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Take teams from to low to high trust

4 min read


When something goes seriously wrong, it’s often first announced by subtle signals.

The two of us are living proof of how important it is to listen and act on those signals. At different points, we each found ourselves feeling a little bit off physically — nothing specific, just a sense that we weren’t up to speed. After diagnostic tests, we heard the same conclusion: “You have cancer.”

Caught early, our illnesses were treatable. But had we ignored those signals until they became more compelling, our stores would have had very different outcomes.

One of the most damaging conditions to the health of teams is low trust. Like cancer, it initially produces signs that are subtle, yet dangerous to ignore: sluggish engagement, collaboration that doesn’t gel, team members who are trudging through the status quo. As with cancer, early recognition and action are critical.

Are you like many leaders who see signs of low trust in your teams and are looking for ways to address it? We have identified three stages to turn teams around from to low to high trust.

Stage one: Assess trust

Take an honest look at how team behaviors are contributing to trust. Tap into internal or external support to give you an objective gauge of trust. Use a survey tool that validly measures trust. Talk to members about their experiences of trust. Listen to what has been difficult and why. Do team members give feedback with the intent to help, or to criticize and blame? Are they clear on expectations, yet, fail to do what they say they will do? When members have an issue do they bring it to the person involved, or, to everyone else? Take a courageous, holistic look at team behaviors that both build and erode trust.

This stage creates awareness and prepares people to leverage opportunities.

Stage two: Address trust

Openly discuss assessment results. Work with your team to pinpoint two to three trust-related behaviors on which to focus. Bring the team tools to practice them. If there is gossip, help team members learn how to surface and work through issues and concerns directly. If people are left out of decisions, invite their input. If members are reluctant to take risks, make it safe to admit and learn from mistakes.

Equip the team with a language to discuss trust continuously. Model the transparency and open communication you wish to see. Make trust behaviors a part of everyday work.

Stage three: Assimilate trust

With discipline, high-trust behaviors become a part of teamwork , a new norm. So, keep it coming as benefits appear. Encourage authentic dialogue around needs, uncertainty and vulnerabilities. Ensure that clarity of expectations, roles and responsibilities is standard practice. Address subtle signs that tell you trust might be vulnerable. Be willing to wade into ambiguity and areas of difficulty.

Through these stages, leaders have experienced dramatic turnarounds: a manufacturing plant went from the lowest to the highest producer of a 12-plant network in 18 months; engagement scores in a global financial services organization improved by 25% in nine months; an insurance company’s bogged-down $30 million initiative moved ahead of schedule.

As part of our cancer treatments, we each became more attentive to things like healthier nutrition, appropriate exercise, and managing stress. Those changes, practiced with discipline, have brought us to a state of stronger health than we’d had before we became ill.

Imagine your team in a state of vitality. When members need support they ask for and receive it. They step up with energy, new ideas, take risks, and share responsibility — not only for what they do, but also for how they do it. Confidence and commitment abounds.

If that image seems far from reality, maybe it’s time to take the first step toward high team trust.

Dr. Michelle L. Reina and Dr. Dennis S. Reina are the founders of the Reina, a Trust Building Consultancy, which combines rigorous research with a compassionate approach that recognizes the human aspect of trust. They are the authors of “Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace” and “Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace.”