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The Role of Trust in Team Effectiveness

June 27, 2018

What about Trust?

Trust is one of those “catch-all/rhetorical” terms that is often used (and abused), but rarely understood or pragmatically dealt with in the workplace. Everyone knows what happens to a relationship with a loved one (child or spouse) when trust is broken. But although the same dire consequences resulting from lack of trust afflict workplace climate, rarely does one see “improve team members’ trust” as a business improvement initiative.

What is trust anyway? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (, trust is “a belief that someone or something is reliable, good, honest, effective, etc.” Being trustworthy is “the ability to be relied on to do or provide what is needed or right … to be deserving of trust, worthy of confidence, dependable.”

Author and founding CEO of Trusted Advisor Associates (, Charles H. Green explains what trust is in terms of four dimensions that are combined into a “Trust Equation.” According to Green, trustworthiness—often referred by Green as the Trust Quotient (TQ)—is simply defined as: Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy)/Self-Orientation.

In other words, the more credibly, reliably and/or intimately, one behaves … and/or the less self-oriented one appears the more trustworthy one is. With Green’s formula, it becomes quite obvious which quality a leader must embody in order to inspire trust with his/her employees and colleagues.

Why does Trust Matter?

Put simply, for anyone to care about the “state of trust” in a group, a team, or an entire organization, one has to see a link between trust and team effectiveness, and business performance. The good news is: there exists such a relationship! In fact, if one dares to google the word trust, aside from finding thousands of relevant search results, one would find that it is often associated with team effectiveness and organizational performance.

In his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” business author Patrick Lencioni ( proposes a five-dimension model of team effectiveness in which trust is the foundation. According to Lencioni, effective teams are characterized by, amongst other things, team members trusting one another. But, more importantly, a team where trust is lacking will “conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from others; hesitate to provide constructive feedback and to offer help outside of their area of expertise; fail to tap into the skills of others in the team; waste time and energy managing their behaviours for effect; and hold grudges.” This lack of trust, Lencioni says, is the cornerstone of the five dysfunctions that afflict so many ineffective teams.

The way these five team issues are interrelated is as follows: “1. If the members of the team do not trust each other, then they cannot be totally honest with each other; 2. Without trust, people will not have the healthy debates that are necessary to arrive at better decisions; 3. If the team has not aligned behind a decision, then the individual members who did not agree with the final decision will ultimately be less committed to that decision; 4. If they are not committed to the course of action, then they are less likely to feel accountable and/or to hold other people accountable; and 5. Consequently, the team members are less likely to care about the group results (and instead focus on achieving their own goals).” As we can see from Lencioni’s model, trust amongst team members is the basic ingredient that leaders need to have if they want their employees to work effectively with one another.

Another way to link trust to team effectiveness is by looking at its culture and its work climate. Research from the Hay Group ( has shown that improvement in the climate of an organization can result in as much as a 30% increase in bottom-line performance.

Other research done by the 6Seconds International Consortium ( showed that the climate of an organization could explain up to 60% of a company’s performance. To measure the climate of a team and evaluate its impact on performance, researchers at 6Seconds devised an assessment tool called Vital Signs. This survey instrument relies on a Team Climate model that measures five important drivers of effectiveness (trust, engagement, teamwork, agility and productivity) in relation to two major team dimensions: the “Operational-Strategic” axis and the “Individual-Organizational” spectrum (see chart below).

Based on research and experience, it was concluded that the climate of a group strongly influences critical employee behaviours such as communication, problem-solving, and accountability—factors that are intimately linked to the effectiveness of a team and that affect key performance indicators related to customers, employees, quality and profitability. Being that trust is the overlay dimension in 6Seconds’ Team Climate model, it plays a critical role in establishing the required levels of confidence, faith, and surety that engenders a willingness to risk and facilitates success in the other climate factors.

What can you do about it?

Clearly, the question is not whether Trust matters but how can you, as a leader, improve it? The first step towards this goal is to be a role model—to demonstrate trust in your attitude and behaviour at work. This requires that the leader be credible, reliable, intimate, authentic, and selfless. Inspiring trust by being trustworthy is essential. But it’s not sufficient.

As in most situations, a leader can’t manage what he/she doesn’t measure. Assessing the confidence level within your team is also crucial to enhancing trust and improving team effectiveness as a whole. To assess trust, keep your eyes open. Review past mistakes from team members and ask yourself whether they came forward immediately after committing a “faux pas” or was their first instinct to bury or deny the mistake. Interview people—within and outside the team—and ask them whether the team members openly admit their mistakes and willingly apologize to one another, whether they acknowledge their weaknesses to one another and ask for help without hesitation, whether they recognize and tap into one another’s skills and expertise, etc.

To go beyond this baseline “qualitative” evaluation of team trust and effectiveness, you should consider conducting a more thorough and systematic assessment using a known survey instrument. As an appendix to Lencioni’s book (The Five Dysfunctions of a Team), a 38-question Team Assessment is provided. The goal of this survey is to provide you (the team leader) with a sense of your team’s unique strengths and areas for improvement along the five dimensions of Lencioni’s team model: Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Results. Another thorough analysis of a team’s ability to work effectively and drive successful business outcomes is 6Second’s Team Climate assessment (Team Vital Signs). For a more accurate and holistic analysis, it is recommended to have your entire team complete the assessment. While the results themselves provide an interesting perspective, the most important benefit of such assessments is the discussion that it is likely to provoke around specific team issues.

As a leader, you play a key role in influencing the mood and attitude of your team members. This ultimately impacts the trust level within the team. As such, you should always be open with your employees—transparency and humility help improve your credibility, and debriefing your findings (qualitative or quantitative) with your team members and involving them in the solution will go a long way to boost their trust and improve their engagement. As you debrief the results of the team assessment, ask your employees to come up with practical solutions that you can collectively implement. If you’re uncertain as to how to go about this, follow the simple “Start-Stop-Continue” approach. Keeping in mind the assessment results, have the team answer the following three (3) questions:

  • START: What would you like the team to start doing (or do more)?
  • STOP: What would you like the team to stop doing (or do less)?
  • CONTINUE: What would you like the team to continue to do (that’s working well)?

Based on the outcome of this group discussion, prioritize and implement the top suggestions, regularly monitor and evaluate the progress that you and your team make on these improvement initiatives, and readjust accordingly. Finally, keep in mind that trust is, for the most part, associated with the emotional aspects of people’s perceptions and reactions (behaviours). As such, strive to be an emotionally intelligent leader, i.e.: sense, understand and work productively with your own emotions and those of your employees.

What do you think?


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