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5 Ways to Build Team Trust

Knight Campbell
January 25, 2024

Understanding How to Build Team Trust

You can find myriad books about the importance of team trust in any bookstore, but most of them offer little more than platitudes and interesting stories. This Forbes article has some good pointers, but it simply restates prerequisites for a high performing team (get our guidebook here) instead of actually breaking down trust issues and providing solutions. We know trust when we feel it, and we know what it feels like when team trust is high. Things move faster, we enjoy work more, and we focus more on the task than office politics. So how can we make more of that?

Nothing demands team trust quite like roping up on a mountain.

What is team trust?

First, let's define trust

We like Charles Feltman’s definition of trust: “Making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” Ultimately this makes trust a risk calculation. We are betting that the team can move faster and do bigger things if we assume that everyone on the team has our best interests in mind and will do what we expect them to do. We end up saving a lot of time and money in monitoring costs when we don’t have to constantly check in on our colleagues.

To get more granular, trust includes a few domains. Feltman breaks these domains into Care, Reliability, Sincerity, and Competence.

  • Care: The other person understands me and cares about me personally. They have my best interest in mind as well as the team’s mission.
  • Reliability: The other person actually does what they say they will do. They keep their commitments, show up on time, and transparently say no when they need to. 
  • Sincerity: The other person understands and means what they say. I can count on them to say what they mean and understand the implications of what they say.
  • Competence: The other person has the time, resources, skills, and knowledge to do what they say they will do.

 

These domains are massively helpful if you want to figure out where a trust relationship might be breaking down or when deciding whether you want to continue investing in the relationship. Trust can elicit major emotional reactions. Just imagine if your boss told you she does not trust you! It feels much more approachable to say, “Jane, when you show up to meetings late it makes you unreliable” than “I don’t trust you.” Conversely, if someone is lying to you (insincere) it seems smart to cease the relationship. Isolating the domains that are breaking down can save relationships and ultimately the team!

So how is team trust different?

In Stealing Fire, Steven Kotler says there are two rules on a special operations unit going into danger. First, everyone has to be looking in different directions. If everyone looked the same way, there would be critical gaps in knowledge and protection. Second, the person with the most relevant information leads the team. If the team was attacked from the behind, the person in the back automatically becomes the leader. These rules protect the unit and allow them to conduct precise and fast operations in extremely dangerous situations. The only way they work is through deep trust in teammates, the team’s purpose and the organizational culture. For organizations to get the best possible performance from teams, they need to invest in building deep team trust. This trust links person to person, and each person to the team. When a new member joins, the existing members build trust rapidly because he or she is the type of person that joins this team in this organization. 

Why is TEam Trust so Critical for Performance?

Team trust facilitates speed

Steven Covey conveys this well in The Speed of Trust. Trust removes a massive amount of friction and monitoring costs.  When you understand that your teammate will do what he or she says they will do, do it well, and care about its impact on you, it allows you to focus on doing your parts. 

Team trust builds comradery

Part of psychological safety is that you feel safe to take interpersonal risks. Trust enables interpersonal risk taking, particularly when the care component is present. People on a high trust team have each other’s backs. They have each other’s best interest in mind and know that people will go out of their way to consider their teammates. This environment brings teams together like magic. 

Team trust allows effectiveness

A big reason leaders fail to delegate turns out to be a lack of trust. When the team has collective trust, the best people for a job end up actually doing the job. This helps leaders break away from needing to micromanage and gives them critical time to spend thinking strategically instead. 

How can we build team trust?

Look at character and competence to help build team trust
Breaks in competence can be more volatile but easier to repair. They either ratchet up or down. One break in character can destroy a trust relationship.

Start by diagnosing character and competence issues

For Tyler Van Horn, partner at Cairn Leadership, team trust comes down to character and competence. In order to place the things we value under the control of someone else, we want to know that they are competent enough to protect our treasures and that they have good intentions or character. Trust will build and erode differently in each of these domains, mostly because people can build competence much more quickly than character. 

Anyone you meet will begin at some level of trust in these domains. At Cairn Leadership we think of this as a trust scale from -1 (distrust) to 0 (ambivalence) to 10 (trust absolutely). Most clients we ask begin a relationship between 4 and 7.

Your initial trust level is impacted by many variables. A strong resume, punctuality to an interview, certifications in the relevant domain, and professional appearance signal a person’s competence. In general, if these things are present, most people will trust someone else until proven otherwise. Moreover, we will tend to look for evidence that confirms our initial impression, thus cycling up to higher trust.

When it comes to character we might not be so quick to trust. It takes time to build trust on this deeper level. Personality, similar backgrounds, and recommendations from other people all weigh into the initial assessment, but to get to high character trust you’ll need to go through some adversity together. This is one reason we prize challenging shared experiences outdoors for teams.

The most important thing to understand is the difference between competence and character. Typically when someone says they don’t trust you, you would automatically take that as an attack on your character. In reality, they usually mean that you don’t yet have the experience, resources, or knowledge (competence) to successfully protect what they value.

Competence-based trust is volatile but resilient.

Note above that trust placed in competence can swing rapidly both ways. If you mess up but learn from it, you will see a rapid dip and then a rise in trust (top line on the above graph). If you mess up and don’t learn, trust will slowly ratchet down into mistrust (bottom line in the above graphic).

Character-based trust, however, moves slowly and takes more to build over time. You need to see people in challenging situations to build trust slowly. Then one character slip, from acting incongruently with your values, being selfish, or telling a lie can rapidly deplete trust to an unrecoverable level. There is less resilience in this domain.

Distrust is the breaking point.

As you move into distrust, you begin taking action to protect the things you value from the other person. Where you once might not assign a project to a new employee because of low trust in their competence, once you cross the distrust threshold you will use time and energy to ensure they can’t get that project. Once distrust happens, it is very difficult to get back above the line, because you will actively avoid opportunities to rebuild trust.

Begin building team trust now!

Do hard things

Take some time to reflect on a low-trust relationship you have at work. Odds are that low trust is due to competence more than character. Think through what drives that low trust in the other person’s competence and what you could do to build it back up. Perhaps make their projects a little less demanding to build confidence, or have a direct conversation about how showing up late to meetings makes it hard to trust them in other professional capacities.

To build character trust, you will need to do hard things with your team. Anyone can say they have integrity, but nobody believes it until they see them in a situation where it would be easier to be selfish or lie. As a leader you will need to seek out, point out, and cherish the cruxes or hardest parts. If you need help, that’s our specialty at Cairn Leadership

Want to build deep trust rapidly in your team? Come do hard things outside together.

Delegate and empower

In the Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner say you need to trust to be trusted. That feels risky, but it rings true. If you treat your people like they are not trustworthy, they will struggle to trust (let alone like) you. The best way to communicate this trust is to delegate big responsibility often. That’s hard to do, so instead think about empowering. When I taught at the Naval Academy, we would say that empowering people is a function of educating and then delegating. Make it a priority to develop your people to the point you feel comfortable giving them more responsibility. You’ll breed trust and take a lot of work off your plate at the same time! 

Talk about trust on your team often

Communication is a huge key to trust. Simply asking people how you can earn their trust is a great first step. Instead of making trust a taboo topic, bring it up often. Check in on how you are doing and how your people are doing. Break it down into Feltman’s domain to help make the conversation more palatable. Tell people when they are earning your trust and why. 


Additionally it’s important to continuously communicate the team’s mission and why your work is important personally as well as in the larger picture of the organization. People start wondering about power dynamics and politics more as the team’s purpose becomes less salient. Don’t let that happen! 

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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