How to Build Trust in Teams

Posted By Jim Houston  
14:17 PM

In my last article I outlined the relationship between team performance, collective intelligence and trust, based on the research of Drs Dennis and Michelle Reina. In this article I go a step further to discuss how you build trust in your teams to create more productive and fulfilling teams.

“People have at their very fingertips, at the tips of their brains, tremendous amounts of tacit knowledge, which are not captured in our computer systems or on paper…trust is the utility through which this knowledge flows.”

Professor Karen Stephenson

Increasingly leaders recognise the critical role trust plays in achieving success in organisations. Successful organisations are built on successful teams, and teams require trust in order to work together effectively.

“When trust is present, people step forward and do their best work, together, efficiently. They align around a common purpose, take risks, think out of the box, have each other’s backs, and communicate openly and honestly. When trust is absent, people jockey for position, hoard information, play it safe, and talk about— rather than to—one another.” (Dr D. Reina)

We can see much of what occurs in teams as symptomatic of the presence or absence of trust. The absence of trust explains high turnover, poor productivity and lack of accountability. Conversely, where there is a strong foundation of trust people look forward to coming to work and enjoy working together. They cooperate and collaborate in a meaningful way, and work towards a common goal.

However, achieving this is not as easy as it sounds. Just creating ‘Trust’ as a core value or saying “we should trust each other more” is not going to achieve this. In fact, most teams find it difficult to even broach the subject of trust, let alone admit that they find it difficult to trust each other. More commonly we find that there has been a history of trust being broken that is limiting the performance of the team. Paradoxically, the lower the level of trust in a team often the harder it is to raise this as an issue. Additionally, teams have often developed well entrenched behaviours over time that have eroded trust without realising it.

The Facts about Trust

Before talking about how to build trust, there are some surprising facts about trust in organisations that are central to understanding and shifting trust in teams.

Firstly, the majority of breaches of trust in organisations are unintentional and minor. Yes, we all tend to think of major betrayals when we think of trust – the lying, deception, fraud, etc- but in actual fact research shows that 90% of betrayals in organisations can be classified as unintentional minor betrayals of trust[1]. For example, it is the failure to deliver a piece of work on time, the roll of the eyes in a meeting, the off-the-cuff comment across the Board table. In fact, anytime we have felt let down, insulted or hurt it is likely to have been the result of one of these minor unintentional acts.


The problem is that whilst these acts are relatively minor and unintentional, they have a cumulative effect and in the long term are as damaging as the major breaches of trust. It is the cumulative effect of these minor unintentional acts that leads people to withdraw, disengage and in some cases, actively work against the team. It is this cumulative impact that damages relationships at work.

Secondly, the reality is that betrayal in this sense is a natural part of all relationships, particularly at work where we are often managing a complex web of interconnected relationships and needs.  In all relationships trust will be built and trust will be broken.

As Michelle Reina noted,

“Betrayal and trust ebb and flow as inevitably as the tide in relationships.”

 While we may not want to admit it, we are just as likely to let others down and break their trust in these minor unintentional ways as we are to feel betrayed ourselves. It is not the eradication of these acts that builds trust. It is the awareness and repairing of the relationship in good faith when betrayal happens that restores trust. When we can accept our own capacity to break trust in this way we can learn and grow, build greater trust and have more compassion for those that have betrayed us.

In effect this means that trust can only be built by each person in the team accepting responsibility for their behaviour and that, “Trust Begins with You®”. Working from this fundamental assumption is a prerequisite to any improvement of trust in a team.

Finally, although trust (and betrayal) are felt at a deeply emotional level, it is actually built and broken at a behavioural level by what we do. Some of the things we do will build trust in our relationships and equally some things we do will break trust. Once we know what behaviours specifically build or break trust we can focus on these and practice them. But without knowing exactly what these behaviours are, we are unlikely to successfully build trust.

 What Are the Behaviours That Build and Break Trust?

Probably one of the most significant findings of the Reinas’ 25 years of research into trust was the identification of 16 core behaviours that build and break trust, and the classification of these into three dimensions (as discussed in my last article, “Why Trust is Key to Successful Teams”). Knowing exactly which behaviours build and break trust gives teams the confidence to focus on a few key behaviours from a shared understanding and a common framework for building trust, rather than presenting competing perceptions and opinions about what they think will create trust.

