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Building Future Fit Teams: Trust, another one of those 4 letter words!

Trust, another one of those 4 letter words! Everyone talks about trust and focuses on strategies to build it. You know those types of articles, “5 steps to getting people to trust you” that list things like smile, make eye contact, be warm, listen etc. Surely there is more to it than that?

The question I always have in the back of my mind when I read articles like that (and yes I suppose it does stem from reading too many Facebook posts and my odd book collection) is can we really trust our leaders if so many of their characteristics are classified on the psychopathic continuum? The one thing we all know about these “snakes in suits” is that they’re great at building trust. Lol… I digress.

Okay, so assuming we are not working with a group of psychopaths, or at least only those at the lower end of the spectrum, then trust is essential.

It’s the glue that binds a team. Trust is what transforms a group of people into a collaborative, innovative and productive team. We know that teams and organisations that have a high trust culture send productivity levels through the roof. According to Paul Zak “Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with their employers longer than people working at low-trust companies. They also suffer less chronic stress and are happier with their lives, and these factors fuel stronger performance.” ( But, it’s really hard to build this kind of trust.  Or is it?

I was watching a Ted talk delivered by my latest Mind Crush, Dan Ariely, on trust and I was fascinated by his research findings. You can watch his talk here

He found that trust is actually instinctual and we naturally have a lot of it to begin with.  The HBR article, written by Paul Zak regarding the Neuroscience of Trust, which is doing the rounds at the moment supports Ariely’s observation on a neuroscientific level. In this article trust and how much we trust someone is all about the amount of oxytocin we produce.

They have done several controlled experiments to verify this. What they found was that there is a direct correlation between the amounts of oxytocin we produce and the level of trust and trustworthiness we display.  One of their experiments involved using a nasal spray containing oxytocin to artificially increase the user’s levels of this hormone. What they found was administering “24IU of Oxytocin more than doubled” the amount of trust. Fascinating, you can read more about this study here (

So, now we know that trust is hormonal and automatically given…until such time as it is broken that is. This got me thinking that instead of focusing our efforts on building trust we should rather focus on maintaining it and how to remain trustworthy.

In which case this column should be titled “Trust how not to mess it up.”

The thing about trust is that groups of people trust each other for as long as no one in the group breaks the trust. Once one person breaks the trust, distrust is transferred to every person in the group. You see, as Ariely explains, trust is a “fragile equilibrium.” As soon as one person breaks trust it throws the group off balance and equilibrium is restored by all becoming untrustworthy.

However, he is careful to note that this doesn’t work the same in reverse, it is very difficult to restore trust. I.e. it doesn’t take only one trustworthy person to transform a distrustful group. Based on this finding, we should instead be asking “how do we keep trust?” “How do we cultivate trustworthiness within ourselves and our team?”

The answer is actually so simple…
keep our promises i.e. do what we say we are going to do and communicate, communicate, communicate. Authentically! …and yet we find it so hard.

To maintain and strengthen trust I advocate using some Agile based tools. They offer a great way to get people to engage, to communicate and collaborate. They also allow us to show our team members that we are doing what we said we will do.

  • Have a values alignment session with your team, what do they value and what does trust mean to them. What behaviours support trust and which undermine it and of course how will we stop these and hold each other accountable.
  • Hold regular lean coffee sessions, which encourage communication and collaboration.
  • Have a visible Kanban board and hold daily stand ups so that people know what work is being done and what progress is being made. This can also be used to provide the “Revenge” factor that Ariely highlights. According to him just the thought of someone exacting revenge on you is enough to keep you trustworthy. Now I am not saying that we should go out and plot our revenge on those team members that may not be delivering, but could we perhaps see the Kanban board as some sort of tool for this. By placing an item of work onto the board the team member has made a commitment to do something. Come stand up time, they have to account for what progress has been made. If no progress has been made or even worse if their lack of action has become an impediment for that sprint, publically declaring this during the stand-up does have an element of vengeance to it, don’t you think?
  • Schedule regular retrospectives, having the opportunity to give and receive regular timeous feedback maintains and builds trust.
  • The one thing that I want to caution you on here is the encouragement of building personal relationships to foster trust. Let me explain, although personally getting to know your colleagues is important, trying to force this is detrimental to trust. Remember you don’t have to be best friends to get things done. Keep in mind that some people do not feel comfortable getting into others personal space or allowing others into theirs. Exercises or activities that try to elicit this level of engagement can make people feel vulnerable, exposed increasing the barriers between them. Venture carefully here!

I hope that you will use some of these tools to maintain and cultivate a trust culture, but should these fail…there is always the nasal spray.

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