3 Ways to Improve Trust for you and your team

A sense of trust is vital in an effective team. Trust facilitates successful collaboration and powerful outcomes. A team that holds a high level of trust can pull together when required, as well as rely on all the individual contributors to do their part. A team with strong trust will be highly productive and reliable.

Working in a team with high levels of trust is a great place to be. When you know that each area is contributing their agreed component to the overall project or operation, you’re able to focus on the overall business outcome, and less on tracking deliverables and risk/issue management. With the right mix of team members it is stimulating, innovative and highly supportive. There’s a higher level of ease in getting things done.

When trust is absent from a team, performance is inconsistent. Uncertainty about individual contributions can lead to failure to deliver a full solution. This can ruin the productivity of the team and create a culture of undermining and backstabbing. These teams become renowned in an organisation for all the wrong reasons. Other teams will avoid working with them and their input will be diminished.

I’m sure we all know the sinking feeling in a project or operational delivery when we’re asked to collaborate with a team or person we don’t trust. I recall working on a project where 8 out of 9 streams were high-trust and working together.  The 9th team seemed to have a ‘cloak of invisibility’ around their deliverables where none of the other teams could establish what they were responsible for delivering or when something might be delivered. This led to unease with the downstream teams and led to the management team spending excessive time in risk management meetings trying to extract the information required to ensure the project remained on track. The low level of communication led to further mistrust and suspicion with the other streams.

As a leader it’s critical to build an environment of trust and integrity so that your team can thrive.

“Trust is like the air that we breathe – when it’s present, nobody really notices; when it’s absent, everybody notices”  – Warren Buffett

Here are 3 ways to build trust for yourself and your team:

1. Be consistent and reliable

Follow through on your commitments and encourage your team to do the same. It’s critical not to overpromise as this makes it difficult to deliver and can lead to a bad reputation. It may not be possible to deliver on time, every time, but keep as close as possible to commitments and be across any issues, risks or changes to the agreed action or plan.

If you are naturally optimistic, this may lead to overcommitment. Build in a reasonable amount of contingency that allows room for slippage so you can ensure you’re able to deliver what you agreed and when you agreed. Once you have delivered on time and to the right quality a few times, you and your team’s reputation will improve.

2. Communicate frequently & be transparent

There’s something very reassuring about working with a team that’s willing to keep everyone up to date. Whether this is a simple progress report with ‘traffic lights’ indicating the delivery status, or a full real-time dashboard of information, it enables stakeholders and downstream teams to be able to plan resourcing and deliverables with a higher degree of confidence.

This need not be a huge overhead. I worked with one team where when the team started on work for a joint deliverable they would send a quick email just to tell us they had started and that unless we heard from them we could assume it was on track. Yes, there were times when they had to drop things due to higher-priority work appearing but being kept informed along the way enabled a sense of trust between our teams.

In those instances where progress is off track, call it out early and clearly. Provide clarity on the issue, the solution, and the impact as soon as possible. This again provides certainty to the stakeholders that you have it under control.

Think about how frequently you and your team communicate to stakeholders. Do you make it a policy to keep people updated? Consider stepping this up if you need to build trust in you and your team.

3. Own your mistakes, and those of your team

One thing is sure for every leader. At some point there will be mistakes. It may be a committed deadline that requires a resource that’s now unavailable or the mishandling of an escalation or complaint. We can have solid risk management in place, however, given all the different moving parts, personalities and priorities we aren’t going to get it right every time. Neither are the people in our teams, our customers or our stakeholders. Nobody’s perfect!

Early in my leadership career I was asked to take on a failing program to upgrade a software application. In hindsight, I suspect I was set up to be the ‘fall guy’ as I was very green as a leader and the project was a disaster! Shortly after taking the role, I was called into a senior management meeting to account for what had happened. The tone of the meeting was ‘heads must roll’. I was asked to explain who was responsible for the many stuff-ups.

I reflected on the team and how hard they were all working to resolve the horrible situation. Some hadn’t had a day off in months and were doing the best they knew how. I couldn’t throw them under the bus. I chose in the moment to say:

“At the end of the day the person responsible for the system is me. I’m sorry this happened. I realise it’s a bad situation, but I also think the plan we have in place to resolve it will work and that removing me now will make the situation worse for the team. If we can focus for the next 2-4 weeks and put the fixes in place, maybe you can decide then whether I am the right person to take this delivery forward?”

I also asked them for their help to ensure the fixes had priority across the business.

The feedback after the meeting was that because I’d taken responsibility, apologised sincerely and owned the challenges, faith was instilled in me and my team. The witch-hunt ceased and we were able to quickly resolve the issues with senior management helping to remove any blocks.

The way we handle mistakes helps define the culture of our teams. If your inclination is to hide what happened, blame someone else or deny you made a commitment in the first place then this is the behaviour you’re likely to see reflected in your team. Moving to a place of authenticity putting your hand up and taking responsibility where it’s warranted increases trust.  This in turn provides a safe environment for everyone to admit when they aren’t able to meet their commitments.

On reflection, do you look to allocate blame or do you stand up and take responsibility when things are off track? Where do you need to step up and show ownership?

“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”                     ― Brene Brown