Improving Trust Within Teams

Trust Chain

What is a trust?

What relevance does it have in the 21st-century workplace?

How can we build it?

The origins of trust

Millions of years ago, our ancestors were essentially social creatures.

As far as scientists can say for certain, they lived in the extended family or perhaps wider tribal-type groupings. They discovered very quickly, through hard experience, that cooperation was the key to survival.

That’s because if you’re trying to fight off that predator, you’re much more likely to be successful if there are several of you rather than you alone. You’ll also be much more likely to hunt and find food for your family if others cooperate in the task.

This might seem self-evident but co-operation comes about in one of two ways:

  • case-by-case negotiation;
  • advance understanding of how others around you will react to support you.

The former is clearly hopelessly inefficient. 

Sure, start a debate with others asking if they’ll help drive that threatening predator away. You’ll be a meal in its stomach before you’ve finished counting the votes!

By contrast, if you know in advance that those around you will support you when necessary and they know that you’ll do likewise for them, then you have a far better collective survival strategy.  

This is essentially trust and its origins – mutual self-interest. Today, of course, we talk rather more about “success” than “survival” but make no mistake, trust in the wider group (or team) is essential.

How to build trust in a team

It’s not difficult to assess the extent to which the levels of trust in a team are healthy or not. 

You can ask targeted questions of a team, such as “We have a high level of trust in the team” and statistically analyze the results in terms of the strength or disagreement with the sentiment expressed vis-à-vis population norms. Yet if the results indicate that improvement in overall trust levels is required, what can be done?

Here are a few key foundation stones to improving trust levels within a team:

  • Take responsibility. Every member of the team needs to accept that mutual trust levels are THEIR responsibility and not somebody else’s. “The boss” won’t achieve anything by issuing a memo instructing everybody to trust each other more.
  • Demonstrate trust in your everyday behaviors. Trust is infectious and reciprocal. If you show that you trust your co-workers then they’ll increasingly trust you. Examples include things such as avoiding asking constantly for “proof” of what someone has said or double-checking their actions unnecessarily.
  • Highlight roadblocks to trust.  Sometimes, companies implement management system procedures and processes that inhibit mutual trust within a team as an unintended by-product. Don’t just silently resent these but demand change instead!
  • Communicate openly and avoid work-related secrets. Keeping information unnecessarily from other members of your team is typically a bad idea. Being in the know might make you feel important short-term but ultimately secrets are the worst destroyers of trust. Similarly, never ‘showing your hand’ will be poorly construed.
  • Show that your team’s objectives are more important than your own. Trust is undermined within a team by things such as ‘grandstanding’ or being perceived to be using the team as a springboard for personal individual success at the expense of others around you.
  • Be courageous. True, not always easy but show others in your team that you’ll do what’s right even if it’s not popular with those outsides of the team or generates criticism of you.
  • Respect others. Showing scant regard for a colleague or speaking ill of them behind their back isn’t going to promulgate trust. Remember, if you’re showing overt or covert disrespect to/of a colleague then people listening or observing will wonder what you’ll be saying about them in the future.
  • Accept shared responsibility for success AND failure. Don’t try to claim personal credit for team successes whilst blaming others when things go wrong.
  • Honor your commitments and deliver quality outcomes. If you’ve undertaken to do something for the team, then do it.  You also need to make sure it’s done RIGHT. Remember, part of your colleagues’ trust in you is driven by their perceptions of your competence.    
  • Be consistent. Your colleagues may find it difficult to fully trust someone who is highly volatile and who constantly and unpredictably changes their opinions and positions.
  • Don’t reflect hierarchies. All team members should be treated the same, even if some may be more ‘senior’ in pay and provisions terms than others. All demand equal respect.  
  • Demonstrate the highest standards of personal professional conduct. This is arguably the single most important point. If you’ve made a mistake, say so. If you adopted a position that has caused a problem, don’t deny you did so. Don’t lie about what you said two days ago because everyone will remember the truth.  You must show that you are personally trustworthy!


Trust in a team isn’t a ‘nice to have’. It’s essential for success.

Teams that demonstrate high levels of internal mutual belief are consistently shown to be higher performing than those which do not

Adopting some of the above personal behaviors will help but keep in mind that trust-building and maintenance is an ongoing process.  It’s something that must be worked at every day.