As the majority of the corporate world has shifted to remote working, the issue of trust might be coming up for a lot of organizations. We can all agree that when there is a breakdown in trust, teams move slower toward achieving organizational goals and there are less productivity, engagement and team member retention. Taking it one step further, environments of low trust are often attributed to and correlate with the quality of team leadership. Leadership makes all the difference in whether productivity, engagement, and results occur. Therefore, it’s the leader taking responsibility for establishing and cultivating high levels of trust among their team and between themselves and the team.

The expectation that trust will happen on its own is just plain ridiculous. When teams have a breakdown or low trust, rarely are methods to repair it undertaken. In fact, people often avoid conversations about trust breakdowns, staying in their ‘silos’. A breakdown in trust in any relationship does not repair itself over time; if anything, it gets worse.  Sending untrusting and battling people to Human Resources is not the solution either. Most often, HR practitioners will send team members back to their managers to fix the problem. Simply put, there is one person who has the responsibility to create an environment of trust; the leader!

Most leaders are not equipped to address breakdowns in trust or develop trust within their teams, however, there are ways to help leaders understand, embrace, and create an environment of trust. It requires leaders to be able to:

  • Recognize that there is a breakdown in trust
  • Identify and understand the source of a trust breakdown
  • Address the fact that there is mistrust
  • Create, manage and lead to an environment of trust

Recognize that there is a breakdown in trust

Your intuition may have led you to recognize that trust has been broken or was never established. However, now it’s time to get the facts to determine if your gut is correct. This means asking yourself and your team members questions that get to the heart of the matter, questions such as:

  • Are all or some team members unusually quiet in meetings? Are team members unwilling to share what they’re working on, or refusing to voice opinions?
  • When you facilitate meetings, is it like pulling teeth to get information?
  • Do you experience gossiping within the team?
  • Are there small groups or cliques that hang out to the exclusion of others?
  • Are team members hesitant to own mistakes or admit when they don’t know something?
  • Is there conflict?

Answering yes to any of these questions can point to trust issues within a team.

Identify and understand the source of a trust breakdown

Identifying that a breakdown in trust may exist within a team doesn’t mean that you jump right into solve mode; you need to find out more to validate what you think you know. You can do this by being transparent, sharing observations, and enrolling team members on how best to strengthen the team and (re)establish an environment of trust.  Consider the information that you have gathered and the various possible causes, which can lead to several possible actions. However, share this information with an HR Business Partner and/or Organizational Development and Effectiveness partner to determine the best course of action to resolve a trust breakdown. However, ideally, the answers come from the members of the team which gives them a sense of empowerment in the environment in which they work.

 Address the fact that there is mistrust

There are various options that can be considered to address broken trust and begin new pathways to higher levels of trust. Start with small steps to create awareness. Sometimes teams have operated in certain ways for a long time which has led to mistrust, so baby steps are key! Here are some tools that can be used to begin the awareness process:

  • Administer a team self-assessment which allows team members to anonymously share insights into the team’s effectiveness. Use an assessment that is very effective and provides an overall profile of the team, giving its strengths and weaknesses, and quickly identifying the areas needed for the greatest focus.
  • If an assessment is not a consideration, host team meetings and talk through signs and symptoms of a trust breakdown. Spend quality time with the team (and one hour isn’t going to be enough!) devoted to discussing the issues and creating actions for change.
  • Follow up – continuous meetings and engagement are essential, this sets an expectation that there will be follow-up. This allows for follow-through on the change!
  • If there are one or more “trust disrupters” on the team, have one-on-one conversations with those individuals to learn about their concerns and get their point of view before meeting with the entire team. If you are taking the approach to meeting with the entire team, enroll the disrupter(s) around the importance and value of their support. Their enrollment has a bigger impact on the team than they realize, and they can often be the biggest catalyst to positive change in the team.

 Manage and lead to an environment of trust

Leaders can never let their guard down when it comes to trust. Whether you’ve started from a place of disrupted trust or simply want to prevent any future trust issues, here are some actions any leader can take to create, establish, and sustain an environment of trust within their teams:

  • Establish Value: Define and understand for yourself what YOU mean by trust. What does it look like? Why do you feel it is important? What would happen in its absence? What behaviors do you believe exemplify trust? Communicate these beliefs to the team for why trust is valued.
  • Live the Value: Show up trusting. Do what you say you will do. If you can’t, then say why. Be vulnerable and say when you’re wrong or you don’t know an answer. Be honest and have the courage to say the truth. Live with integrity. It’s easier said than done, especially if you are used to an environment where it was more important to “look good” and keep from “looking bad.” Make incremental changes to start and continue the path of trustworthiness. As leaders, people look at our every action. Demonstrate trust and live that value.
  • Reinforce and Support the Value. When you see trusting actions from others, reward the action, even if it didn’t result in the most optimal business outcome. Support those that do, or are trying to do, the right thing. Recognize and reward those that demonstrate integrity themselves.
  • Strengthen Relationships. Creating an environment of trust requires the building of strong relationships with your team. Not a “bestie” relationship, but a relationship where you bring more of yourself to know and learn more about each team member, their life, their interests, their values; encouraging them to bring more of themselves to work. Having a deeper relationship with others creates a stronger bond of trust that simply cannot be replaced any other way.

Once you’ve worked on developing a trusting environment for your team, remember to continue cultivating it continuously.  Trust can be hard to establish; however, a breakdown in trust can be hard to repair; so, as a leader, never let it go. You’ll be creating a team with higher productivity, higher retention, greater engagement, and faster decision-making. Nothing creates more effective teams than a strong foundation of trust that only the team leader can create and sustain!

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