If your colleagues don’t trust you, how will you ever build trust within the team?

Trust. What does that word bring to mind? Perhaps it evokes deeply personal connections: your best friend, parents or life partner for instance. Maybe the word has professional overtones too, and prompts thoughts of an influential figure or mentor in your life.

What about your fellow leaders – your work colleagues?

The concept of trust in business is nothing new. We need to trust an organisation before we buy from them. The saying that ‘people buy from people’ encapsulates the notion of familiarity, likeability and trustworthiness too. That’s all well and good when it comes to a transactional relationship. Yet for organisations to perform – to thrive even – then it is vital that leaders trust one another. It’s not enough to accept that trusting someone means knowing that they will carry out their word. Trust is about creating a safe space where individuals know that it’s OK to speak up when something isn’t right. Without this level of trust, teams can’t function.

Trust is as important among work colleagues as it is in a buyer-seller relationship. All too often, it is overlooked. In the digital world in which we live and work, with teams often geographically separated, then it’s vital that a psychological safe space exists despite physical distance. Build trust among the senior team and all else follows; and when things are going wrong, quick and effective action is the key to getting trust back on track.

What we mean when we say ‘trust’

Trust is a loaded term. While the dictionary definition of the word seems straightforward, each individual’s experience of trust varies wildly. It is innately personal and deeply emotive. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown argues that when you ask people about an emotional subject – love, for instance – they talk about the opposite: heartbreak, the way in which their understanding of love was dashed. Similarly, mention the word ‘trust’ and people will tell you about the ugliest betrayal they have experienced. So it’s important to clarify what we mean when we use the word ‘trust’ in this blog.


Trust, or a lack of it, isn’t just about that time that your colleague didn’t meet a deadline they promised they would. It isn’t simply about the protestations that were made in the meeting room, only to be directly contradicted once all parties were back at their desks. Trust is about being open and vulnerable.

Safe space

An environment that is free from attack and judgement is critical to the existence of trust. It’s about feeling safe to speak up when promises are broken or actions not followed through. And that doesn’t mean one party reprimanding another for a missed deadline. It’s an environment in which two-way conversations take place, for the benefit of all.

How to create trust where there is none

Without trust, all other functions of a team fall short. This is best explained by Patrick Lencioni’s model, ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’. The first block in Lencioni’s pyramid is an absence of trust. It’s the starting point for the four remaining dysfunctions: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. Conversely, for a team to reverse those symptoms and behave in a functional manner, then an abundance of trust has to be the starting point.

There are different ways to build trust. In the course of our work at Farscape, we have found that the following are effective:

  • The natural world: Time away from the office doesn’t just stimulate the mind. It physically distances leaders from negative associations with work, distractions and habitual behaviour patterns. This enhances the mind’s ability to make new connections, notice surroundings, thoughts and feelings; in short, to raise leaders’ consciousness.
  • Senior intact team coaching: Used judiciously, this is an extremely effective way to bring unspoken tensions to the fore. Beginning with one-to-one coaching, the public ‘party line’ usually gives way to a more accurate representation of events in private! Frequently, what goes unsaid in a group setting is unknowingly agreed upon by the majority in one-to-one scenarios. This can then be played back in a group setting. Once the truth is on the table, it can be addressed in a safe environment.

Having a third party facilitate the process can bring about change quicker than if a team is left to its own devices. Our blog on team coaching explains in greater detail the role that a skilled coach or facilitator plays in raising a team’s awareness of their individual and collective behaviour. Greater awareness is the first step to building the trust that is crucial to teams and how they function and to the results that they achieve. This stretches beyond senior or managerial teams and impacts the wider business.

The intricacies of building trust

Creating a safe space and improving leaders’ awareness are only parts of the puzzle when building trust. To be truly open and vulnerable, individuals need to be emotionally literate. Emotional literacy is the ability to notice how you feel and to communicate it concisely. In practice, it follows a simple formula: I + feel + word that describes an emotion: sad, happy, disappointed etc.

English allows for language to be twisted and corrupted, so that true meaning becomes distorted in favour of common parlance. For example, you might hear someone say, ‘I feel like an idiot,’ when talking about their feelings and emotions. And while the sentiment behind the statement may be sincere on the part of the speaker and comprehensible to the hearer, it doesn’t strictly describe an emotion. It’s open to interpretation. Your experience of what it means to ‘feel like an idiot’ is different to mine. Does that mean you feel embarrassed? Ashamed? Or something else?

Similarly, we tend to overblow what we really mean. Experiencing an IT issue can be maddening, but when you say, ‘I hate my PC,’ is that really accurate? Do you truly feel that deeply about your computer, or would it be more accurate to say, ‘I feel very irritated’?

It’s easy to see why, despite good intentions or a genuine desire to communicate openly and effectively, trust can be an issue. Building awareness at an individual level and noticing how we feel enables us to communicate it. It’s a skill that requires practise to refine. And that is critical to the open and honest environment that trust relies on.

Trust underpins everything

From delivering feedback to creating accountability in organisations, trust is the birthplace of it all. It’s something that cannot be bypassed or glossed over. Simply launching into a learning and development programme, any learning and development programme, won’t ‘fix’ an underperforming team.

Of course, taking a team offsite or investing in group coaching for an entire senior team is a big commitment. While these actions kickstart an outcome, the key to success is valuing the time spent building trust. When something isn’t working, you want it fixed as soon as possible. That’s natural. And it is possible to start to build trust quickly. That isn’t, however, synonymous with a ‘quick fix.’ A programme, facilitator or coach can only do so much. The real work has to come from the individuals and the wider organisation. It’s not just about showing up on the day. It’s about making a commitment to changing behaviour in the long term.

That’s why investing in the process is as important as handing over a cheque – if not more so. The effort is higher; the effects over time are greater and more likely to stick.

What gets in the way of trust?

Being such an emotive subject, it’s hard sometimes for individuals and teams to accept that trust is an issue. And in an environment where there is no trust, it often feels so unsafe that it’s not possible even to admit that trust is lacking! In these situations, a third party that is emotionally and commercially removed from the situation makes a big difference. Through the role of coach, an external provider can help the team to realise that our feelings and emotions cannot be switched off at will. They stay with us whether we are at work or not. Taking that knowledge forward enables senior team members to improve their working relationships – and have a direct impact on their performance.

An abundance of trust, from a standing start

Trust is a tricky subject – when it’s missing! Yet a lack of trust isn’t always immediately apparent. That’s why we at Farscape don’t do off-the-shelf programmes. You won’t have a trust-building programme foisted on you. Nor will we simply accept a request for a trust-building programme at face value. We’ll challenge you, ask questions, and probe assumptions. What’s the reason? We’ll always take the time to work with you to establish what will work best for you and your team, your leaders and your desired outcomes. That way, we can ensure we’re playing the role of effective partner, rather than that of a yes-man.

Each team and organisation is different and has different development needs. Building trust doesn’t just allow for better working relationships and a more pleasant environment to be part of during the week; without trust, teams can’t function – whatever their size, shape or location. If something isn’t quite working in your organisation and something in this blog has sparked a flicker of recognition, we’d be intrigued to hear about it. We’re on 0117 370 1800 and would welcome the opportunity of a conversation.


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