Building Trust

Trust brings safety to a team. If you have a team that trusts each other, they talk more. They feel free to bring all ideas to the table. They point out problems and concerns, and figure out how to improve. They do not build up grudges or frustrations.

A lack of trust feels like you are walking on eggshells. You are thinking about how to communicate problems without causing additional problems. You may have an “us vs. them” perspective when looking at different team members. When your leadership doesn’t tell you something, you take it personally instead of respecting the confidentiality that comes with their role. And that builds resentment. You may start to feel that you are being held back from your full potential. And you may start to feel competitive towards your teammate instead of being happy for everyone’s progress. You won’t raise all your ideas, and you may start hoping that certain team members leave, potentially even sabotaging the success of the team’s work. 

Each person will have a different experience of what a trusting team feels like vs. an untrusting team, but no matter how you personally experience it, the result is the same – trusting teams collaborate well and succeed in working together, while untrusting teams isolate themselves and slow down progress. Even aside from the team’s success, it just isn’t pleasant to work on a team without trust.

If you do not trust you team, there are many things you can do to improve the situation:

Talk More

This sounds so simple, and too easy of an answer, but it works. Talk more to each other, even if not about the work. Break down any barriers that make you hesitant to approach each other. If you are in a team where you don’t talk to the boss on a regular basis, start. Ask them to start having one-on-one meetings with you. If you work in an office, say hello to people around you. Have lunch together, walk together to go get coffee. 

Simply talking more at all, even meaningless small talk, will make it easier to talk about more important topics. It builds your comfort level with each other, and it will improve team communication.

If your team is already talking frequently, but it is always small talk, you can start looking for ways to bring more meaningful topics into the conversation. As an example, I once worked on a team that all sat together in an open office, which led to nobody talking because we just all put on headphones and chatted with each other on Slack and via comments on github. When we needed to talk about new features in the code, a couple of us would go find a conference room and talk in private. While this scenario is a valid argument against open office plans, the bigger problem was a breakdown in communications because people were not in the habit of talking.

We improved it by a simple move of bringing conversations out into the open. We moved the desks around to make sure that people who worked on the same features together also sat near each other. We put up whiteboards. When we wanted to talk through a problem, we got up and just started talking and drawing. And fairly soon, the entire team was fully involved in all conversations. All of our different perspectives started to come together, with the features being better designed, resulting in higher quality work. Personally, I liked the team better and enjoyed the job more after we made those changes.

Of course, your team will have different problems, and different solutions. To figure out if there are small changes that can be made, start watching how your team communicates for a few days. Are there behaviors that close off people or conversations? Are there topics you avoid? Do you use online communications for conversations that could be more efficient by just talking? Take note of those, and find ways to bring those conversations out with the team.

Some people will balk at this suggestion – they’ll want to keep conversation online and asynchronous, to let them keep their focus. If your team is working well, this is a valid point. But odds are if your team if working well, fixing communications is more important and will have a larger long-term impact. Communicating as a team is a foundational skill to make your work environment healthy and productive. Talk first, then optimize your focus once you trust your team. 

Trust by default

It sounds scary, but start trusting other people even if they haven’t proven they deserve it. This isn’t always easy – if you don’t trust someone, just telling yourself to stop feeling that way and start trusting them can seem impossible. But trust has to start somewhere – it feeds upon itself, both for the better and for the worse, and to turn around a team that doesn’t have trust, someone needs to take the lead. Why not let that some be yourself?

It doesn’t require you to actually trust them. You just need to behave like you do – their response will often show you that they do deserve trust, and you can keep moving forward. If they really don’t deserve it, they will prove it to you fairly quickly. You’ll catch them in a lie, they’ll do something harmful to you or the team, or in some other way prove they are not worthy of trust. But I’m going to be optimistic for now and talk about how it will go for teams who do deserve your trust.

Start by being open with the others on your team. Share your feelings with them about how the work is going, how you feel about your processes and meetings. Let them see what you are doing, how you are doing it, and the impact it has on how you feel. 

Give others the benefit of the doubt – when they do something you do not like, assume they have valid reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with you, and everything to do with their belief in how to best move the work forward.

When you make a mistake, own it. Admit it, fix it, recover from it, and try to not let it happen again. 

You’ll know whether or not your behavior changes are helping the team by watching whether they reciprocate. Are they talking to you more? Do they start talking to each other more? Are there more discussions about how to approach specific problems in your work? Are people simply increasing how nice they are… asking how everyone is doing? If these types of small behavioral changes are visible, then you are on the right track. If not, your team has deeper problems, and some of the other suggestions on this page may be a more appropriate approach.

Once you start to see improvement, you can increase the transparency about what you are doing, why, and what you hope it will bring to the team. Share with them that you have been trying to open up more, trying to believe in everyone else and trust them more, and that you have seen the team improve. Ask them to start doing the same. This will solve two problems – it will bring forward the best behavior of team members who can be part of a high-performance, trusting team. It also will be obvious which team members are not in a place to do so. If one team member is bringing everyone else down, that will become clear and become a problem for your manager to resolve.

