The Fragile Path to Trust

Published: December 19, 2017

Trust is the secret sauce that enables teams to thrive. Once it is anchored in a relationship, growth and innovation become possible. Without it, much of the team’s energy is spent managing interpersonal chaos. This is the value proposition for most teams. The less time and resources consumed by office politics, the more time and resources focused on the organization’s mission. As elusive as group trust may seem, there is a proven path.

When shared goals, successful conflict resolution, respect, and accountability become the norms of team interaction, psychological safety is the natural consequence of connection. Each time one of these norms is tested, trust either strengthens or weakens. Every interaction matters. Are we moving in the same direction? Do we understand each others’ perspectives? Do we treat each other with civility? Are we true to our word?

Shared Goals: Are we moving in the same direction?

With appreciation for the strength of team diversity, there are certain rules of engagement that guide healthy relationships, teams, and organizations. Often, these covenants are expressed in the form of a mission statement where everyone agrees on values and vision. This consensus provides the platform for the embracing differences.

Successful Conflict Resolution: Do we understand each others’ perspectives?

Trust thrives when teammates seek to understand. Rather than struggling to get others to see your viewpoint, sponsor a culture where everyone’s perception has value in the context of each person’s history. Once teammates are acknowledged and validated, differences can be filtered through the agreed-upon mission according to how well they support the team’s vision.

Respect: Do we treat each other with civility?

Very few qualities of interpersonal exchange help or hinder trust more directly than respect and disrespect. An undercurrent of disrespect forces teammates to keep their guards up and avoid smart risks. Why would anyone take the chance of expressing a novel idea when it could result in being punished, belittled, ridiculed, or ostracized? Conversely, an atmosphere of kindness and unconditional positive regard promotes risk-taking and fuels innovation.

Accountability: Are we true to our word?

Professing belief in a mission is different than practicing words and behavior that make it possible. Beyond reciting the mission/values/vision statement framed on the wall in the conference room, can everyone share a story about an interaction with a colleague or a client that showcases their meaning? Trusting teams take stewardship for integrity. Promises are kept and deadlines are met.

Trust begins in a fragile state. Gradually, collaboration and connection strengthen the foundation of interdependence. When we rise and fall together, everyone on the team has a hand in anchoring a culture of sustained, reliable, enduring security.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.