Chapter 4. Trust Tools

The Big Ideas

Image You can’t make people trust each other.

Image However, you can create a culture where trust can be built and thrives.

Why Trust Matters

“This team needs a really good leader. They need you.”

You’ve been asked to take over the leadership of a struggling team. The lack of trust within the team sticks out like a sore thumb. Your current team exudes trust and it has made quite a difference—morale and productivity are high; ideas and the information everyone needs to be successful flow freely; team members help each other without taking over. In other words, they are a cohesive, collaborative team that delivers results.

So how do you help your new, struggling team become a trusting team? This chapter is not about how people develop trust in their personal relationships. There are many articles written on that topic [42]. Rather, this chapter addresses how leaders can create a culture where trust among team members is fostered, flourishes, and thrives—where people who have not begun to trust each other discover the possibility.

The first step is to assess whether you have broken trust in your team or it is just that they have yet to build trust with each other. Each of these situations has to be dealt with differently. Once the broken trust issue is resolved, focus on how to create a culture where trust within a team or with other teams can develop and thrive.

First, let’s take a look at the price tags of not having trust in an organization.

Lack of Trust Price Tags

Why should you spend the effort in creating a culture of trust? Look at the transaction costs, the number of decisions and/or actions you make when interacting with someone or something. How long does it take you to get a task done by someone you don’t trust? There is the preparation time as you figure out how to approach this person and how to clearly state your request. In the conversation, how many times did you say the same thing in different ways to ensure you were heard? How many times did you check to make sure that he correctly heard what you said? How often did you check to see if he will deliver what and when he said he would? The transaction costs of distrust are high. In a non-trusting environment, people spend a large amount of time protecting themselves. No wonder teams without trust exhibit low productivity.

However, there is data on the price tag to a company’s bottom line when it lacks trust. The Great Place to Work Institute determines the 100 Great Places to Work every year for Forbes magazine. In their research of the candidates, they have developed what they call a Trust Index, and the companies are also ranked by this index. From 2004 to 2009, the top 100 trust companies generated revenue growth twice that of the second ranking 100 trust companies and four times the average of the S&P 500 [5].

Trust Assessment

What does a team without trust look like?

How do you know that a team lacks trust? Look for the following signs:

Image Fear—People are hesitant to speak up—perhaps out of fear of failure or humiliation.

Image Secretive, territorial, everyone out for themselves—Individuals on the team seem to pontificate and spout monologues and at the same time keep valuable information from the team.

Image Lack of engagement—Team members do not appear to support each other and often don’t participate in team discussions and decisions.

Image Defensive and negative—People have closed body language; they hardly ever say a good word about other team members or the tasks at hand.

Image Judgmental and condescending—Ideas are often dismissed without consideration or criticized unfairly.

Image Passive-aggressive behavior and lack of integrity—In meetings, some people agree to one thing but outside the meetings say and do another.

Image Impatient, people are easily agitated—Tension often appears in every working encounter; at the same time, people lack initiative and patience.

Image Gossip runs rampant, as does complaining—Team members talk behind each other’s backs, and most humor is mean-spirited instead of healthy, fun humor.

It is quite a challenge to take on such a team and lead them to trusting each other, especially when you are faced with the fact that as a leader, you cannot change people. You can’t make people trust each other. Ordering people to trust each other just doesn’t work.

Still, you want to take on the leadership of this team. You know many of the team members. They are a talented group and have produced great results on other teams. The project they are working on is important to the company, and you figure you can help. But there is one more question you need to consider.

One of the team members comes to you and asks, “Can I talk to you about one of my team members who is giving me trouble?”

“Sure.” Then comes the first, important question, “Do you trust him?” And the usual reply? “No.” That’s an issue. People know when you don’t trust them. They really know when their leaders don’t trust them. As Ricardo Semler asks in his book, The Seven-Day Weekend [6], if you don’t trust the people on your team, why are they on your team? For that matter, why are they in your organization?

Before you make a decision about leading this team, ask yourself one final question: “Can I trust everyone on this team?” You may not know all of them well, but you must make sure there is no one on the team you distrust.

Your answer to this question is yes, so you accept the leadership role for this team. Now what do you do?

Broken Trust or Lack of Trust

“What do you do when there is one person on a team that no one trusts?” “Are you sure they don’t trust him?” Our answer is, “Is it a lack of trust or has trust been broken?”

Broken trust is like a cut rope. There are many strands wound together that give the rope its strength. Once cut, repairing the rope requires matching each piece, strand for strand. Not only does it take time, but the rope will never be the same and will not have the strength the original rope had. Can a distrusted person repair his relationship with the rest of the team? Does he want to? Does the team want to rebuild the relationship with him? And does he have the skills to do so? Possibly, but the time and effort to do so is very high, and the results might not be optimal or even acceptable.

