The Importance of Trust Within Teams

            My goal in compiling these lessons has been to enhance my peer's knowledge in different areas of leadership in order to increase their confidence level and performance. By having a larger working tool-kit, they will be able to more readily address different challenges in their management roles. One of the items not addressed thus far is the importance of trust between team members. No matter how large your tool-kit, when you are part of a leadership team, you will continually run into roadblocks regarding any initiatives you champion unless you have built trust within the leadership team framework. Adding trust building skills to any leader's repertoire will greatly enhance their effectiveness within team management frameworks.

            A 2010 article in the British Journal of Management entitled “The Role of Group Member Affect in the Relationship between Trust and Cooperationsets forth a good foundation for this discussion.  “Cooperation refers to the degree to which individuals are acting to promote the group and its goals,”[1] in contrast to displaying competitiveness. The authors postulate that trust and cooperation are directly related and that in order for a group to work together effectively and efficiently they must have cooperative behavior which is built upon a foundation of trust. The role emotions play in this theory is paramount. In a group environment rife with highly displayed emotions, such as anger or enthusiasm, group members that are normally less trusting, according to the article,  will be more cooperative than in groups where the members do not readily display emotions, groups in which members appear relaxed or bored. This is intriguing and points to the author’s argument “that distrusters, more than trusters, scan the environment for cues that help them to predict others’ behavior.”[2] The behavior of other members of a group, mainly their degree of emotional or affective displays, helps determine what behavior other group members will display. The history that the group has shared, or lack thereof, is also a key factor. When a leadership team does not share a history of cooperation, trust will be key in each member’s decisions and actions.

            The authors define trust as “the willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectations that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.”[3] Trust within a team hinges on an expectancy that as one team member acts cooperatively, the rest will follow suit. If a team member believes that another member is placing individual interests above that of the team, an air of distrust will develop, which will inhibit any efforts at cooperation. If there is a high level of trust within a team, individual members will not need to monitor other members closely in order to achieve cooperation within the team. “Trust allows people to handle the risk of being exploited or not being reciprocated in cooperative actions during social interaction and therefore justifies one’s decision to cooperate.”[4] This article goes on to say that one leader’s emotional displays or cues can evoke like actions in other group members. For example, if a respected member of a leadership team acts in a cooperative, trusting manner then other members of the team are more likely to also act cooperatively.  If one of the other members are distrusting, then the leader’s actions will not have any effect. A logical conclusion is that as trust is increased within teams, cooperation increases, which directly relates to productivity.

            Chieh-Wen Sheng, et al. delve deeper into how team behaviors affect trust and team commitment in their 2010 article “Relationships Among Teamwork Behavior, Trust, Perceived Team Support, and Team Commitment.” The authors lay out the following six hypotheses:

H1: Teamwork behaviors will influence team commitment.

H2: Teamwork behaviors will influence trust.

H3: Trust will influence team commitment.

H4: Perceived team support will influence team behaviors.

H5: Perceived team support will influence trust.

H6: Perceived team support will influence team commitment.[5]  

They discuss how each variable interacts with the others and how each can significantly influence team productivity and cohesion.  Individuals will “be more willing to remain and work in a team long-term,”[6] if they perceive a high level of trust and collaboration within the group. If there are a lack teamwork behaviors, trust will decline; as trust declines, team commitment will also decline; and as team commitment declines, perceived team support will decrease. These interacting variables, if faltering, will eventually lead to a lack of productivity as a result of distrusting behaviors and reactions. In contrast, “when individuals perceive that their efforts are valued and their welfare considered, their commitment to the team would be significantly enhanced.”[7]  Also, since perceived support for the team is directly related to the other variables and subsequently to productivity, senior leadership should make efforts to show support for the team through effective feedback.

 The authors further postulate that trust develops over time within groups and cannot be forced. “In a team, an individual cannot accomplish the assigned tasks only through his or her own efforts, thus, that individual’s perception of support would lead to cooperation with colleagues and this further builds trust. In the process, an individual would not only establish fruitful interactions and good relationships with colleagues, but would also be valued by others.”[8]  Sheng, et al. suggest that leaders need to promote team activities that help to build relationships among members in order to guide members in the direction of a more trusting, collaborative relationship.  They conclude that as trust within teams is enhanced and each team member’s commitment is recognized, members will make a greater investment in team activities which will result in a higher team effectiveness. Both this article and the latter, advocate that leaders need to develop strategies that enhance trust and collaboration within their leadership teams in order to obtain full productivity from the group.  

            Deepika Nath takes these principles of team dynamics and their relationship to trust and productivity and put them in play while consulting for an organization. She details the results in her articleBuilding Trust and Cohesiveness in a Leadership Team.”  She focuses on using David Kantor’s Human Structural Dynamics Model in an effort to categorize the dysfunctions that she encountered at a Fortune 100 Company.  Kantor’s model postulates “that all human systems fall into four types: Closed, Random, Synchronous, and Open and each system type has its own characteristic set of mental models, behaviors, operating rules, and feedback systems.”[9] The figure below outlines the four system types and lays out pros and cons of each.


