Building trust in the workplace is important for any kind of team. If team members don’t trust one another, effective collaboration is almost impossible and the team will struggle to promote accountability and communication. There are a number of ways that even highly effective teams can experience a breakdown in trust, making it vital for leaders to always be on guard against signals and behaviors that undermine success.
When trust issues take hold, teams become dysfunctional and ineffective. Team members stop communicating, take less accountability, and become disengaged. If this loss of trust isn’t addressed quickly, it can cause people to leave an organization or resort to other negative behaviors that can have damaging consequences. Here are some strategies for building trust after it’s been lost.
How to Restore Trust in a Team
Acknowledge the Issue
The first step to restoring trust is to face the fact that trust was broken in the first place. This may sound like a minor issue, but restoring trust is almost impossible if no one is willing to recognize what went wrong. Admitting that a team has trust issues helps validate what team members are feeling. Leaders and team members who contributed to undermining trust must also take responsibility for their actions. Attempting to justify or excuse those actions will make it hard for anyone to trust them in the future. For example, a leader who withheld information from someone or failed to follow through on a commitment will struggle to secure buy-in from a team member who feels like they were already burned once before. Until that trust is restored, leaders will find influencing others quite difficult.
Recognizing that a team is being undermined by a lack of trust is one thing, but understanding how trust broke down is often quite another. Team members may have very different explanations for why they lost faith in leadership or the rest of the team. Collecting data in the form of surveys and direct conversations can help leaders understand what events and situations contributed to a breakdown of trust. Some of this information may be difficult to hear, but it’s important for leaders to listen without trying to rationalize or excuse behavior. Gathering feedback also helps to communicate to employees that their opinions and feelings are valued, which is an important step in re-establishing trust.
Make Specific Changes
Telling people things are going to be different and then proceeding to do things the same way as before won’t do much to inspire confidence in the future. Team members need to see that clear steps are being taken to change how the team operates and how those changes will impact the way they work going forward. For instance, if the decline in trust is linked to a leader taking credit for other people’s work, a system might be put in place to make it clear to everyone who is responsible for different tasks. On the other hand, if leadership undermined trust by not sharing or distorting information, new procedures must be implemented to facilitate better, more transparent communication.
Communicate Clearly and Consistently
Just as communication is important to building trust in the first place, it plays an absolutely essential role in re-establishing trust within a team. In most cases, poor communication is one of the main contributing factors to team members no longer trusting one another or leadership. Without frequent and clear communication, employees can feel unheard, unsupported, and unvalued. They may not have a good idea of what is expected of them, and they might also worry that those expectations could change suddenly and without warning. This is especially problematic if they’re being held accountable for producing outcomes and meeting objectives they don’t fully understand. By communicating frequently and clearly, team members have a better sense of their role within the organization and can begin to trust that they won’t be kept in the dark on issues that impact their performance.
Along with lackluster communication, poor or inconsistent accountability is one of the fastest ways to undermine trust in a team. If some team members are being held to different standards than others or if leadership consistently fails to follow through on its commitments, people will very quickly begin to question why the rules only seem to apply to some employees and not to others. Wiping the slate clean and starting over with clear expectations may not restore trust immediately, but it creates an opportunity to build trust over time. When people see that all members are held equally accountable, they can begin to count on others to do what they say they’re going to do and focus more on their own responsibilities instead of worrying about what additional work they may have to do to help the team achieve its goals.
Restoring trust in a team is often more difficult than establishing it the first time. Whereas a newly formed team has a blank slate to work with, existing teams with trust issues must find ways to get beyond difficulties and change problematic behaviors. In some cases, restoring trust in a team could require a membership shake-up, especially if toxic behaviors have damaged relationships beyond repair. Regardless of the situation, consistency and transparency are vital to successfully rebuild trust. Once team members become confident that the problems have been identified and addressed with specific actions, they can begin to repair their relationships with other team members to restore trust.