However, there may be no broken trust in the team, just lack of trust. If so, the trust can be developed. You need to find out if trust is broken or not yet developed. Take the time to make some observations and assessments to see how deep the distrust might be and identify some possible causes.

Interview each team member in confidence. Ask about how they like their work on the team, what’s working and what’s not. If they could fix what’s not working, what would they do and why? Ask what obstacles are getting in the way of their individual success and their team’s success. Do they feel like the team can deliver the expected results? And if not, what can be done to improve their chances? Check to see if they feel the right people are on the team, that everyone has the knowledge, experience, and commitment to complete the project. Most important, ask if they trust everyone on their team. They may be uncomfortable answering such direct questions with their new leader. Listen for the ring of truth in what people say and make note of what they leave out of your conversation.

Walk the floor. Watch and listen to how the team works. Is one person talking all the time? Are people ignoring one or more of their fellow team members? Are there consistent put-downs or constant dismissals of one person’s ideas? Spend time in the break room. How do they interact there? Do they avoid someone? Do they talk about ideas? Do they avoid eye contact with some of their team members? Listen to the interactions within the team and with people outside the team, and look at their results and progress.

Look for trends or threads in your conversations and observations. Did you sense any red flags or unauthentic answers? Did one name come up again and again as someone who did not deliver as he said he would? Did one person consistently withhold information? Was he constantly noted as hard to get along with, never listening, saying one thing and doing another? The issue of distrust seems to point to one person and a hard decision faces you. Your decision will not only affect the relationship between the individual and the team but will also shape the team’s view of you.

You have two choices: Keep this person involved with the team at some level or remove him. What is your first response? Your intuitive answer may be the right one, but before you act, answer a few more questions. How valuable is he to your team, to your project? Can your team succeed without him? What are the negative impacts if he leaves? Or if he stays?

Apply the “vacation test.” See how the team does when the problem team member goes on vacation for a few days. Take this person off the team and give him something else to do. Place him where he cannot interfere with the day-to-day functions of the team. What happens to the team productivity, their motivation, their morale?

If you come to the conclusion that the team benefits from his removal, then make the move as soon as possible. But what if you need to keep him involved with the team at some level? Then what do you do?

Again you have two choices: Ask the team to integrate this person in some way into the project, or create a one-person island inside the team. With the trust problem on the island, members of the team interact via some prescribed methods in order to keep communication to the bare minimum necessary to get the job done. Both integration and the island are difficult to implement and will take time and effort to accomplish. Help the team take ownership of the issue. Sit with the team without this person and ask them how they can work with him. What team norms would have to be established to make it happen? What would they need to be successful with him on the team? What do they need from you to make it happen? What does the team want you to do when the disruptive person interferes too much with the other team members? Come to an understanding that, while the team must work with this disruptive person, they do not have to view him as a team member. They can collaborate without him. They must make decisions with this person only when it involves his work.

Everyone must understand that sabotaging the disruptive person is not acceptable and would be sabotaging the team’s own efforts. Ensure that the team will be measured as a team, not as individuals. While they can’t control the disruptive person in their midst, they can use his knowledge and experience to succeed as a team.

You have resolved the situation with the difficult person, but are your team issues now solved? Do you have a trusting, productive team? Not quite! They now have to build trust.

Creating a Culture of Trust

How do you create a culture of trust?

“Just pick people who are trustworthy.” I get this answer at times from my colleagues.

“And how often do leaders actually get to do that?” I ask.

Think how nice it would be. You are assigned a project. You pick people you know are good, competent, and trustworthy. You give them responsibility to deliver within the constraints and they become a trusting, high-performance team. All within 15 minutes. You may have the opportunity to have this experience once in your lifetime—but probably not. Realistically, like it or not, you are given your team members with all their foibles, shared history, and excess baggage.

As the leader, your role, style, and behavior will lay the groundwork for building a culture of trust.

To start, there are a few things you need to pay special attention to about you. Authenticity is essential—your team will see right through you if you are not authentic (missing your own ring of truth), and their lack of trust will continue. Be trustworthy and own up to your own foibles, history, and mistakes. Share all information with the team and when you can’t, tell them why. You have to show you trust your team—first.

Give up command and control leadership and don’t micromanage. Telling people what to do and how to do it shows a lack of trust. If you trust people, you believe they will do what they say they will do and they know best how to do it. Micromanagement sends a message that you do not trust those you are leading.