One system type is not necessarily superior to another. “Each has its own strengths and vulnerabilities, and each may be especially prone to certain Team Traps.”[11] Alan Slobodnik and Kristina Wile outline twelve potential team traps in their 1999 article published in The Systems Thinker.  The figure below outlines these twelve traps.


Nath uses her knowledge of Kantor’s theory along with the dynamics apparent as teamwork, commitment, perceived team support, and trust interplay with each other within the four different types of human system models.

            Nath found the following as she observed the leadership team during her study: they displayed “An inability to focus on an agenda and make decisions; a lack of willingness to engage in dialogue; a poor capacity to listen to one another; an apparent lack of respect for one another’s ideas; a tendency to personalize the conversation and get defensive; and the group lacked trust and the willingness to operate as a team [because] they were more focused on furthering their individual agendas.”[13] Understanding how human interactions influence productivity, she attempts to instill four team-like characteristics within this group in order to enhance their effectiveness.  She attempted to facilitate stronger commitments to success by each team member through an appreciation for each other’s contributions and viewpoints; through an ability to think together in a collaborative fashion; as well as through a fostering of open, trusting dialogue. In order to achieve the above characteristics, she had to make it safe for team members to discuss controversial issues. She did this by changing the rules of engagement within meetings. She had team members sit in a circle and agree to the use of a talking stick. One rule was that no-one could speak unless they were holding the talking stick. This allowed team members to finish their thoughts without being interrupted. “Their discussions went from individuals fighting to say their piece, to comments that were more indicative of listening and building on what has been said.”[14]  It fostered a respectful dialogue; one that enabled capitalization of diversity within the team. She also attempted to help individual team members see how they interacted within their team. “As their capacity to observe their own behavior grew, it created greater awareness and ownership of their own issues, and led to more courage and honesty in their communications.”[15] Through these techniques, Nath was able to foster a heightened level of trust within the leadership team which inevitably led to stronger collaboration and commitment to team goals.

            Mike Henry, founder of the Lead Change Group lays out eleven ways to build trust within a team in his July 19th, 2011, article.   He describes trust between team members as an essential ingredient for teams to perform at their full potential. He notes that a lack of trust will result in tension between team members that, if allowed to fester, will ruin team cohesiveness and disrupt change efforts or inhibit goal achievement. To avoid a breakdown in trust, the author suggests that leaders promote the following: 1). “Give win first,” which means creating win-win scenarios by allowing other team members to win first; 2) “Listen and learn,” by making a concerted effort to spend more time than you usually would listening to and interacting with your team; 3) “Appreciate and value others,” by placing value in the opinions and voices that you heard in your extra listening session; and 4) “Remember what you hear and see” by making note of any valuable insights you gain. As you can see, these actions tend to build upon one another and increase the overall effectiveness of the exercise. The fifth idea in Henry’s list is to “trust others,” which is central to this entire discussion. He suggests having a trusting attitude which will promote trust within the group. His list continues to build: 6) “Find solutions,” in the sense that instead of shooting down another’s idea straightaway, try to help generate ideas that would make it succeed; 7) “Make a sacrifice” by being willing to give in to allow another to succeed within the team; 8) “Learn from mistakes” and do not make the same mistake twice; 9) “Make it right” when a mistake is made, helping other group members to trust your leadership; 10) “Give generous credit and praise,” making others feel like a valued contributor; and lastly 11) “Do what you say” by delivering on any promises or commitments made to the team.[16] The author suggests that these eleven items should be part of a leader’s routine and if adhered to will help garner trust within a team.

            Along with adding Mike Henry’s eleven suggestions to your tool-kit, I came across five trust building exercises that can be executed within small groups. These exercises can help lay the foundation for the trusting relationships which are essential in group leadership frameworks. Without trust within leadership teams, there will be a lack of cohesiveness leading to overall ineffectiveness of the team.  

Trust Exercises  [17] 

[1] Tanghe, Jacqueline, Barbara Wisse, and Henk van der Flier. “The Role of Group Member Affect in the Relationship between Trust and Cooperation.” British Journal of Management. 21. (2010): 360.

[2] Ibid. 360.

[3] Ibid. 360

[4] Ibid. 370.

[5] Sheng, Chieh-Wen, Yi-Fang Tian, and Ming Chia-Chen. “Relationships Among Teamwork Behavior, Trust, Perceived Team Support, and Team Commitment.” Social Behavior and Personality. 38/10. (2010): 1299.

[6] Ibid. 1303.

[7] Ibid. 1304.

[8] Ibid. 1305.

[9] Slobodnik, Alan, and Kristina Wile. “Taking the Teeth Out of Team Traps.” The Systems Thinker. 10/9. (1999): 2.

[10] Ibid. 5.

[11] Ibid. 5.

[12] Ibid. 1.

[13] Nath, Deepika. “Building Trust and Cohesiveness in a Leadership Team.” Reflections: Society for Organizational Learning. 9/1. (2009): 25.

[14] Ibid. 27.

[15] Ibid. 33.

[16] Henry, Mike. “11 Ways to Build Trust Within Your Team.” Leadership. SmartBlogs Network. (2011): 1. Web 16Nov2011. <>

[17] “Building Teamwork: 10 Quick and Easy Team Building Exercises for Improving Planning Skills and Building Trust.” Huddle. (2009): 1-2. Web 15Nov2011.  <>

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