Trust: the final frontier for high performing teams

No doubt you have often heard friends or colleagues say, “I can’t put my finger on it, but I just can’t trust her” or “You either trust your colleagues or you don’t – it’s as simple as that.” Trust is everywhere but nowhere; we know we need it but we can’t quite define it. Trust permeates all aspects of our lives from our role in society, our political outlook, our attitude to our employers and our personal relationships.  Recent years have shown a deterioration in trust across a wide range of contexts and sectors from the media through to big business and political institutions; this has been highlighted in the annual Edelman Trust Barometer which measures levels of trust across sectors, geographies and according to demographics.

The Edelman 2019 results show the continued importance of trust between employees and their organisations.  While people may not trust business, media and political bodies at large, they are more inclined to trust their own employer – both in terms of doing what is right within the wider community but also for them within the organisation itself.  Trusted employers benefit from employees that are motivated, innovative, productive and less likely to move on to another organisation.  Trusted employees feel valued and empowered to work in a meaningful way and achieve the best results they can. 

8 out of 10 employees report that a high level of trust inside an organisation fosters both innovation and investment in new projects.

Interaction Associates

Employees are increasingly expected to do more with less and interdependencies between and within teams means the need for trust is crucial in today’s workplace.  In global organisations, international teams don’t always have the luxury of sitting together, sharing a coffee break or socialising after work; a lack of visibility can make it even harder to build and demonstrate trust. For some managers that ‘lack of control’ or oversight can be challenging, but if they can foster a sense of two-way trust with their direct reports and learn to manage without micro-managing they can moved their team from disengagement or fragmentation towards high performance.

‘Easier said than done’, you may be thinking. Trust is an abstract term and numerous research projects have shown that trust is a complex concept made up of different components. 

  • Interculturalists, such as Erin Myer, working with global organisations divide trust into two distinct forms: affective or cognitive or, in other words, heart-based or head-based trust.   People from what are termed as ‘task-based’ cultures such as the US, the UK, Germany and The Netherlands will focus on reliability, competence and skills to measure someone’s trustworthiness.  People from more ‘relationship-based’ cultures are more likely to need a personal connection and emotional closeness. How we build trust across cultures depends on the preferences of our partners.
  • Recent research from the Harvard Business Review identified three elements of trust: relationships, consistency and expertise.  They found that where leaders score highly on these skills not only are they seen as more trustworthy by their people, they are also seen as more effective leaders.
  • The Trusted Advisor, in their Trust Equation, defines trustworthiness as a combination of credibility, reliability and intimacy together with low levels of self-orientation.

Interestingly, what has become clear is that even for those of us from ‘task-based cultures’ it is the interpersonal element of trust, the intimacy or relationship component that has been found to be most vital for building trustworthiness.  In other words, to be able to trust someone we need to feel safe and know that the other person understands us over and above knowing that they can do a good job. ‘Walking the talk is important’ but so is connecting with your colleagues at a human level.

Relationships seem to matter more than judgment or consistency

Harvard Business Review

Managers need to understand that strong relationships are a crucial part of trust but also to be aware that individual team members may require different qualities and behaviours to trust their leaders and colleagues depending on their personal and cultural preferences. But what, in practical terms, can leaders and managers do to generate trust within their teams?

  • Share thought processes on important issues and involve the team in decision- making
  • Create clear and transparent methods of working; communication protocols and team charters can be helpful
  • Regularly remind the team of their shared purpose and goals
  • Show interest and stay in touch on the personal concerns of team members
  • Celebrate success as a team but give constructive feedback individually
  • Show your vulnerability: admit mistakes and knowledge gaps
  • Deal with conflict quickly and fairly
  • Identify development opportunities and invest time and energy in learning and support
  • Listen and respond to feedback from the team
  • Create opportunities for social interactions within the team

At LSIC, we work with WorldWork’s Team Trust Indicator to help teams to measure levels of trust and then identify and resolve any trust gaps. Find out more about our workshops here.


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