, Gary Sinise and many more movie stars. The Apollo 13 mission is a testament to the power of trust in critical situations. The astronauts trusted the ground team to develop a solution to bring them back safely, and the ground team trusted the astronauts to execute the plan meticulously.

These examples underscore the pivotal role trust plays in team success. They show how trust can lead to better collaboration, increased innovation, and outstanding performance.

Trust as the Glue

Trust is often called the glue that holds teams together because it creates a secure foundation for all team interactions. It turns a group of individuals into a cohesive unit, working towards a common goal.

Trust has a multi-faceted role in solidifying team cohesion and fostering open communication, collaboration, and a positive work environment.

When trust is present in a team, members feel safe to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. Trust encourages open communication. They are not afraid of being judged, dismissed, or punished for their honesty. This level of openness leads to richer discussions, more innovative ideas, and better decision-making. For instance, Google’s Project Aristotle, a study on team effectiveness, found that psychological safety, a state in which team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other, was the most important factor in creating high-performing teams. The teams that felt safe and trusted each other outperformed others, even if they were made up of individuals with exceptional skills.

Trust is the fuel that powers the process of collaboration. Collaboration thrives in a trustful environment. Collaboration is about working together towards a common goal. In a trustful environment, team members are willing to share their skills and knowledge, confident that their contributions will be valued and utilised. They are also more open to receiving help and feedback, recognising that it is offered to improve the team’s overall performance. A great example of this is the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit American academic medical center focused on integrated clinical practice, education, and research. The organization fosters a culture of trust and collaboration, which has been key to its success. Team members work together seamlessly, sharing knowledge and resources to provide the best patient care possible. This collaborative environment has made Mayo Clinic one of the most respected and successful healthcare institutions in the world.

A positive work environment is not just about perks and benefits; it is about creating an atmosphere where employees feel valued, appreciated, and trusted. Positive work environment is a byproduct of trust. Trust plays a crucial role in this, as it creates a supportive and encouraging atmosphere. Employees in a trustful environment are more likely to be engaged, motivated, and committed to their work. They are also more resilient in the face of challenges, knowing that they have the support of their team. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is a prime example of how trust can create a positive work environment. The company empowers its employees to go above and beyond to satisfy customers, trusting them to make decisions that are in the best interest of the customer and the company. This trust has not only led to outstanding customer service but has also created a work environment where employees feel empowered, valued, and part of something bigger than themselves.

Many more examples could be found in the corporation world. Trust is indeed the invisible glue that binds teams together, creating an environment where open communication, collaboration, and positivity thrive. It turns a group of individuals into a unified team, working together towards a common goal. The examples of Google, Mayo Clinic, and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company demonstrate that when trust is present, teams can achieve extraordinary results.

Considering that you are convinced, which strategies can we apply to work in that direction?

Trust Building Strategies

Trust doesn’t happen overnight. It must be cultivated through consistent actions and a commitment to a transparent and supportive culture. Let us dive into some practical strategies that teams can implement to build and strengthen trust.

  • Encourage team members to communicate openly and honestly. Create transparent communication channels and ensure every team member has a voice. Emphasise the importance of sharing not just successes but also challenges and failures. This creates a culture of honesty and encourages team members to speak up without fear of retribution.
  • Ensure that actions match words. Consistency is key. Consistency in behaviour and in following through on commitments is crucial. When team members see that their peers and leaders are reliable, it fosters a sense of trust.
  • Leaders should lead by example and show vulnerability. Admitting when one doesn’t have all the answers or acknowledging mistakes, humanises leaders and makes them more relatable. This, in turn, fosters trust and encourages other team members to also be open about their vulnerabilities.
  • Take the time to build personal relationships within the team. Encourage team bonding activities and informal interactions. Understanding each other on a personal level helps in breaking down barriers, and fosters trust.
  • Regularly recognise and appreciate the efforts and contributions of team members. Recognition fosters positivity and shows team members that their hard work is valued, building trust in the process.
  • Create a culture of constructive feedback. Encourage team members to give and receive feedback positively and productively. This helps in personal and professional development and builds trust as it shows commitment to each other’s growth.

