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When I ask people about the key characteristics of great teams, one word is used above all others – trust.

It has certainly been my experience that all of the best teams I have been a part of have composed of people who trusted each other. It’s such a fundamental tenet of teamwork that I honestly don’t believe any group can become a team without it.

I have been a member of teams where that level of trust has become so strong, and that team bond so enduring, that many years later I know that I can ask for the help of my fellow team mates and to the best of their ability, they will provide it, no matter how far away they are, or how long it may have been since we last met.

To build that bond, it’s often that case that we have shared adversity together, and have a collective memory of support, collaboration and individual effort for the team’s welfare. In most cases, we never explicitly discussed those things – they are just part of what we each took away from the experience.

We saw people do the right thing for the team in difficult circumstances. We also shared the pride and happiness when things went well. In a few cases, we experienced great sadness together.

So over time, people working together can build trust, sometimes to extraordinary levels.

But how does a group of people start to build trust when they are brought together as a team for the first time?

I think it starts with the little things. Here are some examples.

  • If a team is supposed to meet at a given time, people don’t turn up late.
  • People are open and honest with each other. This can take time to build, as it is in itself a manifestation of trust.
  • You ask for help
  • You do what you say you will do, and if you can’t, you will let people know why you couldn’t.
  • You treat people with kindness and respect
  • You look for opportunities to help others.

A team inception event is often useful in starting to develop routes to build trust in a new team. Discussions and exercises can establish common ground, identify shared values and allow team members to learn a little of the personal backgrounds, interests and the human elements of their colleagues.

This can all help to start creating an element of unity across the team.

Humour has a very important part to play too. When people smile and laugh together, they relax and can collaborate and communicate together more readily.

Leaders have an important role to play in helping teams to form and excel at what they do. One definition of the word team that I’ve come across is –

“A group of people or animals linked in a common purpose”

It is a leader’s responsibility to describe that common purpose so that all of the team understands it, can see the value in it, and recognise their individual role within the team to help achieve it. Without this, it is unrealistic to expect people to work together in concert to realise any shared goal.

If you want your people to see you as a leader, they need to trust you.

They need to see you exhibit the behaviours and attitudes that you expect of them. They need to see you supporting them. They need to see you step up and get involved when the team needs help. They need you to thank them when things go well.

Sometimes, people need to be able to trust those they do not know.

A passenger on an aircraft absolutely needs to trust the pilots that are controlling the aircraft. The pilots need to trust many people who have prepared the aircraft for the flight, from the engineers who service the aircraft, the refuellers who need to ensure that enough fuel of the right type and quality has been uplifted, and the other staff who ensure that things like the route and loading has been carried out correctly.

Why do people trust third parties in this way? Partly it is because they believe that those third parties understand the consequences of not doing their best, and have a responsible attitude to their work.

This definition of the word responsibility is interesting –

“A duty or obligation to satisfactorily perform or complete a task”

If you are responsible for something, in most cases, other people are relying on you to satisfactorily perform or complete a task. Not just correctly, correctly and promptly.

When people don’t understand their real responsibilities, or the responsibilities they have been provided do not match the expectations of those who rely on them, they will fail to meet the expectations of those who rely on them, and trust will erode.

Many people I see in organisations do not understand the consequences of their actions or inactions. That is not their fault. It is the responsibility of those who lead them to help them understand.

So they will let people down, often without even realising it, if there are no good lines of communication and collaboration with those who rely on them.

This often happens when a team relies on another team, especially when there is physical separation between teams. If two teams sit next to each other, there will be some ad hoc, unstructured communication, even when there has been no mandate or structure explained by the teams’ leaders.

If they are 100m away, that ad hoc communication probably won’t happen. If they are 100km away, it definitely won’t happen. So leaders need to help interdependent teams to collaborate in much the same way that individuals within the same team do, albeit less frequently.

To summarise, if you want to be in a great team or want to lead great teams, take time to think about what you as an individual can do to build and maintain trust within the team. Then continually look for opportunities to demonstrate your trust in people, and to get them to build their trust in you.

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