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How to build trust in high performing teams

Be honest.  When was the last time you put your hands up and said you got it wrong?  Or admitted weakness to your team?  Does that come easily or do you find it hard?  This matters because it says a lot about your team culture.  It shows that you trust your colleagues and they trust you.

Patrick Lencioni nailed this when he wrote ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. He identified the pyramid of reasons that result in organisations not getting the results they’d like or feel is due to them.  At the top was inattention to results which was built on avoidance of accountability. This in turn was due to a lack of commitment which was built on a fear of conflict.  But the very foundation of the whole pyramid was the absence of trust. 

I turn up in some organisations and can tell immediately if a team trust each other.  It’s palpable.  Maybe they’ve knocked off each other’s rough edges.  They might have worked together for a long time. Other teams are very polite.  Too much so. They don’t want to look as though they’re criticising. When I dig into this, it might be because the person concerned doesn’t feel their own department is perfect. So they’re reluctant to criticise anyone else’s. 

Whatever the issue, it’s possible to change default patterns.  It’s hard work, but you can be deliberate about building trust in high performing teams. Here’s how.

Hold a mirror up to yourself

So often CEOs say to me, ‘I have a lack of accountability in my business’.  I raise an eyebrow. ‘Oh really, Mr/Ms CEO?’ I reply.  ‘That might just start with you.’  First and foremost, this comes down to how you behave as a leader.  You need to walk the walk.

If you’re a parent, you’ll know the importance of doing what you say.  Following through is vital.  It’s no use saying, ‘If you do that again I will XYZ’ if you don’t go on to do it.  Your kids will know they can get away with bad behaviour as there’s no consequence. 

Likewise, you have to follow through with your team.  If you’re personally casual with your commitments, you can’t expect anyone else to be different.  If you habitually say you’re going to do something and then don’t, people will start to roll their eyes.  And if you promise to reward someone for something and then forget, you can’t expect engagement and loyalty. 

Teams that don’t trust each other often blame each other.  And again, I’m afraid, this comes back to you.  If your first course of action is to blame others, then they will follow suit.  To trust people, you have to respect them.  It’s hard to do if they’re incompetent in their job.  As CEO, you need to make sure your team is up to the task and sometimes that involves some difficult decisions.  Which brings me neatly to my next point.

Have the right people on the bus

Ask yourself these two questions about every member of your team: ‘If they resigned tomorrow, would I be sad?’ and ‘Knowing what I know about them, would I hire them again tomorrow?’  If either of your answers is ‘No’, you have a problem. If you don’t trust someone’s competency and they’re not ‘A-Players’, how can you expect the rest of the team to trust them?

It’s so important to make sure you have the right people on the bus.  If you have one or two A-Players that are surrounded by B-Players, or even worse, C’s, they will clearly know they can do their job but others can’t.  And as the boss, you seem not to have noticed. Or you’re sticking your head in the sand.

You need to be transparent and straight-forward.  If you wouldn’t fight to keep every one of your team, you’re being disingenuous every day.  Take some brave pills and either move the under-performers to different roles or decide it’s time they left. Otherwise, you are constantly undermining trust.

Get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses

Knowledge is power.  The first Rockefeller Habit emphasises the importance of the executive team being healthy and aligned. More specifically, this means all team members understanding each other’s differences, priorities and styles of working.  My suggestion is Gallup’s CliftonStrengths® but you may prefer Myers Briggs or DISC. Any personality profiling tool will give your team insight into each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  Because let’s face it, we tend to assume that everyone else is like us. But they really aren’t. 

We measure ourselves by our intent and others by their actions.  And so often, the way we would do something is totally different from someone’s else’s approach. CliftonStrengths® will train your team to interpret and understand this from the other person’s perspective.  And this understanding will build trust.  It will define the different strengths in a team – what they are and what they add.  After all, to be successful, individuals are often spikey rather than well rounded. You’re looking for people with superpowers and this won’t always bring harmony.  But by understanding this, your team will engage in healthy conflict. 

CliftonStrengths® will also bring greater self-awareness to your team.  For example, I know one of my top five strengths is ‘Achiever’. That means I’m self-motivated and have to achieve something every day. Constant action.  But it also means I’m rubbish at saying thank you or celebrating success.  Because I know this is important, I make a point of working at this.  

