Team Trap #8: Ignoring the Role of Trust

Trust is a foundation for effective team work (and effective organizations).

Teams don’t need blindfolded trust walks, ropes courses, or crash courses in sailing to develop trust. Activities like these may indicate absence of pathology. (If you’ve hired people that will let  a blindfolded person walk into a light pole, let them fall down a cliff, stumble into on-coming traffic, or fall onto their heads from a tall platform, you’ve got bigger problems.)

None of these team building/trust building activities have anything to do with the trust that’s needed on a team. Nor do team require the sort of trust that people (often) have with close family members, best friends, and clergy.

Teams need professional trust, trust that exists within the work context and relates to competence, commitment, and communication.

Team members need to trust that their coworkers are  competent related to the content of their work.

They need to trust their coworker’s intentions towards other team members and commitment to  the team (and their work) as a whole.

They need to know that team members won’t withhold important information–whether it’s related to the task or to relationships within the team. They need to trust that when something comes up—either related to a commitment, or an interpersonal interaction—the other team member will communicate directly with the person concerned, rather than taking it to the manager or talking to everyone else about it.

Each individual enters a team with a certain level of trust based on their outlook on life and past experience.  That level is different for every person. From that starting point, each interaction on the team either builds trust or erodes it.

Routines that maintain working relationships build trust.

Direct, congruent feedback builds trust.

Productive conflict builds trust.

Trust is not mystical, and it doesn’t come from a ropes course or a trust walk.  It comes from working together, working through the inevitable frictions, follow-through, and follow-up.

Also see:  Six Ways Team Members Build Trust with Each Other

6 Replies to “Team Trap #8: Ignoring the Role of Trust”

  1. Hey Esther,

    I think you might misunderstand the role that outdoor initiative games play in trust building. I’ve been running teens through high-ropes courses for over 10 years now and have seen group after group of kids, kids of different ethnic backgrounds, that wouldn’t even talk to each other at school, come out of a two day session able to relate to each other and work together.

    Like any facilitated exercise, the purpose of these events is to create a shared experience, and ah-ha moment, and then pull it back into the context of what we do on a day to day basis. While I agree with your fundamental premise on trust, I think you may have unfairly diminished the potential value these kinds of events can add.

    Again, think of these events just like any of the learning games you might use to help people understand how to build better software.

  2. Hi, Mike –

    Ropes courses can provide groups a way to get to know each other in a non-work setting. Social relationship are important for trust. When you see someone else as similar, or feel friendship you are more likely to cut them some slack or make a more generous interpretation when something goes awry.

    My point is that the sort of trust that is often emphasized in these courses (though obviously not the way you run them) doesn’t translate to the trust issues that are prevalent in goal oriented teams–competence, commitment, communication.


  3. Thanks for sharing something really worth taking a note. For an effective team Trust is a foundation but the sad part is that trust issues are everywhere, and a major challenge in a distributed setup.
    Along with what you said, I observed that when going gets tough, like, tight deadlines, resource crunch, etc, trust level goes up.


    • Hi, Prateek –

      I have seen teams pull together and develop trust in the face of deadlines. And I’ve seen teams completely break down under nearly identical external pressures. Not so simple, I think.


  4. Indeed! Trust is often what is lacking in the organisation when faced with any type of change, especially when trying to build a working team and especially if that team is supposed to be using agile values.

    With trust comes the “leap of faith” that I often find lacking. There needs to be trust for courage to exists. Courage to try something new, to try that scary new path which may (or may not!) lead to better performance. I wrote a bit about it: And I think that is the first step towards something new and great!

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