Trust me—your leadership will be tested by your team. Team members will come back several times to see if you will rescue them, fix it for them, tell them what to do and how to do it, if you will really accept mistakes, and whether you genuinely trust them to deliver. They will watchcarefully and test your trustworthiness. Will you listen? Will you give them the information they ask for? Will you admit your mistakes? Will you be honest?

Now focus on creating a culture where the team can build trust among themselves.

So what can you, as the leader, do? Use any of the following techniques, either one or as many as you need:

Image Remove debilitating fear.

Image Use team-based measurements.

Image Ask for small deliverables in short iterations.

Image Expect success, allow mistakes.

Image Take the fun out of being dysfunctional.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these techniques.

Remove Debilitating Fear

Debilitating fear is what keeps team members from expressing their questions, solutions, analyses, and investigations. They are afraid of failure, humiliation, ridicule, loss of respect, and—the deepest fear—loss of their position, pay, and perhaps their job. Fear results in paralysis and catastrophizing (making things seem worse than they are). They focus on avoiding mistakes rather than on delivering exceptional value.

I once worked for a nonprofit where people were always worried about their job security. When the issue came up, I asked them to figure out ways to solve that problem. They filled three easel-size sheets of paper with ideas and because they were their ideas, they implemented them. One great way to remove the fear is to ask the team how they want to do it.

Do you know what your team fears? Ask them. Get some sticky notes and pens, ask each person to write what their fears are in the team, one idea on each sticky note, as many ideas as they want. Have each person put their notes on the wall and ask the team to group them. Let each person vote on their biggest fears. Then break them into teams and have them work on solutions.

In his book, Beyond Bureaucracy [1], Warren Bennis states that in a collaborative environment (like a team) people fear three things: losing their identity; losing their intellectual mastery; and losing their individualism. Because each person is different, a leader must get to know each teammember to learn how to remove these fears. I ask people questions to get to know them, something about how they think and why they are who they are. For example, “What was a major turning point in your life?” or “What was a book that made a difference in your life?” or “How do you define integrity?” I want to know something about the individual that might have formed his or her life in some way. This can give me some insight into how to address these fears of loss.

Some tools that can help are holding “lunch and learns” for team members to share their knowledge, having innovation days to try new things and demonstrate them, or asking experts to mentor team members and recognize efforts within the team.

Use Team-based Measurements

Measuring individual performance is a deterrent to collaboration and teams working together. Often, if individuals are measured on their own performance, they don’t care how well the rest of the team does—they’ll look out for themselves first. To change this dynamic, measure the team, not the individuals. This motivates the team to work together and help each other deliver a team success. You might not get your HR department to go along with this, but you can ask the team to evaluate themselves as a team. The key here is that they do not need to share this with anyone outside the team unless they want to. One executive who did this said it was the largest significant decision he ever made—that it made a great impact on the team toward improving their performance.

Ask for Small Deliverables in Short Iterations

Ask the team for rapid, incremental deliveries—small successes where they can see progress and successful results as a team. Let them make decisions on how they will do this, how they will do their own work, and how they will work together. They don’t need you to tell them. Step back and let the team decide.

Expect Success, Accept Mistakes

Stress the motto “Fail early, fail fast.” People learn from their mistakes. Right now, your team may be worried about taking a risk and failing. Sure, removing disruptive fear might help. Most important is your protecting them and your organization. Create a way for the team to fail safely. What does that mean? First, you don’t want them to be embarrassed in front of your customers, in front of organizational leaders, and in front of other teams. Add a step in the processes (or better still, suggest they evaluate adding a step) where they can walk through their results before they go outside their team.

Remember, people learn from mistakes. Focus on the learning and not the mistake. This includes not allowing any judgments on ideas. All thoughts are accepted as something to discuss and look at as possibilities. If the team struggles with this, call them out on it.

Take the Fun Out of Being Dysfunctional

Ignore unprofessional behavior. What do you do about those who are gaming the system where team members leverage the leader to discredit a team member? This does not exist in a healthy team—one that is collaborative, understands and respects each other’s contributions, remains focused, and has ownership. But you don’t have that—yet. To get there, take the fun out of dysfunctional. Remove the reward people are getting for playing games within the team. When someone causes distractions, such as asking rhetorical questions with no real purpose—where they are trying to impress you with the right answer or embarrass you if you made a mistake—ignore this behavior. Stand quietly and do not say a word. Or look to others in the room and change the subject. Remember, negative attention can be a reward for many people.

Your Leadership Role

The team’s efforts to build trust will have their ups and downs. There are a few things you can do to help that process move forward.

