7 Steps to Create an Environment of Trust on Your Team
This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.
Whether your team hums along with high trust or sputters with suspicion depends on you. Follow these steps to create conditions in which trust can flourish.
1. Start by modeling trust yourself.
Leaders set the tone for their teams. It’s more than what you say — your direct reports follow what you do.
Brush up on the 13 Trust Behaviors from FranklinCovey’s Leading at the Speed of Trust — in particular these three:
- Keep commitments. Meet deadlines when you tell your team you’ll do something. Don’t skip recurring 1-on-1s, even when you feel too busy. When emergencies happen and you cannot keep a commitment, explain why — and if you routinely lapse, be more realistic about what you promise.
- Speak in an open, honest way. Give your true perspective without inflating the good or the bad, or holding back information (unless it’s truly confidential). Do this consistently and your team will trust that what you say is really what you think.
- Share your relevant failures, emphasizing what you learned from them. If all you do is push for perfection, your team may hold back or make excuses when things don’t go well. Sharing your failures signals that the important thing is to try your best, to learn, and to improve. Direct reports who aren’t afraid to make mistakes feel more confident taking risks and owning their work.
2. Eliminate rules or processes that send the signal “We don’t trust you.”
Some rules and processes are necessary for legal compliance reasons or to ensure essential work gets done right. (You wouldn’t want a pilot to skip their preflight checklist.)
But when direct reports experience these practices as tools that monitor them or that restrict their ability to do their jobs well, they can feel management doesn’t trust them. And when people don’t feel trusted, they may respond by taking less responsibility for what they do — the opposite of what you need from them.
Common trust-eroding practices:
- Remote worker attendance check-ins (e.g., requiring remote workers to message when they start work)
- Keys or passwords to access supplies, digital files, or other resources
- Software that monitors “activity”
- Cameras on for every virtual meeting
- Regulating when and for how long people take breaks
- Requiring an expense report for every purchase, no matter how small
- Approvals for small decisions (e.g., giving customers a reasonable discount or refund)
When you can, eliminate unnecessary restrictions, and tell your direct reports that you trust them to do their jobs well and to do what’s right for your customers and your company.
For things you don’t have the power to change, such as organization-wide computer monitoring software, you could share feedback with your manager (e.g., “This practice is hurting trust on my team because people feel micromanaged. Could we discuss the impact and the possibility of revising this policy?”). Honestly communicate to your team any benefits of the policy (e.g., that IT is using app-usage data to make software purchasing decisions) and reassure your direct reports that you trust them.
3. Set up transparent communication protocols to keep team members in the know.
When you set a standard with your team that information shared freely (not kept secret) helps everyone, trust flows in all directions. Your direct reports will feel more accountable to deliver on their commitments (less likely to let each other down) and feel confident that they have the information they need to make good decisions.
To help your team share what they know:
- Create a public venue for progress updates and goal tracking. Choose a cadence and venue (e.g., a standup meeting, an update email or chat post, or a data dashboard) that works best for your team. Be specific about what people should share — not only tasks they’ve completed or progress they’ve made but also challenges they’re facing or needs they have. That allows team members to ask questions and offer support.
- Dedicate times and channels to share organizational news and strategies. Add “Share news” as a recurring agenda item for team meetings and 1-on-1s. And designate a place — perhaps a shared chat channel — where people can post their news to each other. Be sure to share leaders’ current thinking as well as their final decisions to help your team understand how their work fits into the organization’s larger goals and prepare for possible changes.
- Build a habit of asking yourself and others “Who else should know about this?” Doing so builds trust by ensuring that people have all the information they need to do their jobs. It also encourages your team to think about what others need and to share information proactively, rather than keeping it to themselves or waiting for people to ask.
4. Encourage direct reports to speak up — and always respond constructively when they do.
Your direct reports may hold back their ideas and concerns when they fear that their views will be rejected or held against them. But when you actively welcome their input and concerns, they will feel safer sharing their best thinking and effort — and feel more invested in contributing to the team.
To encourage people to say what they think:
- Share why it’s important for people to speak up. “I’m excited to lead this project, but I certainly don’t have all the answers. It’s going to take everyone’s best ideas for us to get a final product that we’re all proud of.”
