When I think about the happiest, most productive, and most psychologically safe teams that I’ve been a part of, there is one quality that they all share: trust.
On the flip side, the teams that were absent in all of those things were the ones that lacked trust.
Trust is the backdrop of successful teams, and a cornerstone of effective management. It’s the glue that holds teams together and helps organizations stay afloat through difficult times. There are many articles and resources that specify ‘building trust’ as something every leader should do.
We all know we ought to build trust within the teams that we lead. But how do we actually do that? Where do we begin? Here are a few strategies that have worked for me.
1. Be reliable
When we trust someone, we have full confidence in that person and a firm belief that we can depend on them. As leaders, we have a responsibility to be steady and reliable, especially when it comes to our commitments. When you commit to something, own that responsibility. If you have a 1:1 with a report on the calendar, show up to it. If you’ve promised to share feedback by the end of the week, stick to your word. Showing is always more effective than just telling; if you can repeatedly demonstrate that you are dependable enough times, your team will start to see that and believe it.
But being reliable doesn’t mean that you must constantly be available. Perpetual availability without boundaries is a recipe for burnout. Instead, make realistic commitments and acknowledge that you’re also human and can make mistakes. When you can’t honor a previous commitment, admit that you misestimated and offer a genuine apology.
Encouraging reliability as a trait in your team begins with you as the leader. If you intend to ask your reports to be reliable and trustworthy, you must model that behavior yourself.
2. Create a connection
Human beings are inherently social creatures. We all crave connection and have a deep desire to belong. Building trust within a group of people requires a strong, healthy connection between the individuals of that group. When we have established a strong connection with members of a group, we cultivate a kind of emotional trust. Emotional trust is what allows us to feel like we can be ourselves; it’s the feeling that reassures us that we are safe and secure in the group.
Shared experiences are a perfect way to cultivate bonds and build strong relationships within your team. Collaborating with individuals you’ve never worked with before creates a shared context for you to get to know each other. Spending time as a group (in person or virtually) and creating a space to talk about non-work topics is a tried and true way of learning about your team.
For example, I recently spent three days building a scrappy feature just for fun with my team during our company hackathon, and I felt much more connected to them by the end of the week. And every time I’ve gone for dinner with my coworkers or spent an hour playing a board game with them online, I’ve walked away feeling like I knew them a little bit better as a result.
These seemingly small moments are what allow your team’s personalities and humanity to shine. They help create relationships that will likely outlast an individual’s tenure in your organization.
As a leader, it’s also crucial for you to dedicate time towards nurturing your individual relationships with your reports. Your regularly-scheduled 1:1s are the perfect jumping-off point for steadily building these relationships. Be sure to spend every 1:1 checking in with your report on how they are doing – not their projects or their in-progress tasks, but how they as individuals are doing. Many folks will default to providing a status update or come with agenda items of things they’re thinking about. Make sure that at least some of your meeting time is spent checking in on their non-work life, and try to better understand your report as a person. Even a question as simple as, ‘How was your weekend?’ shows that you care about them as individuals. Nurturing relationships by asking these simple questions will not only give you a strong foundation to build off of, but it will also help provide important context on how you can best help your reports in a given moment, as their manager.
3. Be vulnerable
Perhaps the most impactful thing you can do as a leader to build trust is to be vulnerable. Learning how and when to do this can be scary – after all, you don’t want to overwhelm your reports with what you share. But it is possible to be authentic and humble in your interactions with your team. Sharing your disappointments, the mistakes you made, the things you want to get better at or struggle with, or new and difficult situations in your life that you’re trying to navigate will humanize you in their eyes. Showing that you don’t always know the answer speaks volumes.
Trust is an emotion that is both logical and emotional. While some strategies are common sense and seem clear and straightforward, others are more nuanced and trickier to execute well. The most important thing to remember is that trust, like a garden, takes time to grow. With enough attention and care, however, your team is sure to bloom into a group of people who know that they can depend on one another – and can lean on you as their leader.