The Absence of Trust (Article 1 of 5)

A few weeks ago, a transformative session on team dynamics during our LeaderShift programme inspired me to write a series of articles exploring Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team. These sessions illuminated a crucial insight: many team issues stem from a lack of trust. Trust is the foundation of high-performing teams. Observing the delegates’ realisation that trust is essential for overcoming challenges was truly enlightening. Therefore, I am beginning this series with an in-depth look at the absence of trust and its profound impact on team dynamics.

The Nature of Trust

Trust in a team context means having confidence that your peers’ intentions are good, and there’s no need to be self-protective or careful around them. It’s about vulnerability – being open about your mistakes, weaknesses, and fears without fear of retaliation or any of your weaknesses being weaponised. According to Breuer, Hüffmeier, and Hertel (2016), “Team trust is defined as the shared willingness of the team members to be vulnerable to the actions of the other team members based on the shared expectation that the other team members will perform particular actions that are important to the team, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control the other team members.” When team members trust each other, they are more likely to engage in open, honest dialogue and collaborative problem-solving (healthy conflict), which we will discuss in the next article.

Causes and Consequences of Absence of Trust

The absence of trust in a team can stem from several causes and lead to significant consequences. At times, team members are reluctant to show vulnerability due to fear of being judged or undermined. For instance, a team member might avoid admitting a mistake in a project update, fearing that their competence will be questioned. This breeds a culture that buries mistakes instead of learning from them, which discourages honesty and openness. If employees see their peers reprimanded for errors, they will be less likely to share their own challenges, which gets the team nowhere near effectiveness and success. Also, environments that prioritise competition over collaboration can further inhibit the development of trust. Workplaces where employees are pitted against each other for promotions foster a cutthroat atmosphere rather than a supportive one.

Without trust, teams hesitate to ask for help and are reluctant to provide constructive feedback. This can lead to delays and poor performance. Lower morale is another consequence, creating a toxic atmosphere where employees feel isolated and disengaged. This fear of healthy conflict further reduces collaboration, resulting inmissed opportunities for synergy, innovation, and productivity. Ultimately, these issues affect the team’s overall performance and the organisation’s success.

Building Trust

Building trust requires intentional effort and leadership. In his recent article on Forbes, Keith Ferrazzi emphasised the importance of intentionality in trust-building. He said, “In today’s world of constant disruption, leaving team bonds to chance is simply too risky. It’s time to get intentional about building trust, the foundation of truly high-performing teams.”

Here are some practical and intentional strategies we can employ:

  • Leaders play a vital role in setting the tone and modelling the behaviours they want to see in their teams. They should lead by example, modelling vulnerability through admitting their own mistakes and weaknesses. This sets a precedent for others to follow and creates safe spaces for open dialogue, where team members can freely share their thoughts without fear of judgement.
  • Encouraging self-awareness and mutual understanding among team members by identifying and discussing individual strengths and weaknesses is crucial. Using the Enneagram in our programmes has worked tremendously for this. People don’t just leave with self-awareness but also an understanding of others and a keen interest in being more accepting and open to diversity.
  • In an era where remote work has become the norm and most meetings are held on Teams or Zoom, human interactions have changed, and face-to-face interactions have become scarcer. Therefore, spending time in face-to-face meetings and working sessions is crucial for fostering better personal interactions, which in turn strengthens the bonds between team members and builds trust.

In the final session of LeaderShift, when asked about their plans moving forward, one delegate shared, “I will start making time to have coffee with my colleagues and engage in meaningful conversations with them, getting to know them better…” If leaders approached interactions with colleagues in this manner and were intentional about fostering such connections, building trust would not seem impossible. By being intentional and consistent with these practices, leaders can establish a foundation of trust that cultivates high-performing teams and drives organisational success.

As we’ve learned from Patrick Lencioni and continue to witness in teams facing challenges, trust serves as the bedrock upon which all other aspects of team dynamics are constructed. Leaders who prioritise building trust will witness significant enhancements in their team’s cohesion and performance. By leading with vulnerability, starting from within, and nurturing a culture of openness, leaders can unleash their team’s full potential. Being intentional about fostering trust isn’t merely advantageous—it’s essential.

Written by: Mbali Masinga