Building the Foundation for Trust on a Team

I do a fair amount of work in developing teams and in particular facilitating positive communication in teams. Many of the teams that I work work aren't necessarily dysfunctional but they may suffer from a number of communication deficits, which can lead to tension, miscommunication and conflict. To build a foundation of trust, each team member must first have a degree of self awareness. You have to know your own personality strengths and blind spots. You also need to know the impact that your own strengths and blind spots have on the rest of the team; an 'Other-Awareness'. An awareness of the strengths and blind spots of the other members of the team is of paramount importance. Most people would agree that knowing how to persuade or influence your fellow team members and how to not annoy them is also essential for team well being! I've found that one of the best tools for ensuring successful communication is The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality instrument. It presents four different categories or dichotomies: Extraversion vs Introversion; where you derive your energy and how you direct that energy, Sensing vs Intuition; how you take in information, Thinking vs Feeling; how you make decisions and Judging vs Perceiving; how you organise your external world. It is an easy to understand framework and presents people with four letters, which indicates their personality type.



One can then look at that type through different lenses - for example, using the middle two letters (how we take in information and how we make decisions) as a communication lens. Using this instrument, we can rapidly build that 'other awareness' in the team.



Exercises like 'Colourblind' help build trust in teams


Having this awareness of each other's communication styles is a good precursor to building trust on the team. When you know that Greg in Finance asks you for very detailed spreadsheets, he's not deliberately trying to ruin your day. He actually does need that level of detail to make sense of his world. When Jenny doesn't respond to your request for a marketing plan immediately, it doesn't mean she's procrastinating; it might just mean she's making sure she has all her options laid out before giving you a final answer.

As we start to understand each other's particular personality types and communication styles, it becomes a lot easier to understand your team-members' motivations to to start to trust them. In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni refers to trust being at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. He says that it is in fact, the foundation for a functioning, cohesive team, and without it, real teamwork cannot occur. He recommends instruments like the MBTI and other behavioural style questionnaires to build that trust. The reason why instruments like the MBTI are good precursors for building trust is that it presents positive language around each of the personality types. Every type has strengths and every type has blindspots. There is no judgement of each person on a continuum of behaviours for example how "Neurotic" or "Agreeable" they might be. Who would want to reveal the results of a personality instrument which suggested they had a high level of Neuroticism or a low level of Conscientiousness? That certainly wouldn't engender trust!!

Lencioni focuses on vulnerability based trust and states that trust comes from the vulnerability of team member's sharing their weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes and requests for help. Such trust, he says, enables us to focus on the job at hand rather than on protecting ourselves or our turfs. Trust doesn't come automatically, in the aftermath of a one day workshop. It takes time to build. The process can be accelerated by sharing each others' personality preferences and communication styles and as well as other exercises such as Personal Histories Exercises where team members might talk about any childhood difficulties they may have had, their best or worst job, people who had the biggest impact on them, and so on.


Becoming comfortable with vulnerability through sharing personal histories

When team members can be vulnerable with each other, they will become more comfortable being open and even exposed about their weaknesses and fears. Of course the most important thing that the team leader needs to do to encourage building team trust is to have the willingness to demonstrate vulnerability themselves! This means that a team leader needs to be able to risk 'losing face' in front of the team so that their subordinates will feel comfortable taking that risk themselves. It is also important that the team embraces a blame-free culture where vulnerability isn't punished! Chastising each other for admissions of weakness or failure isn't a good precursor for building trust. And of course any display of vulnerability on the part of the team leader must be genuine! Feigning vulnerability to manipulate the emotions of others is one of the easiest ways for a team leader to lose the trust of the team.

When team leaders and their team members become comfortable with being 'naked' with each other so that they can honestly say things like "I was wrong', "I made a mistake", "I need help,", "I'm not sure" , "You're better at that than I am," and even "I'm sorry", they'll be less likely to waste time and energy wondering what they should say and trying to figure out everyone's true intentions.


Resources for Building Team Based Trust


Patrick Lencioni (2002), 'Five Dysfunctions of a Team', Jossey-Bass

Patrick Lencioni, (2010), 'Getting Naked', Jossey-Bass

Pocket Personality Communication Cards (2016), Life Trails Consulting


Workshops for Building High Performing Teams


Build an Awesome Team, Life Trails Consulting.

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