Trust is a powerful thing.

The most recent TED Radio Hour podcast (though it is a re-run), on the NPR app, called Trust and Consequences really struck a chord with me.

If you’ve ever been on a team that went from winning to falling short day after day, then you’ve probably questioned “what happened?”. It is not uncommon for team dynamic to change. What is uncommon is honestly pinpointing the source of the problem as opposed to the environmental symptoms.

In my life, I have been on 2 teams that unraveled.

The first instance was an athletic team. Our team had gone from conference champions to a group with in-fighting and cliques. At the time, I thought it was that breakdown of camaraderie which was the cause of the bad play and our sub-par sportmanship. What I didn’t realize at the time was how trust (or the lack thereof) had basically eroded our ability to function as a selfless team. Instead we spent hours on drills, on plays, and on chalk talks, under the impression that it was actually a lack of will or skill which was plaguing us.

The second instance was much more recent and much more public. I worked at an organization that had been on a rocket-like trajectory since inception. As a young professional, working in a place like this was career-heaven. There were always new opportunities, big relationships, interesting projects, and a culture of winning. In this situation, our team had access to an endless stream of opportunities, until one day it all came crumbling down and the opportunities stopped. What I didn’t realize at the time was that our culture also had a lot of other (better) values which dried up in the organizational collapse – like compassion, humility, and trust. After the fall, we outwardly struggled to regain public trust and we internally struggled to regain trust in each other and in ourselves.

The common dominator in both situations – trust. Here’s what Simon Sinek says about trust in the opening from his TED talk, “Trust comes from a sense of common values and beliefs. And the reason trust is important is because when we are surrounded with people who believe what we believe, we are more confident to take risks. We are more confident to experiment (which requires failure be the way). We are more confident to go off and explore knowing that there is someone from within our community, someone who believes what we believe, someone we trust and who trusts us which watch our back, help us when we fall over…”.

Sinek goes on to say that it’s nearly impossible to define the “steps” that build trust. I agree that the process is different for every group. Here are three things I’ve found to build trust in small work teams.

  • Prioritize the Group and then the Individuals. I firmly believe in the idea that no one person is more important than the team. I talk openly about this with my teams and I use the discussion to share how committed I am to ensuring the success of the project. I then follow with individual discussions to highlight the strengths each person brings to the table and how I’m relying on them in this process. A team functions best when roles are clear. This allows each individual to shine in their space and then be credited for what they added to the collective success. If you are already holding group conversations, try going one level deeper to individuals and see whether it makes a difference.
  • Practice what you preach. Once you’ve established rapport within team, remember the rules you set or those that the group has created. Playing by the same rules shows that you consider yourself an equal in the process and you respect the members of the group. A great example of this, which I’ve seen consistently violated, is timeliness. As a leader, if you are late to a meeting, apologize the first time. If you are at risk of being late in the future, either adjust the meeting start time moving forward or give your team a 30 minute heads up so it can be rescheduled. Everyone is busy but you will quickly lose the team’s trust if you treat their time as less valuable than your own.
  • Pass the credit on to others. As your team gains momentum, others may begin to know your success. When you receive compliments about your team or project, ask that person to directly reach out to your teammate instead. All too often, compliments and pats on the back stay at the top within a leadership circle when they are much more powerful shared with those who are doing the work. You may be amazed by how the team continues to excel when they are getting recognition from others around the organization.

Trust is a magic fuel for teams which takes hard work to create and can be lost in an instance. As a life long athlete, and as a manager, my radar to detect that feeling is always on because I know there is a tangible difference in the performance of a team and each of its unique individuals when trust is present. As the team is moving forward, working toward their goals, hitting their stride, I’m the person monitoring the group. How does the atmosphere feel? What are people’s attitudes towards the project? Towards each other? Towards themselves? Does everyone hold a stake in the success? How will the group adjust to setbacks and external obstacles?

It’s not an easy job but building trust within your team and within your organization is one of the greatest skills you can bring to the table. Whether your team or company is riding the waves of success or slogging through the valleys of hard work, trust can change the way you and your team feel each day in the office and subsequently change the actual outcome of the situation. Remember, “Leaps of greatness require the combined problem-solving ability of people who trust each other.” Good luck!

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