After several audience members at my recent speeches have asked about the role of trust on their teams, I decided to dedicate a few posts to the topic. You can read previous posts in the trust series: your trust mindset and increasing your teammates’ trust in you before diving in here.  In this post, I share a few ways to develop your trust in others.

Trust is a two-way street: your teammates behave in a certain way and you interpret their behavior as either trustworthy or not. But getting out ahead of this interaction can increase the likelihood that your colleagues will behave in a way that increases your confidence.  Better to be proactive and to help your teammates earn your trust than to wait and be disappointed.

How to set up high trust

1. Make a connection. People are busy, self-absorbed, and distracted these days. That means their actions aren’t always deliberate or well thought through. I’ve noticed this even in the most mundane situations such as when I’m a crossing the road. I now establish eye contact with any drivers before I step out into an intersection. It’s a quick connection to demonstrate that I’m vulnerable and I need them to help keep me safe.

Now imagine the same idea with a colleague. Do they understand how your work is connected to their actions? If not, you’re jeopardizing your success.  It’s not that your teammate would intentionally cause you harm, they just aren’t thinking about you. So create a connection as simple as “your report will be really important to my project. I look forward to seeing it.”

2. Ensure they are competent. It would be nice if everyone you work with knew their stuff-cold. But there are many good reasons why your teammates might not be as competent as you would like: they are new to their role, the role is changing, or your organization is introducing a new way of doing things.

If you aren’t sure that your teammate will succeed, don’t wait for her to fail before saying something. Instead, increase you confidence (and hers too) by talking through the approach she is going to take. “I’m concerned about this customer meeting because it’s a new situation and the stakes are high. Can you talk me through your approach?” Be honest that you’re asking to increase your own comfort. If there are risks in the strategy or if key knowledge is missing, you’ll have a chance to address the concerns proactively.

3. Focus on reliability. If you are feeling confident in your connection with your teammate and in their capability to succeed at the task at hand, then you can turn your attention to their reliability. You have probably got a few stories of being let down by teammates who were perfectly capable but failed to deliver because of conflicting priorities or unreasonable workloads. Again, if you just hope for your teammate to deliver, you might be disappointed.

To increase the likelihood that your teammate will deliver, create milestones along the way. Useful milestones include:

  • A quick touch-base right as you’re getting started to make sure you and your teammate interpreted the task the same way
  • In more complicated tasks, a shared project plan for how your teammate will deliver on time
  • A mid-point check in so that you can see a draft of the work and know that it’s coming along as you envisioned.
  • An informal check-in with a day or two left so there is time to make any final adjustments.

You can increase or decrease the number and intensity of the check points depending on the complexity and importance of the task. The idea is to decrease the pressure on any given interaction so even if it doesn’t go well, there’s time and opportunity to fix things.

4. Encourage high integrity. When you’re dependent on a teammate for your own success, it feels threatening if you doubt their integrity. As with the more basic forms of trust (connection, competence, and reliability), it is best to be proactive about issues of integrity. Some examples of integrity issues include whether your teammate will take responsibility for the quality of her work, whether she will address any concerns directly with you, and if she will share the credit for ideas and their execution.

It’s impossible to guarantee someone else’s integrity, but you can do a few things that make it much harder for your teammate to behave poorly. The best way to encourage good behavior is to find public opportunities to clarify roles and responsibilities.  If a shared project is being assigned, ask to clarify with your team leader who will do what. Public forums are useful in minimizing passive-aggressive behavior too. Use a team meeting or other group setting to ask “is there anything you’re concerned about?” or “what else do I need to consider?”  If people see you taking the high road and providing opportunities for input, it will be harder for your teammate to throw you under the bus later.

If you are the type of person who gives trust as a default (see trust mindset post), it’s important not to trust blindly or naively. Instead, take these steps to increase the chances that your teammate will live up to the trust you put in them.  If you don’t, you might find you get let down. And once trust is broken, it’s so much harder to rebuild.

Further Reading

Trust can’t Come at the Expense of Diversity

Who can I Trust?

Counter-Intuitive Advice on Building Trust

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