Growing up playing sports, coaching my kids’ sports teams, and being a sports fan in general has taught me numerous lessons about life and leadership. A few that standout are the value of setting goals and working to achieve them, persevering through failure, and the importance of everyone knowing their role and working together to make the team successful.
However, the most important lesson I’ve learned about being part of a successful team, or leading one, is the need for trust. Great teams thrive on trust (click to tweet).
It doesn’t matter if it’s a sports team, a military team, a work team, or any other kind of team, the best teams have developed a high-level of trust among team members to the point that each individual knows they can count on each other to do their part. If someone is falling short or needs help, another team member will be there to fill the gap.
But how do you build that kind of trust in a team? Well, it doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentional focus and effort. It also doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and shared experiences for people to bond with one another. It’s the team leader’s job to structure the team and its environment in a way that allows trust to flourish.
Here are five strategies leaders can use to build high-trust teams:
1. Hire and develop great team members—You may be asking what this has to do with trust. Well, any leader will tell you that the team is only as great as its members. Team members need to be competent in their roles and dependable in their performance if they’re going to be trusted by their fellow team members. Of course, the best option is to recruit and hire top performers, but even if you can’t afford to pay top-tier talent, you can still train and develop team members to perform their best in their specific roles. As Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great points out, it’s not just about getting the right people on the bus, but getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.
2. Teach them about trust—One of the truths about trust is that it’s based on perceptions. My perception of what constitutes a trustworthy team member is likely different from your perception. Differing perceptions among team members is why it’s critical to establish a common definition of trust. I’m a proponent of using the ABCD framework as the “language” of trust. ABCD is an acronym that describes trustworthy team members. A team member can be trusted if he is Able (demonstrates competence), Believable (acts with integrity), Connected (cares about others), and Dependable (honors commitments). Having a common language of trust allows team members to identify actions that will build trust, and to discuss low-trust actions in an objective, behaviorally focused manner.
3. Have clear roles and expectations—One of the primary ways mistrust develops in a team is a lack of focus and clarity on the team’s purpose, goals, and roles of its members. This causes team members to step on each other’s toes and question each other’s motives. It drags down their morale and productivity and fosters disengagement. High-trust teams are crystal clear on their purpose and goals, each other’s roles on the team, and how they work together to make the team a success. A team charter provides this clarity from the get-go. Whether it’s a temporary ad-hoc team or a permanent, operational team, a team charter details the purpose of the team, the roles of team members, behavioral norms of how team members relate to each other, and how they’ll make decisions. A team charter functions like banks for a river. It provides direction and boundaries for the team to operate and channels their energy toward their goals. A river without banks is just a large puddle, and without a team charter, teams flounder and their productivity wanes.
4. Create an environment of psychological safety—Psychological safety describes an individual’s perceptions about the consequences of taking interpersonal risks in their work environment. It consists of taken-for-granted beliefs about how others will respond when one puts oneself on the line, such as asking a question, seeking feedback, reporting a mistake, or proposing a new idea. A safe environment cultivates trust because it allows team members to take risks and potentially fail without fear of punishment. If team members fear the consequences of being vulnerable, they will withhold their trust from others and won’t put themselves at risk to help their teammates. Team leaders set the tone when it comes to creating a safe environment. By role modeling vulnerability, authenticity, admitting their own mistakes, and treating team member errors as learning moments rather than opportunities for punishment, the leader gives permission for team members to do the same.
5. Let them experience challenges together—Part of astronaut training at NASA includes experiencing 7 to 10-day wilderness expeditions. NASA brings together a crew and puts them in an uncomfortable environment in the wilderness where they are forced to rely upon and trust one another. It’s the breeding ground for the trust they will need to have in each other when they are living and working together in space. The key variable in this exercise is dealing with and overcoming challenges together. Now, obviously, it’s not practical or possible for most organizations to send their teams on wilderness expeditions to build trust, but it is possible to structure other activities to accomplish the same purpose. Team building events like ropes courses often get a bad wrap as being gimmicky, but if done in the context of a broader, more strategic approach, can be helpful trust-builders. The key is to let team members experience challenge together, either on the job or off it, and let them work through it themselves. We do a disservice to our teams when we try to prevent or rescue them from hard times. It’s the perseverance through struggle that builds team trust and unity.
The most successful and high-performing teams are built on trust. I agree with Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary coach of Duke University’s men’s basketball team, who said in his book Leading With The Heart, “In leadership, there are no words more important than trust. In any organization, trust must be developed among every member of the team if success is going to be achieved.”
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