- Ask for input. “I’m thinking we should do X, but before I decide, what am I missing? I want to hear any concerns that I should take into consideration.”
To respond positively and constructively regardless of what they share:
- If an idea is on target, reinforce it. “Thank you, that’s a great point. Let’s include that in our new protocol.”
- If an idea is off target, show gratitude for their effort and gently redirect the discussion. “Thanks for that idea. I appreciate what you’re saying. Right now we need to keep our focus on X. Your idea could be worth revisiting later when we shift to Y.”
- If they flag a mistake or potential mistake, acknowledge their concern. “Thank you so much for speaking up! You’re right.” Or “Thank you for raising that. It turns out, the way we’re doing it is correct. But I’m glad you spoke up because it’s important that we’re all on the lookout for possible problems.”
- If they raise a contrary view, be sure it’s fully considered. “That is quite different from what I’m hearing, so thank you for sharing it. Can you elaborate on why you think the original idea won’t work?”
5. Help direct reports collaborate in ways that rely on and develop each other’s strengths.
Because you’re their boss, your direct reports may naturally come to you for feedback and guidance. But if they rely only on you, their work can go only as far as your expertise can take them. When team members work together, they learn to use each other’s knowledge and ideas — and to rely on one another.
To lay the groundwork for greater collaboration:
- Talk as a team about each person’s greatest strengths. When your direct reports understand each other’s strengths, they’ll be better able to utilize them. You might share in a team meeting what you see as each direct report’s strengths. Or, if your team already has a good foundation of trust, you might facilitate a team discussion that leaves room for the group to identify skills you haven’t thought of.
- Suggest that team members seek each other’s input for problem-solving and planning. For example, “Braeden probably has some good ideas to help you because he faced a similar problem last year” or “Since Juan is doing related work, you might consider getting his insights as you develop your plan. How about checking in with him to see if it makes sense to collaborate?”
- When making assignments, encourage fresh partnerships that help teammates grow. Frame collaborations in a way that team members see how everyone benefits. For example, “Chanti, how about working with Drew on your next project? Your expertise in product design would help him expand his knowledge, and his project management skills could help you track the details.”
6. Regularly highlight how each direct report’s efforts contribute to achieving team goals.
Individual recognition is an important way to show your direct reports that you appreciate their hard work. When you tie those individual efforts to the team’s successes, you build trust among teammates by showing how each person is pulling their weight and working toward shared goals.
Depending on the nature of your team’s work, you could specify the part each person played in a large project or how their work helped the team tackle its top priorities.
“Congratulations to everyone who worked on the restructuring project — RJ for designing the new system, Patty for the database update, and Stanton for testing (and bringing the doughnuts). And while most of us were rushing to finish, Choonghee expertly handled a crisis with our most important client so that we could stay focused on the restructuring project. It was a great example of how we support one another to get the job done. Thank you.”
7. Use feedback to reinforce high-trust behaviors — and redirect trust-damaging ones.
Try to give feedback when the behavior is fresh in the person’s mind, and give more reinforcing feedback than redirecting feedback.
Reinforce these high-trust behaviors in your direct reports:
- Hearing others out during disagreements
- Admitting mistakes
- Speaking up about an issue (e.g., with you or a teammate) rather than letting it slide
- Offering help and following up about it
- Giving credit to others when it’s due
- Freely sharing information that benefits others on the team
Package your feedback by explaining the behavior you noticed and its impact — followed by your request for more of the behavior. For example:
“I noticed that you offered to help with the overflow requests without being asked. That attitude shows that others can depend on you and sets a great example for the team. Please continue to step up where you see opportunities to help.”
Redirect these trust-damaging behaviors in your direct reports:
- Hoarding useful information
- Overpromising and underdelivering
- Covering up mistakes
- Blaming others
- Taking credit for other people’s work
- Micromanaging others’ contributions
To redirect behaviors like these, consider having the conversation in private. Explain the behavior you noticed and its impact. Listen to the person’s perspective and respond appropriately. For example, you might start the conversation by saying:
“I noticed in this week’s updates that you haven’t yet sent the report to Kristin, even though you said you would by Tuesday. Lapsed commitments like that don’t just slow down our team, they hurt trust. Could you help me understand what’s going on?”