Strong Teams Start with Trust: 5 Ways to Build Trust

Anyone who knows me has heard me talk endlessly about team building. Recently, I wrote on our Adventura blog about Exemplary Practices of Experiential Training and Development and how The Learning Methodology companies engage in work to either fulfill or undermine team building goals. In response to that article, a couple of questions popped up that sounded similar to: “We’re not really a touchy-feely kind of company.  What can we do to build/strengthen our teams?”

As I have said many times, the conversation of team building must begin at the base of Patrick Lencioni’s pyramid for highly functional teams – Trust. Pick the authors and leaders you respect and you’ll find those worth their salt suggest; trust is the first and most critical piece for building strong teams. But saying trust and self-awareness is important for your company is a bit like saying a foundation is important to building a house. It’s highly likely it was the first thing you thought of. But why is it the most important element? How can you assess trust within your team and what actionable steps can you take to build trust?

Trust IS the Foundation

I’m a fan of Patrick Lencioni and, especially, ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ which is widely considered one of the best books (Amazon Top 10 for Leadership Books) on team-building.  When coupled with the knowledge I gained at the University of New Hampshire and subsequent knowledge I gained working as a facilitator for Outward Bound and Project Adventure, it significantly shaped how I view, talk about, and go about building teams.

In the book, Patrick describes the 5 dysfunctions of a team and uses a pyramid to show the levels:

Patrick Lencioni Pyramid Build Trust First

Trust is the foundation upon which everything else is built: the most important piece.  A lack of authentic trust prevents a team from true commitment, accountability, and results.

Along with the ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’, there are other notable books that are specifically about trust or discuss trust and its importance:

All of them point to trust as an essential and fundamental piece of the puzzle – in business and in life.

Be more of yourself

Piggybacking off these thoughts and making it personal to myself, trust enables me to be more.  It enables me to:

  • Accomplish more and do better work by getting feedback and synergizing
  • Grow and learn more by allowing myself to be “open” and receive information
  • Teach more and serve by letting me focus my attention on others
  • Care more and empathize because I’m not constantly worried about protecting myself
  • Be more human

Trust helps you accept deepening relationships and removes politics and silos from the workplace, creating an organization within which people feel safe. At its simplest, trust is a catalyst for your organization to be more: more nimble, more efficient, more effective.  It’s like oxygen for a successful team – one simply can’t exist without it.

As strange as it sounds though, it’s important that it is the right type of trust.

What Type of Trust is Needed?

There are two types of trust that are (possibly) present with teams: “common” trust and vulnerability-based trust.

“Common” Trust

The confidence/belief that a co-worker or team member won’t break generally accepted laws, norms, policies, etc.  It’s the trust that you extend to others that they won’t steal the computers if left in the office alone or deliberately corrupt the DB.

It’s the type of trust that we extend to each other when driving.  We “trust” people know the rules of the road, will stay on the right side and stop at red lights.

Without “common” trust, it would be very difficult to operate as a company (or society).  Belonging to the team typically grants you this type of trust. But is this trust enough? Some would say that it is, but in order to truly learn and grow, you need something more.

Vulnerability-Based Trust

A much deeper confidence that you can be vulnerable with teammates.  The belief that you can do things like take risks, ask for help, admit mistakes, or confront and hold others accountable without fear of retaliation, humiliation, or resentment.

This type of trust has to be earned and given.

Strong, high-performing teams base their entire foundation on vulnerability-based trust. It is this deeper trust and acceptance of oneself and others that allow for growth from mistakes, and the only way to learn and build an effective team is to grow. “Common” trust simply isn’t enough.

So, how do you build vulnerability-based trust?

How to Build Trust

Authors and leadership experts offer many great ways to build vulnerability-based trust.  Some of my favorites include:

“Go First”

As a leader, it is your job to model the behavior.  Be the first to “open up” and extend trust to others.  As Ken Blanchard says, “When you open up and share about yourself, you demonstrate a vulnerability that engenders trust.” It’s always smart to lead by example because you set the tone on how the team will deal with success and also a failure. If you don’t succeed on your first try, yet you keep your head high and continue to motivate your team, that effect will not go unnoticed by your team.

“Seek first  to understand, then to be understood”

From another of my favorite books, ”The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’”, this encourages you to listen with the intent to understand rather than with the intent to reply.  It’s not a competition; you have to be willing to stop thinking about winning and open up to considering someone else’s idea. Listen first, always. That’s why they say we’ve got two ears and one mouth, to listen twice as much as we speak.

Create a “Circle of Safety”

You do this by first, treating your people like people. Give them a sense of belonging, a shared purpose, some autonomy, and care for them.  People must feel cared for and safe to trust. Make yourself open, honest, and vulnerable, and others will follow suit as they see you being comfortable in your own skin. This, in turn, will create a feeling of safety for your team as they grow closer to one another and themselves.

Try any (or all) of the “13 Behaviors of High Trust” from ‘Speed of Trust’

Behaviors like, Talk Straight, Right Wrongs, and Keep Commitments.  All of these behaviors help you build trust and strengthen it.

Pick up the “Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide”

And try any of the exercises inside. Patrick offers a couple of them online for free: Personal Histories Exercise and Team Effectiveness Exercise

Share an experience together

As you know, I recommend any of the Adventura Workshops. Any time you actually get to practice being a successful team, you re-enforce the trust and strengthen the foundation.

Whichever method you choose, it’s important to understand that building trust is not a destination.  It’s ongoing, and you’re either building it up or tearing it down.

In Conclusion

Trust is the key to your success. If you effectively build trust between you and your team, you will begin to succeed at a more efficient and effective rate than ever before, all the while producing less in-house conflicts. Your team will begin to communicate in more effective ways, work in more effective ways, and overall live in a more effective way.

Building this trust in your team is one of the very first things you must prioritize when contemplating ways to grow and learn. Only when you can truly be your open, whole, vulnerable self can you begin to grow as an individual, and when you gather a team of individuals prepared to do so, you grow as a team. That’s why it’s important to build trust in your company. It is the glue that will bond your team together through thick and thin, allowing for success, growth, and learning.

Scott Chreist
My name is Scott Chreist, and I'm the President and founder of Adventura, a center for team building activities based in Woodinville, Washington. I have been providing experience-based training and development services for almost 30 years now, and in that time I've designed workshops for many progressive organizations such as Amazon, Facebook, T-Mobile, Zumiez, Microsoft, Boeing, Google, and many others, using the degree I earned in Experiential Education with a specialization in Outdoor Education from the University of New Hampshire.
Scott Chreist

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