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How Leaders Help Their Teams Build Trust

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How Leaders Help Their Teams Build Trust


Research consistently shows team trust positively impacts team performance. As a leader, how can you help your team build trust?

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Research consistently shows team trust positively impacts team satisfaction and performance (Breuer et al., 2016; De Jong et al., 2016). Trust is the shared belief that all members will contribute according to their role and act in ways that protect the team (Bandow, 2001; Salas et al., 2005). Scott Tannenbaum, co-author of Teams That Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness (2020), says trust boils down to “judgments of capability and character – do I think you can and will do the right thing” (Duncan, 2020).

Components of trust

Trust has both affective and cognitive components; affective trust relates to the intuitive feelings we have when we interact with people, whereas cognitive trust is based on our thoughts (Erdem & Ozen, 2003).

Cognitive trust is built through consistently demonstrating competence, benevolence and dependability. This form of trust takes a long time to develop and is easily broken (Hugander, 2022).

On the other hand, affective trust (or distrust) is often based on fairly immediate judgments (Duncan, 2020). These may not be fair or accurate as we are all subject to implicit biases that operate almost entirely on an unconscious level (Cherry, 2020). Social identity theory and social categorization research have shown that we intuitively trust people who appear to be similar to us (Brewer, 1979; Brewer & Kramer, 1986; Kramer & Brewer, 1984). We tend to feel distrust when we perceive differences (Hugander, 2022). This is clearly problematic because our feelings do not always accurately reflect the other person’s capability and character.

Building team trust as a leader: Our recommendations for action

Trust begins with you. According to Tannenbaum, you can’t make someone trust you, but you can behave in ways that make trusting you more likely (Duncan, 2020). You can demonstrate your competence by owning your mistakes, benevolence by taking an action that is not in your self-interest, and dependability by following through on your commitments (Tannenbaum suggests saying “I’ll look into that” instead of “I’ll take care of that” if you’re unsure you can deliver) (Duncan, 2020).

Leadership styles, unsurprisingly, have an impact. If you want to build high-performing teams, authentic and shared leadership have been shown to encourage team trust (Guenter et al., 2017; Hirst et al., 2016). Leader emotional intelligence (EI) is also positively associated with team trust (Chang et al., 2011).

In terms of the team, trust can be fast-tracked through “checking in” practices before the team gets to work (Dinh & Salas, 2017). Checking in involves discussing relevant prior experiences and allows team members to learn about each other’s abilities, an important prerequisite for cognitive trust (Mayer et al., 1995). Checking in also allows the team to identify similarities which is important for affective trust. Trust can be further fast-tracked through team building interventions that focus on interpersonal relationship management (Klein et al., 2009).