How to build trust in teams

9 November 2019  |  Richard Mayson

Trust matters. 

Within teams, trust is the most consequential factor according to the seminal work by Patrick Lencioni on “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Trust is also a good synonym for that buzzword Engagement. Ask members of a team how much they trust their boss and it will give you a good idea of how ‘engaged’ they are. Trust is the first hurdle. Without trust, progression to any further stage of team development is unlikely.

For example, having a willingness to debate differing points of view is much more likely to do damage (rather than good) if there is an absence of trust. And since it is a certainty that humans will have differing points of view and debate, without trust, reaching an optimum conclusion is compromised. Most people have had some experience of a boss, manager or colleague whom they did not trust. It is hard to build (or be part of) a high performing team when you lack a belief that those around you mean what they say and say what they mean.

So what?

In a recent Deloitte paper “Global Human Capital Trends” they identify that almost half of the 7,000 executives from 130 countries said they were either restructuring or planning to. This puts a massive emphasis on working in teams in a transient manner until a project is delivered. The challenge then, for many managers is “how do I build the levels of trust within my team needed to deliver this project?

DNA of effective teams

We can look to a cool piece of recent research by Thomas Malone from MIT who set out to identify the salient features of teams who proved exceptional at collective problem-solving. They identified three distinguishing features.

  1. Times-Up – They found that team members had roughly equal talking time. Contributions were evenly distributed amongst the team, no free-riders and no autocrats
  2. Plugged In – Individuals within the successful teams were found to have higher average levels of Empathy (an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes). They were more attentive and aware of the emotional states of their peers.
  3. Less Y chromosomes – The best groups included more women. Coincidence? Probably not as the researchers posited an explanation that women have higher levels of empathy than men.

So what should you do? Hire more women with high levels of empathy who balance listening with speaking? That is unrealistic and idealistic but can surely give Managers something to be wary of when creating teams for projects.

In a great article by Margaret Heffernan on building trust in teams, she explains that the best teams have high levels of social capital. Meaning that the people within these teams feel safe, are happy with the vigour of debate and share casual corridor conversations about their personal lives. In the study they tracked this in banks, hospitals and call centres. They found that as social capital grows, the more people spend it. The more you trust your teammates and share, the more it increases.

Some Simple Things Teams Can Do To Build Trust

1) Down tools – Create opportunities during the working week (informally or formally) where people have the opportunity to talk about things other than work, share personal stories and build social capital. Word to the wise, this process is undermined if the leaders themselves abscond from it.

2) No casual hiring – Get some expert advice about how to achieve the right balance of personalities and skills in your teams. Regularly people are hired into companies or teams using very unscientific and risky hiring procedures – “firm handshake, plays rugby, he’ll do“. You laugh but it is true. 

3) “A good pain in the ass” – Encourage your people to question everything: at every level. The above phrase was shared with me by Ben Hunt-Davies with regard his time as an Olympic Rowing gold medal winner. Everyone in their 8-man team understood the value in having people in the squad who dared to disagree and were comfortable asking awkward questions. They called one individual “the good pain in the ass” because his contributions ensured they were not making assumptions or being complacent. 

For further reading on this topic, try Patrick Lencioni, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” or Simon Sinek “Leaders Eat Last”