Let me be clear – I’m not saying that everyone needs to step up or be shipped out. I’m saying that not everyone can change their behavior easily. Those people need more involved coaching and guidance. Avoid the temptation to think of them as lost causes, and embrace the idea that you’ll need to help them as you would a friend who has suffered a loss. However, frequently when someone is in this state, they need different help than the whole team telling them to just smile and talk more, which takes me back to my point that it is probably a problem for your leader, not your peers.

Get to Know Each Other

Once your team has a basic level of trust with each other – you are talking about the work and engaging in small talk, start to focus on truly getting to know your team. Understand (as much as they are willing to share) who they are, who their family is, what they enjoy, and how their life outside of work is going. Aside from the friendship that will bring to the team, it also has a practical effect, of helping you understand what they care about, what events in the world might be impacting their own emotions. This will help you get to know their communication and work preferences as well. Everyone is different, and if you can learn those differences and treat people how they want to be treated, it will go a long way to having a pleasant team and work environment. 

As a specific example, do you have someone in your office who likes to come in and say hello to everyone in the office, while at the same time annoying those people who don’t want to be bothered with hellos and small talk? Knowing who wants a “Good Morning!” and a brief chat and who does not can go a long way. It also carries across into work discussions – some people still want to be greeted and chatted up for a few seconds before getting to the work, some people are annoyed by it. Learn who is who. If you don’t know – ask. Asking will bring clarity to such concerns, and will also resolve potential misunderstandings. Because despite knowing that one person does not want to be greeted by everyone each morning…they still may feel excluded even though are respecting their wishes by not saying “Hi.” You can’t win that situation without communication. It would be worth openly telling them that you know they don’t like to be bugged, so you skip them out of respect for who they are, not because you are excluding them from your world. And maybe still make eye contact and smile as you walk by.

If you are in a leadership position, these kinds of actions are greatly magnified. A CEO who says hello to everyone in the office except for one person, without making their reasons clear, is going to not only make that one person feel left out of the whole company, it will make other people notice and exclude them as well. Leaders need to excel at transparency behind their actions, in order to prevent misunderstandings that can trash the morale of an entire company.

Listen to Others

People trust others when they feel safe with them. One reason we feel safe with others is when we feel they understand us, and hear our perspective. The best way to help someone know you can be trusted is to listen to them. When they talk, just listen and focus on understanding what they are saying. 

This sounds simple, but many people don’t truly listen – they seek opportunities to pull the conversation back to their side, to put in their own opinions and perspectives. While both sides of a conversation do matter, there is a difference between understanding two sides of a discussion to drive the conversation forward vs. trying to overwhelm the conversation to put your perspective on top.

The reasons behind this behavior are somewhat circular – if you do not trust your teammate, you feel more need to inject your thoughts. Which leads to a cycle of failing to listen. Break the cycle by deliberately not jumping in. Slow down, and truly listen to them. Ask questions to clarify their point if you do not understand. When they say something interesting, ask them to say more. Repeat summaries and re-phrase their own points back to them, which not only indicates you are listening, but reinforces the points to reduce misunderstandings. It also will help them talk through their own perspectives – we don’t always have our thoughts fully developed in our minds, and talking through them forces us to address any gaps in our own thoughts and logic. Being a listener for someone else helps them through this process.

Once they’ve explained their side of a discussion, be gentle in how you switch to telling your side. Don’t say “My turn!”. And don’t just launch into a monologue. In my experience, one of the best ways to move on to sharing your side of the story is to contrast your points with theirs – tell them where you agree, and where you would like to present another perspective. And feel free to be transparent. Sometimes it can feel awkward and cliched to say something along the lines of “I want to push back against the idea that…”, but it helps frame the discussion that you want to discuss specific points, sets them up to hear why you feel that way, and is arguing against a point they made, not against them personally.

Flag Untrustworthy behaviors

We also need to be realistic. Not everyone is trustworthy. But we need to always keep in mind that their lack of trustworthiness comes from their habits and their history. They started making poor choices in their behavior because of their own experiences. Most people who behave poorly in a work environment are decent people with bad habits. So we can help them change. Tell them when something isn’t an acceptable behavior. If you’ve already started some of the above advice and are talking to each other more, flagging a poor behavior can be just a quick comment, not a conflict.

When you do flag a behavior, address the behavior, not the person. They are not a bad person, they just acted in a way that eroded trust. At the same time, be clear and transparent. Subtlety can be lost when addressing a problem. Say what you mean, directly, but kindly. 

There may be valid reasons for poor behavior. Our goal is to accept those reasons, but look for alternative behaviors that still meet the goals. For example, micromanagers often act that way because they are seeking high quality work that will not need to be fixed down the road. That is a valid business need, especially in the software world. But there are other ways to get there – establishing practices for test coverage, code reviews, and documented standards to make it clear what the expectations are for the team. Implementing better practices can reach the same quality goals, while freeing the team to do what they are good at in their own ways.