Write a team charter

Consider using the Sabotage Exercise to create a team charter of behaviours that you all agree to.  This is how you want to show up.  Don’t commit to things that you know aren’t going to happen.  A classic one is starting and ending meetings on time.  If you know it’s impossible, don’t include it. 

Commit to things that really matter.  What’s important is saying this is what you can count on me for and then delivering it.  Every time.  You need this attention to results.  If you haven’t got this, then you can’t have a straight-forward post-mortem with honesty about what went wrong. 

The team needs to feel like they’re in it together.  Any challenge should be felt by everyone.  Maybe you’re in a company where Sales are struggling but Ops are OK.  Well, Ops are only ok because Sales aren’t hitting their goals.  So Ops have got way more people than they really need.  In this situation, you should be asking what are Ops doing to help Sales to hit their number?  They may think it’s not their problem, but it really is. If you’re a striker in a football team, you don’t just stand at the opponent’s halfway line and wait for the ball to come to you.  If you’re any good, you head the ball off the line, save a goal from the corner and then run the full length of the field to score.

I was with a client recently and the guy in charge of Professional Services said he couldn’t do anything about Sales.  ‘That’s just not true’, I told him.  The previous week, I’d been with someone else in a similar role who was having a daily standup with the Sales team. He was asking them what he could do to help them sell his capacity so he could hit his profit goal. He knew that because Sales was failing, the whole team was failing. This is often a big shift in people’s default way of thinking.

Reward openness and honesty

If you’re building trust in a team, you have to call out when people are open and honest.  It’s this vulnerability-based trust that’s key and you need to encourage this.  Actively look for examples in your regular daily and weekly meetings.  Notice when someone’s tackled a difficult or touchy topic and communicated in a healthy, open way.  Praise and celebrate when people show their vulnerability by admitting mistakes. 

We turned mistakes into a celebration in themselves at Peer 1. Our ‘Cock-Up of the Month’ award was legendary.  We’d encourage team members to share embarrassing moments – both working and personal.  This instantly built rapport and was a very good sign when people felt able to share.  We used phrases like ‘There’s no failure, only learning’.  Our aim was to make sure people ‘fessed up quickly if something had gone wrong and weren’t worried about any feeling of blame. 

Bring clarity to accountability

An environment of trust relies on complete clarity of roles and expectations.  How can you trust someone to deliver something if they don’t know they’re accountable?  This is why I bring in the Functional Accountability Chart early on in my client relationships.  It quickly clarifies who’s accountable for each important number. Not who’s doing the work or responsible, but who’s neck is ultimately on the block for this metric.  Then it’s impossible to blame others if it hasn’t been delivered.

Expectations can be defined through the Job Scorecard process so that everyone knows what people are relying on them to do.  You want to create an environment where individual accountability becomes second nature.  Say you get to the end of a Level 10 meeting and ask for feedback.  Someone gives the meeting a 6.  And yet they took no action to fix this throughout the 90 minutes.  They didn’t say, ‘I’m bored’, or ‘This topic is irrelevant’.  They just sat there passively and then blamed others when it was over.  This needs to be challenged.  Ask them, ‘What could YOU have done to make the meeting score a 10 out of 10?’ 

All too often, the CEO ends up playing the job of a policeman. Remonstrating with people when they haven’t done anything. This is an indicator of lack of trust and also learned behaviours that have become entrenched.  Maybe the staff have goals that they don’t believe in. They’re not ‘A-Players’ and there’s no sense of team or accountability. The hub and spoke revolves around the CEO who then feels overwhelmed because they can’t get their team to do what they need to do.  If this is familiar, you need to change your approach. Instead of you dictating what people need to do, they work this out for themselves.  And, crucially, they want to do these things because they’re lined up with the goals of the business.  

Keep at it!

There’s no doubt.  It’s hard f*cking work to change.  It isn’t going to happen overnight with very little effort. If plodding along is your thing, carry on.  It’s like people who buy diet books but then get fatter or gym memberships that they never use.  This is why I won’t work with every person who wants to work with me.  There needs to be a real desire to change and put the work in.  If that’s you, then I have a programme that can help.

Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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