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Trust in relationships is a fundamental human need. It is the glue that binds team members together. It helps foster a sense of belonging and influences member’s willingness to communicate openly, commit to the team’s goals, take risks and support one another. When trust is not established or breaks down, communication becomes more difficult, conflicts increase, personal agendas increase, and productivity drops.

Several years ago I worked with a department that had three shifts. Over time trust had eroded so badly that one shift would purposely sabotage the next shift by leaving work undone, making it look like the other shifts weren’t working. Backbiting, gossip, and negativity were rampant. Team members dreaded coming to work. Morale was very low. The supervisors were just as much a part of the problem as their staff but they realized how bad things were and were willing to do whatever it took to make things better. They called me, and we engaged in the following process that we considered risky at the time but pushed ahead anyway despite having reservations.

We held a team retreat with all of the team supervisors and they were asked to go up to each supervisor and say to their face that they either trusted them or didn’t, and clearly state why. The supervisor getting the feedback was required to say “thank you” whether the feedback was positive or negative, and then ask what they needed to do to rebuild trust with the person. This is a risky activity, and this is where the first level of trust must come into play: Everyone must agree that once this exercise is complete, everyone is starting with a clean slate. Because the level of trust had been so damaged and the team was in pain, all of the supervisors were willing to do this. By them leading the way–and because they continued to work on team development, they soon won the top award for the best team in the organization.

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Lack of trust is the main reason teams fail

Lack of trust is at the heart of most ineffective teams. How does your team rank on the trust scale? Here is a checklist of low-trust indicators.

Symptoms of Low Trust in Teams:

  • Mistakes are covered up
  • Help is not sought when needed
  • Assistance is not offered
  • Team members are unwilling to take risks
  • Information is not shared nor is input sought on important team decisions
  • Team members don’t keep commitments to each other or the team
  • Members may feel confused, anxious, and vulnerable
  • Team members compete instead of cooperate
  • There is a perception that some team members are doing more than their share of work
  • Some members feel there are inequities in work assignments, recognition, etc.
  • When team goals are not met, members blame one another
  • Differences of opinions become exaggerated
  • Conflicts are not resolved and may escalate
  • Gossip is rampant
  • Styles differences are exaggerated and members have difficulty tolerating each other
  • Time and energy is spent managing poor behavior

Rebuilding trust is the most important thing you can do for success

If your team doesn’t rank so high on the trust scale, here are a few ways to start rebuilding that most critical component of high-performance teamwork.

How to Build or Rebuild Trust in Teams:

  • Make sure all members are clear about the purpose of the team, their expectations, and the boundaries the team is working under
  • Help members build positive relationships with each other, spend time not just focused on the task at hand but having fun with each other and getting to know each other on a more personal level
  • Create consensus around the teams working agreements or ground rules. Make sure you create them with the whole team, everyone understands them clearly, and they are put into practice daily
  • Encourage members to hold each other accountable to keeping agreements or renegotiating broken agreements, showing up for meetings, completing assignments on time, and keeping their commitments and promises
  • Encourage members to support each other in being successful and take the time to discuss and address their needs so there are no hidden agendas
  • Create a safe and open environment where members communicate openly with each other, share information, ask questions, say what is on their minds, challenge assumptions, raise difficult issues, and ask for help when they need it
  • Leaders must model the behavior they expect/want from their teams and can learn how to do so through effective leadership training
  • Encourage individual members to take responsibility for their mistakes and for teams to have regular checkpoints to monitor their progress
  • Help maintain confidentiality when needed
  • Have a positive attitude and speak highly of each other and acknowledge members skills and abilities
  • Involve others and seek their input

Rebuilding trust doesn’t happen by “just letting it go.” It takes a willing and conscious effort on all parts. What symptoms of low trust does your team exhibit? What are some things from the list above you could do today to begin raising the trust level in your team?



Linda Anderson from the Denver Training Group (DTG) in Denver, Colorado, has more than 25 years of experience in the professional skills training and consulting industry, providing marketing and client account management for the training experts she represents. DTG delivers effective training and consulting solutions for organizations throughout Colorado and beyond to help them successfully Develop, Transform, and Grow.