Leadership 101: building trust

By Matylda Chmielewska

Leadership 101: building trust

Lack of trust is the main reason teams fail. There, I said it.

I’ve actually experienced it first hand a few years ago when I was still working at an ad agency. My marketing team was lead by a manager - let’s call him Rob - who just couldn’t let go of his tasks.

Everything, literally EVERYTHING had to be discussed with Rob: from an initial offer for a new client, website changes to copy and payments. He stayed in the office way longer than I did (and I was a workaholic back then). He checked every detail of every project, editing copy, coding, working on designs, you name it.

I could sense something was wrong back then but I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly. Now, I know the reason: Rob simply didn’t trust us. He didn’t trust our designer to do her job, and he didn’t trust me to write the copy exactly as he wanted.

In today’s article, I want to share advice on how not to become Rob.

But before I’ll do that, let’s check the bigger picture here. The research conducted by EY in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, the UK, and the US shows that only 49% of respondents trust their leader and teammates. Even less than this trusts their employer (46%).

Trust statistics

Why is it worth assessing and increasing trust within your team, you may ask.

What you actually get by building trust as a team lead is being able to scale your own skills.

As Michael Lopp of Slack writes on his blog on leadership: ‘You used to be the guy who did the impossible when it came to fixing bugs. Ok, now you’re the guy whose entire team does the impossible bug fixing.’

The essential part of this scalability is - in fact- trust. Knowing that your teammates can repeatedly complete their tasks is essential for productive teams that can achieve about anything.

Here’s what the research says, let’s check what techniques you can as a leader to strengthen trust among your team members.

I would highly recommend applying these as early in the team forming process as possible. Just keep in mind that now all people tend to have different trust levels when they’ve met someone for the first time. Some will start at 100%, while others may keep it at 30% and then slowly go up or down based on how their teammates behave towards each other.

Strategies for building trust in a team

Communicate openly

Sharing your workflow, success, and - what’s important - failures in an open way will not be easy at first, especially if your team is used to a completely different approach.

Where to start? If you’re not already doing it, organize daily standups and make sure that everyone on your team is encouraged to share not only what they’ve been able to complete but also things they’re struggling with.

Value-based collaboration

Company values may sound wishy-washy but that’s what keeps the team together and make people excited about their jobs.

Not sure where to begin with this one?

Start by getting all members of your team together in one (offline or online) place and discuss the values you’d like to align with and highlight in your company. This way, you’ll make sure that these are not superimposed but actually come from the bottom up. You should for actionable and inspirational qualities that your team can really stand behind and pride themselves on.

Now, let’s check some examples.

At Spotify, the company values were created based on the initial 70+ qualities where people from all teams were able to add their favorites. The list was then put on an internal website with all Spotifiers having access to and could vote on. The number of values was limited to 25 and then went down to 10 as the team leads chipped in. Phew, and that wasn’t even the end!

All Spotifiers were once again asked to vote and that’s how the final 5 items were picked out. These are 5 words that lead team efforts at Spotify:

As you can see, these are versatile enough to be applied to various areas of the product and of the company. They are also easy to support and act on. And not wishy-washy at all.

So what could be your company values? Here are some examples to help you get going:

Getting the gist of it? Then forge ahead!

Go team!

Distribute decision-making

This is the part that really was missing in the team I’ve mentioned in the first paragraph: all decisions were actually made by one person.

To avoid micromanaging and handle more or less difficult decisions are they come up, be aware who should be your team’s go-to person for various areas. Make sure that you know who would be best when dealing with marketing, web development or databases. A rule of thumb here is that this usually is the person who not only has enough information to decide but also will be impacted the most by the (good or bad) choice.

Also, embrace the fact that not all decisions can be managed this way. Some of them will have to be made based on the results of a team discussion. Others - there will be a single person making a call. And for some of them (but just some!) - you will be the decision maker. That’s how it works.

Be there for your team

Your teammates should feel comfortable enough to come to you with anything that may be problematic down the line. Your role here is to: a) hear them out and b) act on what they’re saying: either by encouraging them to come up with a solution or by getting to the core of the potential bottleneck they’ve encountered.

Don’t let the important issues slip and build up. This where things would get really messy. This means that you really shouldn’t miss your one-on-one meetings, even if things are hectic. People can’t share their problems with you and you can’t help them if you’re not available.

You’re in it together

There will be moments where you’ll an all-hands-on-board approach from your team. Prepare for that, and make sure your teammates know what their responsibilities are, and how their work impacts others.

As stressful as moments like this are, there’s also this team-building potential to them. If they’re handled correctly, of course. If not, they can break your team and make its members lose trust in each other.

As Stephen R. Covey said in his bestseller 1989 book:

‘Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, illusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather, trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create.”

Keep in mind that once your teammates are no longer trusting each other, it may be very difficult to build it up again. That in itself is a great topic for another article, and I’ll cover it on the blog too.

Your turn

As you may be able to grasp by now, building trust is all about collaborating with your team in a transparent way with all team members having a chance to contribute.

What’s your experience with it? We’d love to hear from you in our subreddit on courageous leadership at r/TechLeader!