We play, as Leaders, a crucial role in building trust within a team. We need to set the tone and create an environment where trust can flourish. This means being transparent, showing integrity, and being consistent in our actions. Leaders should also be approachable, actively listen to our team members, and show that we genuinely care about their well-being. By doing so, leaders can foster a sense of trust and safety within the team, paving the way for stronger cohesion and improved performance.

But the game does not start and stops in the leadership realm. Our team members also have a part in this play. Here are some quick tips and techniques for our team members to follow:

  • Be Reliable: Follow through on your commitments and be reliable. If you say you’re going to do something, make sure you do it.
  • Actively Listen: Show genuine interest in what your teammates have to say. Practice active listening and make sure they feel heard and understood.
  • Be Positive: Maintain a positive attitude, even in challenging situations. Positivity is contagious and helps in creating a supportive and trustful environment.

After all, implementing these strategies does not seem something hard to attain. In fostering an environment of trust, teams can unlock their full potential, leading to improved collaboration, innovation, and overall performance. Trust is the bedrock of team cohesion, and with the proper practices in place, it can be built and sustained for long-term success. But what seems reasonably easy to build is even easier to lose. Leaders or team members must always be aware of our actions to nurture a trustworthy environment.

The Rapid Demise of Trust

Trust is a delicate social construct. Once it starts unravelling, it can rapidly decline team dynamics, affecting productivity, morale, and cohesion. So, what are the consequences of a lack of trust within a team?

Without trust, team cohesion crumbles. Members begin to operate in silos, unwilling to share information or collaborate. This hampers the flow of communication and creates a divisive environment where misunderstandings and conflicts become frequent.

This leads to a decline in productivity, where leaders feel the need to oversee every detail of their team’s work, aka micromanagement. This oppressive atmosphere hampers creativity, slows decision-making, and ultimately results in a significant decline in productivity.

And what happens when team members feel they aren’t trusted? Their engagement and morale plummet. They become disenchanted with their work, leading to a lack of motivation and decreased performance. The loss of employee morale becomes a reality. And what happens when the morale is low? Well, I know how I react when it occurs to me. I “leave the building”.

And in my two decades of work experience, I have seen this happen more than once. So, a lack of trust results in a drop in job satisfaction. And when people are not happy, that leads to higher turnover rates. As I initially said, this trust issue seems logical and common sense.

Examples of Teams Disintegrating Due to Lack of Trust

Perhaps one of the most infamous examples of trust disintegration is the case of Enron. The lack of transparency, unethical practices, and deceitful leadership eroded trust both within the company and with the public. The result was not just the collapse of the company but also the loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars.

Another example is Nokia‘s decline from its position as a world leader in mobile phones. Internal competition, lack of transparent communication, and an atmosphere of distrust led to resistance to change and a failure to adapt to market shifts, eventually resulting in Nokia’s downfall in the mobile phone industry.

And we can forget that Volkswagen’s emission scandal is a stark reminder of how a breach of trust can have severe consequences. The company’s decision to cheat on emissions tests and deceive both regulators and customers shattered trust, leading to billions in fines, a damaged reputation, and a decline in employee morale.

We can learn from these examples that employees spend more time covering their tracks and less time on productive work in a trust-deficient environment. Innovation is stifled, as team members are reluctant to share ideas for fear of criticism or theft. The team’s overall energy is drained, leading to a significant drop in productivity.

The ever-present fear of criticism or theft breads a toxic work environment. Scepticism and negativity will become the norm. Employees feel undervalued and unappreciated. The morale drops to the lowest levels possible, following the engagement gauger. This hostile and antagonistic atmosphere can also spill over into their personal lives, affecting their overall well-being.

I have seen this happen once during a whole year when some colleagues’ mental health collapsed. It was a tough time. And during that period, it was easy to understand that the “team” was a bunch of people working in the same place. Communication broke, conflicts arose, and camaraderie was lost, resulting in a disjointed and ineffective team. If trust is the glue that binds a team together, the lack of it will allow people to be “each one for themselves”.

Rebuilding Trust

Trust once broken, to rebuild it is a daunting endeavour. Build Trust the first time, people are on the positive side and almost everyone will give a safe permit to see what will happen. But once lost, insecurity, doubt, distrust, and disbelief are all words that appear in the mind without much effort.