Image Be Authentic. If the team feels you are not authentic, they will chew you up and spit you out. They need to know that your agenda is their success—that you are not putting your personal agenda over the purpose of the team and the organization.

Image Create Transparency. Share all you can to help the team succeed, including understanding of the wider business needs and the big picture. There are things you cannot share, so when information must be withheld, explain why.

Image Show Trustworthiness. The team needs to know they can count on you.

Image Protect the Team Boundaries. Be your team’s advocate—go to bat for them, get the team what they need to succeed, and don’t let the distractions of corporate bureaucracy and politics creep into their work environment.

Image Stay Positive. The team will need acknowledgment, feedback, and recognition. Affirm what is working. Don’t dwell on past failures or anything that could possibly be interpreted as judgmental. Negative feedback will be blown out of proportion, and its effects may take a long time to repair.

To help with this, remember Peter Drucker’s advice to focus on a person’s strengths rather than their weaknesses [3].

I once was giving a presentation. A person in the audience asked how leaders can be authentic and positive at the same time. I was speechless—for a moment. My reply was: If you can’t find something positive to say, don’t say anything. However, if you can’t find something positive to say to your team, they will know this and will never respect you as a leader.

Making a Change

Remember, people are different. There may be some individuals within the team that may never trust the organization or its leader. Sometimes the only solution is for the individual to leave.

Some years ago I discovered a highly negative individual on one of my teams. Due to some previous history that I could not discover, he saw the organization and all of its leaders, including myself, as completely untrustworthy. He was very outspoken and was really damaging the motivation of the individuals he worked with.

Professionally he was a highly effective programmer, and so I spent some time trying to coach him and change his viewpoint. After a while it became clear that he was not going to change his views, and I felt that this was a situation that was bad for all of us. His negative attitude was infecting the team and their morale was falling. In discussions about problems and potential actions, he was always arguing strongly for the most conservative, risk-free, and low-productivity option.

In a deliberately nonconfrontational way I pointed out to him that he was clearly very unhappy working for the company and that it must be painful spending 8 or 9 hours a day working for people he didn’t trust. I asked him why, if it was so painful, he didn’t leave the company.

He did get a new job elsewhere and some months later contacted me to thank me for helping him move. He said it was something that he should have done much earlier.

His move was good for all of us. If you don’t take care of a negative person or situation, the negativity will spread and the team will resent your not taking action.

Decision Filters

Use decision filters. These are questions that help each of us remain focused. When it comes to building a culture of trust, my decision filters are

Image Will this help remove the fear of collaboration?

Image Does this show the team I trust them?

Image Will this show the team I am trustworthy and authentic?

Image Does this show the team I expect success and accept mistakes?

Image Will this help the team understand their purpose?

When you encounter almost any situation, you can ask these questions and decide how you can increase the trust between you and the team, among the members of the team, and between the team and everyone else.

Will blaming the team for missing a critical requirement show the team that you trust them? Probably not. So find a way to help them learn without blame.

Will admitting that you made a mistake when you gave your team the wrong budget figures show that you are trustworthy and authentic? It can’t hurt. So admit your mistakes.

In Summary

Teams deliver great results when they take ownership. After working with a team on setting goals and objectives, leaders must step back and let the team work. You can’t do this without trust—it is essential in engaging teams, retaining talent, fostering innovation, creating great working environments, and delivering results. When the trust goes out of a team, what can a leader do?

Hard as it may be, you must decide what to do when one member of the team has broken trust with the others. It really does not matter how it happened. To keep such a person on your team is costly. You must decide if it is better to take the person off the team or not. If you keep that person, you and the team must decide how to work with that person.

As the leader, make sure you trust or can build trust with everyone on your team. Be transparent and show you are open to new ideas and different ways of thinking. Practice collaborative leadership—give up micromanagement and command and control.

Leaders cannot make people trust each other, but they can create a culture that encourages trust and where trust flourishes and thrives.


[1] Bennis, Warren. Beyond Bureaucracy: Essays on the Development and Evolution of Human Organization. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

[2] Benson-Armer, Richard, and Stickel, Darryl. “Successful Team Leadership Is Built on Trust.” Ivey Business Journal, May/June 2000.

[3] Drucker, Peter. The Practice of Management. New York: HarperCollins, 1954.

[4] Hurley, Robert F. “The Decision to Trust.” Harvard Business Review, September 2006.

[5] Lyman, Amy. “The Trust Bounce.” Great Place to Work® Institute, 2009.

[6] Semler, Ricardo. The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works. New York: Portfolio, 2004.