The Essential Role of Trust in Teams

Published: March 10, 2020

Virtually every team we measure scores high on the statement, “I have at least one trusted colleague on the team.” Far fewer clients, however, reflect full-group trust in the survey questions designed to evaluate the psychological safety of the entire team. Almost everyone has a trusted teammate as one-to-one interactions are easier to navigate than group dynamics. Without full-team trust, the organization’s energy is misallocated to internal politics. Consider these steps to building or rebuilding a sustainable foundation of trust in the workplace.

Mutual Investment

Teams come together because there is a common goal or set of values. This bonds people from all walks of life to a single purpose. A commitment to this shared mission is non-negotiable on teams. It anchors a sense of interdependence that transforms the “me” to a “we.” Gaps in employee engagement are delivered forward as resistance. Mutual investment is delivered forward as fuel for collaboration.

Unconditional Positive Regard

Usually, everyone is doing the best they can based on their personal circumstances. We all carry hidden burdens that affect our engagement and communication style. Few people come to work with the intention of making life difficult for others. When we acknowledge positive intent, we make space for the humanness that fuels difficult interactions. Assume the best in others and endeavor to understand whatever context might explain words and behaviors that don’t match up.

Appreciation of Difference

Innovation occurs when previously unsolvable problems find resolution. Diversity is the fuel for innovation. Recognizing the richness of perspective that arises from each teammate’s unique talent and history enables teams to explore without fear of repercussion. A culture of creativity allows conflict to be seen as a natural outgrowth of diversity. Teams thrive when conflicts are resolved with maturity, respect and professionalism.

Blind Accountability

Ownership grows once teammates recognize they rise and fall together. When everyone owns their role in achieving the common purpose, there is no need to track accountability. It happens by itself. Teammates follow through because they are intrinsically motivated to contribute to the greater cause, not because they seek the “carrot” or fear the “stick.” Teams with blind accountability don’t use Gannt charts or Red/Yellow/Green meetings to ensure traction. The movement toward the goal simply happens.

Advancing team trust is a far different task than rebuilding it. Teams that build the ingredients of trust into their culture recipe can continue to spin the existing momentum. Broken teams, on the other hand, have to begin by acknowledging the damage and its costs. For these teams, the pain has usually become normalized and teammates have learned to proceed with caution and protect individual interests. A reboot is usually the solution. Rest assured, there are role models out there when your organization decides it’s time to renovate the culture.

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 College 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.