Many of us think of trust as a feeling, but a feeling is simply a human emotion. Trust is, in fact, a belief. A belief is a feeling that has been rationalized or justified by that particular human being. What this tells us is that we cannot “make” anyone trust us - all we can do is behave in a way that allows someone to make the decision to trust us. That decision is based on what we do for another. However, trust is a critical element to building a successful team. In fact, when teams fail – that is, when they are unable to remain together as a group — it is almost always because of a lack of trust on some level.
So, while trust is not an attribute, building trust with others stems from our attributes - those behaviors that drive our performance.
Here are six key steps to build trust on a team. Each step relies heavily on a specific attribute.
1. Strive for Authenticity
While the seedlings of trust can be planted with any of the trust building attributes, Authenticity is probably one of the most important. When you are an authentic person, you are consistent with your beliefs, values, and your behavior, despite all the external pressures you may face. This consistency is the simplest measure of authenticity.
For example, if stepping on the brake pedal of your car didn’t consistently stop it, you wouldn’t trust the brakes, right? The same idea applies to humans. If you don’t believe you are seeing an authentic version of someone — if you think they could be pretending, play-acting, or presenting insincere facades that shift with new audiences — it’s impossible to build a strong foundation of trust. Inconsistency instills doubt, and erodes trust. Be authentic.
2. Do the Right Thing
Integrity is a critical element of trust, in ourselves and our teammates. After all, if we can’t trust ourselves to do what we believe is the right thing, we lose confidence. And if you don’t trust yourself, why should anyone else trust you?
It’s important however, to understand what “do the right thing” means for a group or Team. It might mean one thing for a sports team, but something different for an acting troupe - or a team of Navy SEALs. Bottom line is that integrity can sometimes be subjective, highly dependent on the situation, and based on what particular values and beliefs people bring to that environment. If you are a team member trying to build trust, you need to understand how the group defines integrity. If you are a leader of a team, it’s critical that you are explicit about what “do the right thing” means for the team, in both words and behavior. If you don’t do this - the group will ultimately define it for themselves. Figure out and define what “do the right thing” means for the people with whom you want to build trust - then behave with integrity.
3. Hold Yourself and Others Accountable
Accountability provides a few very strong messages when it comes to building trust. First, it signals to others that you are willing to take ownership of mistakes. And this is important, because owning our actions and decisions allows others to feel safe. Safe that when bad things happen, people will step up and own their piece. Feel safe that blame and excuses won’t proliferate. It also allows them to feel certainty. Certainty that everyone, including themselves, will be held accountable. This certainty also encourages a feeling of safety - and while safety and trust are not necessarily synonymous - you cannot have one without the other.
The other message accountability sends is one of humility - which is it’s own attribute. Being accountable tells others that we are aware of the fact that we don’t know it all. That we always have something to learn and that we strive to continue learning. The opposite behavior is arrogance - which decisively destroys trust. Be humble and be accountable.
4. Embrace Vulnerability
Have you ever been told to stand with your back toward a team member and fall backward, hoping they will catch you in their arms? Or told to do anything blindfolded with a team member guiding you?
These seemingly silly or scary situations are popular trust-building exercises. The reason they are used is because they all require being vulnerable in one way or another. Keep in mind that these exercises don’t necessarily build trust - but they help show what vulnerability looks and feels like. Trust is often a generative act - it takes trust to build trust. To extend trust, especially as a leader, takes vulnerability. The willingness to place your trust in another person - so that they might do the same for you. When we think of the people that we trust deeply in our lives, it’s a good bet that one of the reasons is because they extended trust to us. They let us take a risk and had our backs when we did. They gave us sensitive information with confidence, or simply gave us extra responsibility that meant a lot to us. Vulnerability often leads to trust, and while it can be difficult, no one said that building trust is easy.
5. Be Selfless
Selflessness is more than just generosity or altruism. To be selfless means placing someone else’s well being above your own. Depending on the situation, that can be difficult because it involves either a personal cost or some level of risk. The key is that the selfless person - the giver, so to speak - prioritizes the needs of another - the receiver - over his or her own. Acts of selflessness will rapidly build trust - as a team member - and especially as a leader.
“A leader is best when people barely know he exists,” the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote. “When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” Great leaders want the people in their span of care to gain competence and experience so that they may one day lead. I would often tell my junior officers that they had to be willing to accept what I call the irony of leadership; if you do your job correctly, you will work yourself out of a job. Great leaders build other leaders.
Whether you are a team member or a leader, being selfless is a key attribute to building trust. The cost doesn’t have to be extreme. Allowing others to excel and shine in a way that illuminates them and not you can be all that’s required. Or even just spending time with someone can be selfless. Time is the ultimate commodity. We all have the same amount and when we spend it - we can’t get it back. Giving your time to another shows them that we care about their time more than we care about ours - that’s a big deal. When building trust, look for ways to be selfless. It will take some of the vulnerability discussed above - but it works.
6. Be Conscientiousness
Think of the people in your life whom you trust. Your boss? Your partner? Your child? Odds are most of them are diligent, reliable, and hard-working. Maybe they don’t follow through on everything every time, and maybe they can be a little flaky now and again. But whether at work, at home or in a social setting – they consistently display a healthy level of conscientiousness. Otherwise, you wouldn’t trust them.
Conscientiousness is a combination of all three - and it fosters trust, simple as that. When you know someone has the ability and inner drive to do the hard work, to do it with care and attentiveness, and be dependent on them to get the job done, you automatically trust them on some level. It’s common sense. Behaving in a way that allows others to trust you is as simple as doing those three things, in other words, being conscientious. This concept applies to any human relationship, regardless of the environment. Be conscientious and people will begin to trust you - it’s that simple.
Building Trust, One Step at a Time
Building trust in a team takes time. All of these steps need to be acted upon, and then repeated, over and over, until trust is fostered. . Most important, however, is understanding how attributes play into the trust that makes a team successful. From authenticity to accountability to conscientiousness, our attributes are a huge player in the success of any team. So go ahead, start using these six steps - you’ll be on your way to a more trusting team.
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