You’d be surprised how many trust issues on teams aren’t actually trust issues. Well, that’s not totally fair. They’ve become trust issues, but they didn’t start with team members backstabbing, demonstrating incompetence, or failing to deliver. A significant proportion of trust issues I see are actually alignment issues in disguise. So, next time you’re setting up a team, invest a little effort in creating alignment at the start so you don’t have to invest a lot of effort in repairing broken trust later.

I’ll give you 10 things you can do to set up a team for success. First, let’s take a quick pass at the nature of trust so you can see when misalignment becomes such a problem.

Trust Issues

I’ve gone into depth on trust in previous posts (you’ll find links below). Essentially, trust comes from the ability to reliably predict how someone else will behave. Our brains like when we can anticipate things and don’t like when we get surprised. There are different types of predictability that correspond to different levels of trust.

  • If we don’t know a person very well and find ourselves taken by surprise by their moods or actions, we lack a strong enough connection.
  • If a person has to deliver work that they are unfamiliar with or that they lack the skills to do properly, we question their credibility.
  • If a person is pulled in many directions by competing priorities and a heavy workload, we worry about their reliability.
  • If we get direct or indirect evidence that a person is not honest or is antagonizing us in some way, we question their integrity.

With an understanding of the different types of trust, you can implement a set of practices at the start of a project and greatly reduce the likelihood that misalignment will manifest as a trust problem during the course of the project.

The Tips

Create a Connection
  1. Formally kick off projects by bringing the team together. Where possible, have the team eat together to take advantage of our very primitive tendency to trust people with whom we eat.
  2. Use a personality or style tool to raise people’s awareness of the similarities and differences between them. Have each person share their answers to questions such as: “One thing most people are surprised to learn about me.” “You can count on me to…” “When I’m stressed, you see…” “If I’m behaving badly, help me by…”
Establish Credibility
  1. Be extremely specific about the problem the team needs to solve. Clarify both what you are solving for and what you are not. Define the success criteria. Eliminate the possibility that different interpretations of what good looks like will trigger concerns about people’s competence.
  2. As you define the problem the team needs to solve, ask what knowledge, skills, experiences, or traits it will take to do the work. Assemble the people with the right mix of competencies and be specific about who’s handling what. Where there’s a skill gap, acknowledge it and be explicit about how you’re going to handle it. Get any concerns about competence on the table so they don’t secretly undermine the team’s confidence in one another.
Strengthen Reliability
  1. Be explicit about where the project fits within each person’s priorities. If the relative priority of the project differs for different team members, make alternate arrangements. Either increase the priority of the project (e.g., remove other work, change out the person) or change the expectations for the project (e.g., delay the timelines).
  2. Where possible, create shared goals and measures. Project teams where members are rewarded for different things often find it challenging to trust one another. If each person is trying to optimize their own performance and that doesn’t add up to the overall performance of the group, you’re in trouble.
  3. Create frequent check points where team members get a view of all the moving parts. The earlier you spot a problem, the less likely it is to be interpreted as a trust issue.
Demonstrate Integrity
  1. From the start, make room for people’s emotions and values to be expressed. Use questions such as, “This project is important to me because…” “I’m worried about…” “I’m counting on the team to…” Values and emotions are present in any project. When it’s safe to make your hidden agenda into a visible agenda, it’s much less likely to interrupt trust.
  2. For each major decision in the project, determine who owns the decision. Be clear if one person owns the decision on WHAT you’re doing and another owns the decision about HOW you’re doing it. Concerns about integrity often arise when team members over-estimate their power or control on a given issue.
  • Agree in advance on how you’ll resolve disputes. Set ground rules for how you’ll deal with difficult situations and ask every member of the team to stick to those rules. Often, a simple set of rules such as: When you have a concern be proactive (don’t wait until it has caused a problem), specific (have evidence and examples to clarify your point), and direct (i.e., talk to the person you have a concern about not to anyone else).

The majority of teams have at least some lingering trust issues that are affecting the willingness of team members to collaborate fully with one another. Beneath the surface, many of these issues stem from a lack of investment in getting aligned at the beginning. Use these simple steps to create connections, establish credibility, strengthen reliability, and demonstrate integrity on your team.

Further Reading

The Surprising Source of Most Trust Issues

5 Practices that Bolster Trust on your Team

One Thing You Can Do to Repair Trust that is Damaged