Build lasting team trust

We have many hopes and points of view about trust in our teams. We want it, but often do not know how to get it. And if we get it, we often don’t know how to keep it. So what ends up happening is the we believe trust is possible, and wishfully think it will happen automatically, and as we go about our tasks, and things break down, we wonder why there are team trust issues.

Trust is hard to create at the team level. And easy to destroy. Trust is hard to come by. It takes hard work, just like anything worth having. Team trust involves creating significant relationships that matter. And yet we tend not to invest the time in creating it. It may even be viewed as too “touchy-feely”, when in truth, most of us don’t know how to create it at the team level. So we tend to leave it to chance.

We live in a work world laced with teams engaged is projects ranging from strategic repositioning of the business to solving a critical but short term problems. And yet our approach to setting these teams up lags far behind the critical importance of the problems we’re tackling. We still tend to believe that “forming, norming, storming, storming, storming…” is the way to get our teams off the ground. And then we wonder why team members don’t show up, or the team moves into conflict or a distrustful state.

Team trust that will last is essential to sustained, high performance. But I’ll say it again, it takes hard work. Because team trust is a collective choice of individuals willing to commit to a new, shared way of working. And to do that requires leadership and a conscious choice to invest in creating it.

So, how do we do that? It takes:

Leadership Choice: Trust-building starts with senior leadership making a conscious choice to create a culture of trust as a core value and way of working, and the senior team modeling it.

Up-Front Investment: Trust-building takes time, and it is best done, in teams with a shared purpose/mission, on the front end. It is not a 20 minute exercise with posted rules. It is an engaged process the builds a new way of working and creating a “we”.

Ownership Process: People take care of what they own. If they own a culture of trust, if they own a new way of working, and if they own the “we”, they will take care of it and it will last.

100% Agreement: Creating new operating agreements, which is the core of the trust-building process, involves achieving 100% true consensus on the new rules for working together. This is how individual beliefs become collective action.

Sustained, Collective Commitment: This new way of working, which I call a “collaborative operating system”, requires a sustained, collective commitment to ensure it remains strong and team members do not revert to old behavior.

The journey is worth the climb. With high trust comes high performance. When we act as one, with a shared direction to which we are committed, nothing can hold us back.

Dr. Edward Marshall is a Senior Partner for Organizational Leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, NC. He can be reached at, or 919.265.9616.