5 mins

Trust is often confused with getting along, which can impede team progress and personal career growth. Here’s how you can introduce trust into your teams successfully.

If you ask any team if they trust each other, they would probably say they do, especially if they worked together for a longer period of time.

But trust can often be confused with getting along or having a sociable work environment. Having fun together can be a sign that team members trust each other, but it doesn’t guarantee satisfactory results and it can often be deceiving.

Trust is felt in the presence of conflict, not the absence of it 

Trust is a leap of faith, a decision to rely on another’s actions and intentions. It’s also an emotionally laden process. 

I have worked with many teams that got along well but moved very slowly or lacked a sense of purpose, motivation, or even pride in execution. These teams had cheery dispositions, but the culture surrounding this behavior ultimately led them to default to avoiding conflict. These environments may yield friendships but not career satisfaction. What united the team was not a sense of productivity but the feeling of being stuck together. This might work in the short term during times of crisis, but it is not sustainable and leads to burnout and attrition in the long term. 

Back in the mid-00s, I worked for a small yet fast-growing tech company in the UK. The close-knit engineering team consisted of around ten people. We’d lunch together, organize mini-hackathons, and enjoy Friday drinks. We learned from one another and enjoyed the work challenges. Surprisingly, we rarely discussed the stagnation of our product. 

We felt trapped without a clear direction or vision. Each week mirrored the last, offering a familiar routine but minimal progress. No one was eager to address the elephant in the room; we merely wanted a pleasant workspace. 

But, the lack of a clear vision, combined with our inability to discuss pivotal issues, was ultimately demoralizing. While we liked one another, we lacked the trust to openly discuss the hurdles impeding our progress. On the rare occasions when we broached serious issues, tensions flared, and it was common to see colleagues who were either upset, resistant to change, or close-minded. It became too challenging. I eventually left. 

It is in times of conflict and pressure that you discover if your team has cultivated trust among each other. It allows everybody to speak their minds, challenge decisions, and express their feelings without fear of retaliation, being fired, or just being disliked by the rest of the team.

How to introduce trust into a team

Fast forward a couple of years, I co-founded a startup and became its CTO, managing not only the tech side but also the engineering team. Here, my team’s retrospectives were laden with trust. Of course, part of the discussion consisted of talking about how we delivered something or celebrated the usual events (hiring or growth, etc.,) but we also gave candid feedback and expressed frustration for different things: slow continuous integration (CI), mounting technical debt, or pointing out that the manager (that’s me) is juggling too many things which impacts team productivity.

Trust is when you let people take ownership without you having to chase them or micromanage them. Trust is when you disagree with a particular approach, but you let people, the experts, try things anyway because you are humble enough to know you can be wrong. Trust is letting people fail gracefully and helping them do better next time.

One way to achieve this is to introduce exploratory phases in project development: rather than spending time coming up with a perfect plan and execution, it’s better to put together a quick experiment, ship it, and see how it performs. It doesn’t have to be a user-facing feature – often, application monitoring will provide enough information. In my team, it was not uncommon for us to develop an approach to solving a problem, ship the initial version, and then regroup after release to compile the learnings. Using the data we captured and/or customer feedback, I let the team work out a better approach. Their initial idea failed, but without it, we wouldn’t know how to build the optimal solution.

Managers pave the way for greater trust 

It always starts with you. Managers should be the first to say what others are afraid of sharing. They should follow up with every request, comment, and idea – even if it’s to say no. They should lead by example and be the first to admit failure and share solutions.

For instance, I led an initiative at my company where I introduced 100% transparency into the company’s financials. Every month, my co-founder and I would run an all-hands meeting, which, among other things, included how much money the business had in the bank, the upcoming value of deals, and churn

No matter how good or bad these numbers were, we communicated them every single month. At one point, we had to share that the company had only a few months of money left in the bank. You’d think that knowing this would inspire attrition – and it would, but only if the team members didn’t know what was going on until that point. However, not many people at our company decided to leave. I believe this was because we had laid the foundations of trust, inspiring the narrative that we could all figure this out together.  

This equation is useful even if you’re not a founder. But offering as much transparency as possible into the state of things, processes, and larger initiatives is crucial – teams do not work in silos; they are a part of a company.