Although there is insufficient space here to go into all sixteen behaviours, they include behaviours such as establishing boundaries, managing expectations, keeping agreements, admitting mistakes, giving and receiving feedback, and involving others and seeking their input. The three dimensions of this model simplifies the complex into three concrete areas that are all necessary to build trust. These are:

Trust of Character is foundational and represents the mutually serving intentions of a team. When teams have Trust of Character, they do what they say they will do, have confidence in each other’s capacity to deliver, and can rely on each other.

Trust of Communication is the dimension that makes it safe for team members to communicate openly and honestly with each other, but in a respectful way. It allows the team members to know that whatever is being communicated is genuine and in the spirit of deeper learning and growth and the team’s success.

Trust of Capability is not just the capabilities of the team members, but more importantly how they leverage the skills and abilities of one another, seek each other’s input, engage in decision making, and teach new skills.

How Do You Increase the Level of Trust in A Team?

Breaking trust down into three dimensions and sixteen behaviours like this decodes what is otherwise an abstract and highly emotive concept. However, changing trust in a team takes more than just the shared understanding of this model.

The first step in building a greater level of trust in a team is to gain an accurate measure of the current level of trust. The fact that talking about trust evokes such strong feelings, and particularly defensiveness, in people means that it is essential to have an objective and reliable measure of trust to begin with. For example, the Reina Team Trust Scale® is a research-based, statistically valid and reliable assessment designed to measure the Three Dimensions of Trust and the sixteen behaviours that build them.

Assessing the level of trust in a team takes courage because we might not always like what we see. However, nothing is going to change without accurate data, and a clear and objective picture of the actual level of trust within the team is often a catalyst for change in itself.

It gives the team an unequivocal benchmark of where they stand and can confirm or challenge individuals’ subjective perceptions.  It takes away the debate driven by personal opinions and enables the team to have a shared understanding of exactly where trust sits for them. It also begins the process of developing a collective responsibility for shifting trust in the team because inevitably team members want to discuss their score and understand what is contributing to this. This process of obtaining an objective measure of trust and receiving feedback about this as a collective starts the process of trust building. It provides a team with a shared understanding and common language to talk about trust, which inevitably facilitates open and honest dialogue about trust, often for the first time.

The additional benefit of an accurate measure of trust based on this model is that it can enable teams to discover what they are already doing to build trust and what is getting in the way. Their scores on each of the sixteen behaviours immediately indicate those behaviours that support and build trust, and those that are preventing the team from developing greater trust.

In other words, through the process of measuring the level of trust, and the behaviours that are contributing to this, a team can more clearly understand what they need to work on.

Whilst necessary, the measurement of trust and feedback process is not sufficient for real change. In addition, teams need to identify which of these behaviours are most likely to build trust across their team and commit to practising them every day.  Again, just as we will all build and break trust, we will all revert to old patterns of behaviour every now and then, even with the best of intentions. Anyone who has tried to change their behaviour in even the simplest sense will know how difficult this can be (in a future article I will be discussing the challenges and solutions to changing behaviour in teams in more detail).

Therefore, teams often need support in embedding these new behaviours, and the skills to practice these. As simple as it sounds, sometimes these behaviours are new to team members, and sometimes they are not as good at them as they think they are. Each team will vary in terms of the level of support and the structure of this support in order to successfully achieve the desired behaviour change. This might take the form of  regular team coaching sessions where the team has a chance to reflect on their progress and what they have learnt on a regular basis, or they may need specific skills training, in the form of “Trust Workouts®” where they can acquire the skills necessary to practice the behaviour regularly. Either way it is common for teams to require a period of external support to embed the behaviours that will build trust.

As teams progress on this journey, they typically begin to see the benefits of the changes they are making. They experience greater trust and confidence in themselves and each other, and because they are operating from a common framework and a common language, can now talk openly when trust is broken. 

Where this process is different from other behaviour change programs in organisations is that it is in the service of building trust – something that is at the core of our human need for connection. It is not just something that the organisation or its leaders want (although it is clearly fundamental to business success). It touches the core of what we need from our relationships, and what provides us with satisfaction in our work.

To put this another way, it is the human need for connection, and therefore the trust in our relationships for this to occur, that is the common bond. It is the driving force that can unite teams in striving to build greater trust and motivate them to work on the things that will create this. Once they have a shared understanding of how to do this, and receive the support necessary to change, they are able to fulfil their potential as a team. It is not just when problems are occurring that this is useful - trust is the vehicle for achieving greatness in any team.

“Trust is the bridge between the business need for results and the human need for connection” (M. Reina)

In my next article I will share with you more details on what actually shifts behaviour in teams based on the latest research.

[1] Reina, D. & M. (2018) Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace (3rd ed)