That is why rebuilding trust is a daunting task. And yet, it is vital. It will require commitment, transparency, and time.

Strategies for Rebuilding Trust

The first step in rebuilding trust is acknowledging that it has been broken. Avoidance or denial will only exacerbate the issue. Address the big white elephant in the room. Leaders and team members must be willing to confront the problem head-on and commit to rebuilding trust.

Create a safe space for open and honest communication. Encourage team members to express their feelings, concerns, and perspectives. This level of transparency is crucial for understanding the trust breakdown’s root causes and moving forward.

If the breakdown in trust was due to specific actions or decisions, it’s imperative that those responsible apologise and accept accountability. A sincere apology can go a long way in mending relationships and showing commitment to change.

Well, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. So, apologies must be followed by concrete actions. Develop a clear plan to address the issues that led to the trust breakdown and work diligently to implement it. Show consistency in your efforts; rebuilding trust requires time and demonstrated change.

And the time it will take. Rebuilding trust doesn’t happen overnight. I can’t express this enough. Rebuilding trust takes way more time than building it the first time. So be prepared for a lengthy process and remain committed despite slow progress. Trust is rebuilt through consistent and positive behaviour over time. Be patient.

And to keep the momentum going, acknowledge and celebrate progress, no matter how small. This helps to reinforce positive behaviour, boost morale, and show that the efforts to rebuild trust are making a difference.

Despite this challenging task, there are good examples of successful stories where trust was broken and recovered.

In 2008, Starbucks faced declining customer trust and satisfaction. The company responded by closing all its stores for a day of employee training, reinforcing its commitment to quality and customer service. This bold move, along with a renewed focus on employee engagement and customer experience, helped to rebuild trust and ultimately contributed to the company’s resurgence. You can read Howard Schultz’s letters addressing his plan to his partners (1, 2,3).

Back in the 1980s, Tylenol (Johnson & Johnson) faced a crisis when seven people died after taking its capsules, which had been tampered with. Johnson & Johnson swiftly pulled 31 million bottles of Tylenol off the shelves and introduced tamper-proof packaging. Their transparent and customer-first response helped to rebuild trust in the brand quickly. This response became a Crisis-Management Teaching Model.

Rebuilding trust is a challenging but crucial process. It requires a commitment to transparency, accountability, and consistent positive behaviour. With the strategies shared above and drawing inspiration from success stories like Starbucks and Johnson & Johnson, I can reassure you that it is possible to regain the once-built trust.

In conclusion, it is undeniable that Trust stands out as the fundamental pillar supporting the architecture of any successful team. The key takeaways from this exploration are clear. Trust acts as the adhesive that binds a team, creating a cohesive unit capable of extraordinary accomplishments. It requires careful cultivation, consistent actions, and a commitment to transparency. However, it is also fragile and capable of rapid erosion when mishandled, leading to diminished productivity, low morale, and disintegration of team cohesion.

Though a formidable challenge, building trust is possible with patience, sincere efforts, and a transparent approach. It demands acknowledging issues, open communication, and consistent positive actions over time. From real-world examples, we learned that teams can emerge from crises stronger and with renewed bonds of trust.

It does not matter if you are a Leader or a Team Member. The imperative is clear – prioritise trust. Invest in its growth, protect it diligently, and you will have laid the foundations for a team that is not just successful but also resilient, innovative, and unbreakably united. Keep that faith in people and humanity.

Yours truly,

Ricardo Castelhano

Short Reading List About Trust:

  • Covey, S. M. R. (2006). The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. Free Press. – Covey’s work on trust provides invaluable insights into how trust operates and how it can be built and restored within teams. His practical examples and frameworks have been referenced to illustrate key points in this blog post.
  • Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Bass. – Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction highlights the critical role of trust in team dynamics, providing a foundational perspective for our discussion.
  • Bissonette, M., & Maurer, K. (2012). No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden. Dutton Penguin. – Bissonette, a former member of Seal Team 6, provides an in-depth and firsthand account of the team dynamics, trust, and cohesion that were crucial to the success of their high-stakes missions.
  • Willink, J., & Babin, L. (2015). Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. St. Martin’s Press.