When a gifted team dedicates itself to unselfish trust and combines instinct with boldness and effort, it is ready to climb.” Patanjali
One of the most telling predictors of a team’s success is the extent to which it builds trust among team members. Whether teams are large or small, virtual or under the same roof, trusting teams have inherent advantages not found in teams with a low level of trust.
What makes a trusting team? Following are 8 essential elements that set apart teams that possess a strong trust factor.
Social exchanges are critical in the early stages of team building, and continue to be important throughout the team’s existence. Discussions of family, weekend activities, and personal interests help team members understand the values and priorities of one another and build strong personal bonds. Team members who have worked together before make a point to included newer team mates in social exchanges to avoid the chance of creating cliques of socially-familiar members within the team. While bonding socially, trusting teams are careful to not allow social cohesion to be a substitute for progress on the team’s objectives.
Trusting teams demonstrate enthusiasm about their projects and members make a point to overtly encourage team mates. Teams may refer to themselves as “family,” “posse,” or other nicknames used to signify the uniqueness and unity of the group. Language of enthusiasm might include phrases such as, “this is getting exciting!” or “I’m really pumped about our progress.” A favorite phrased I hear team members use is, “You rock!” By using somewhat informal vocabulary, team members reinforce that their enthusiasm for team mates includes a personal aspect as well as professions. Trusting teams “keep it real.” At the same time, trusting teams are keen to channel their enthusiasm toward accomplishing the team’s tasks.
Trusting teams use technology to enhance communication and solve problems, and do not allow technology to become an impediment to teamwork. Technology is a huge topic, so let’s touch on three of the more important aspects of using technology for teamwork: e-mail communication; scheduling; and file management. Trusting teams use email to clarify understandings and to develop consensus regarding project tasks. Scheduling software is used extensively to identify and coordinate synchronous communication opportunities (e.g., meetings and conference calls) and to track project time tables. Trusting teams establish effective document management structures to ensure that team members have access to the project’s written resources and deliverables. Conversely, less trusting teams tend to under-utilize each of these technologies, thereby limiting collaboration, and may blame technology for performance problems.
Trusting teams communicate with a great deal of regularity. All team members proactively keep team mates informed about such things as the status of tasks, ensuring that others are not left wondering. Members who anticipate being absent from communication, possibly because of travel or days off, inform team mates in advance. Numerous methods exist to promote regular communication, including daily stand-up meetings with in-house team mates and distribution of periodic task-status messages via email. The key is to achieve predictability in communication so that it becomes a source of strength for teamwork rather than a source of frustration.
Timely, Relevant Feedback
Providing feedback is an essential activity for trusting teams. When someone puts forth an idea or draft deliverable, other team members should respond timely and ensure the feedback is specific to the subject matter. Timely feedback allows team mates to keep up the momentum of ongoing tasks. Relevant, specific feedback demonstrates that the responder actually reviewed the substantive content that was circulated, and helps create solutions and products that have the support of all team members (because all team members contributed).
Members on trusting teams take the initiative to offer solutions, rather than simply identifying problems or issues that need attention. Because of high trust, team members feel safe enough to suggest alternatives even when they lack proof that their solutions will work. By offering ideas, team members “move the ball forward,” maintaining momentum in the face of challenges. In low-trust teams, members tend to hold back waiting for others to take the lead, often because of fear that their ideas would be criticized or dismissed.
Trusting teams take the time to establish procedural norms and expectations in the early stages of team formation. Once these are in place, however, trusting teams shift their focus to the tasks at hand. This shift implicitly acknowledges that the procedures and rules are created to support progress toward team objectives. Team processes are a means to an end rather than an end themselves. Thus, trusting teams recognize that norms can be adapted during the course of projects, as needed and agreed upon by team members. A task orientation allows process to fall into the background as productivity takes center stage.
All teams face pressure, including such things as resource constraints (e.g., time, money, personnel) and significant challenges that arise during the project. Trusting teams tend to be unflappable under pressure, drawing on each other rather than turning on each other. Team members communicate about problems and issues, careful to not make it personal. Even when challenges are internal to the team, such as a team member’s lack of productivity, trusting teams focus on the problem of the individual’s behavior, not the person themselves. For external challenges, focus is placed on finding solutions rather than lamenting about the roadblock.
While other factors are also important (e.g., team leadership), these 8 elements are consistently present in trusting teams. It is worthwhile to examine the extent to which your team exhibits each element, and to design strategies for building greater trust.
- Three steps for building trust in teams and organizations
- Trust is a two-way street
- Why a strong team is greater than the sum of it’s parts