By Victor Assad

New research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that employees who trust their organizations are more productive, more creative, and have higher engagement. Those who don’t trust their organizations experience more stress, have higher rates of burnout, and are more likely to quit. So, how can organizations foster trust?

The authors assert that while it is important for managers to foster trust with their employees, that is only half of the equation. The other half is fostering trust between teammates, who often interact at work without a manager present. This study is part of a consistent body of research that shows the importance of building trust to create highly productive and innovative teams.

To carry out their research, Ron Friedman and his team at ignite80 surveyed 1,000 US-based office workers. They first differentiated between high-performing and low-performing teams and then compared their behaviors. They found that high-performing teams displayed the following five key behaviors related to trust that set them apart from the low-performing teams:

  1. High-performing teams don’t leave collaboration to chance. Writes Friedman, “When launching a project, many teams follow a predictable cadence: They assign tasks and start working. High-performing teams, on the other hand, are more than three times more likely to begin by first discussing how they will work together, paving the way for fewer misunderstandings and smoother collaboration down the road.”
  2. High-performing teams keep colleagues in the loop. They proactively share information. Writes Friedman, “Greater transparency doesn’t just foster trust — it’s also been shown to fuel creativity, performance, and profitability. In contrast, when colleagues withhold information from their teammates, there are frequently deeper issues at play. ‘Knowledge hiding,’ as it’s referred to in academic literature, often suggests a lack of psychological safety or an underlying power struggle.”
  3. High-performing teams share credit. “Instead of soaking up praise alone, members of high-performing teams are more likely to share recognition for their accomplishments with teammates by acknowledging or thanking those who played a role in their success,” Friedman notes. “In so doing, they increase the likelihood of their colleagues feeling appreciated and promote a norm of reciprocity, both of which contribute to the experience of trust.”
  4. High-performing teams believe disagreement makes them better. High-performing teams do not experience less conflict. They avoid name-calling and sarcasm, focus on what they need instead of on their teammates’ failures, and use “I” statements to communicate in ways that make their teammates less defensive.
  5. High-performing teams proactively address tension. Writes Friedman, “Members of high-performing teams don’t just interpret conflict more adaptively — they’re also more prone to taking the initiative in resolving it. In our study, we found that they are significantly more interested in ‘hearing if they upset a teammate,’ and more willing to proactively reach out if ‘something didn’t feel right between me and a teammate.’”

Friedman concludes, “Building trust in the workplace can’t and shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of management. After all, trust isn’t relayed from the top down. It’s built organically on a foundation of behaviors exhibited by all team members that empower everyone to produce their best work.”

Many studies show the importance of building trust

Friedman’s work is part of a long and consistent stream of research that shows that building trust in the workplace leads to higher-functioning teams and improved productivity and innovation.

For example, Google’s research on its workforce found five dynamics of effective teams. Google discovered that who is on a team matters much less than how team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. And across all types of teams, from sales to engineering, from San Francisco to Singapore, five dynamics consistently differentiated top-performing teams from those at the bottom. The five dynamics, as described by author Natasha Tamiru, are as follows:

  1. Psychological safety (what psychologists call trust): This was the most important dynamic in an effective team. Psychological safety is about risk-taking and being comfortable with vulnerability. People who don’t feel psychologically safe worry that taking risks will mean they’re seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. Psychological safety means feeling confident about admitting mistakes, asking questions, or offering new ideas.
  2. Dependability: On dependable teams, members reliably complete quality work on time. They don’t avoid their responsibilities, and they take them seriously, helping to keep the team on track. As simple as it sounds, it proved vital to team effectiveness.
  3. Structure and clarity: This means that a team has clear roles, goals, and plans. Individuals understand what’s expected of them, what they and their team is aiming for, and how they are all going to get there. Google uses objectives and key results (OKRs) to help set and communicate specific, challenging, and attainable short- and long-term goals at both an individual and group level.
  4. Meaning: For individuals on a team, finding a sense of purpose in their work or its output is vitally important for team effectiveness. That meaning is personal, so it varies from person to person, but might include financial security, their ability to support their family, their commitment to the success of the team, or their individual self-expression.
  5. Impact: Do you fundamentally believe the work you do makes a difference? This subjective judgement marks out the most effective teams and can be based on seeing how one’s work contributes to an organization’s goals and what it has helped to change.

As well, consider this study from the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory that showed that communication patterns play a critical role in building team success. The secret wasn’t what the team communicated, but how they did it.

Researchers at the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory used electronic badges on team members to collect data on their individual communication behavior, including their tone of voice, their body language, and with whom they spoke and how often.

Here is what the researchers concluded: “With remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors—individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”

The researchers found the elusive group dynamics that characterize high-performing teams: energy, creativity, and shared commitment.

Team Kickoff Workshops

The importance of quickly building trust among team members is so significant that in my role as an HR leader and consultant, I advise my clients to hold workshops with newly formed teams to help them start building trust. During these workshops, we build clarity around the team’s role in supporting the organization’s vision and strategies, and we clarify team goals, milestones, budgets, meeting dates and rules, and the roles of team members. We also have team members share what they excel and do not excel at, their most and least successful team experiences, and their communication styles.

To learn more about the factors that drive team success and the importance of building trust, read my previous blog post, Four studies identify the critical dynamics that contribute to team success.

About InnovationOne®, LLC.

InnovationOne®, LLC helps organizations worldwide build a culture of innovation and make it sustainable. InnovationOne® uses a scientifically developed assessment to measure, benchmark, and improve your company’s culture and capability to innovate and enjoy better outcomes and financial results. Companies scoring in the top quartile of our InnovationOne Culture Index© reported higher financial performance than bottom quartile performers by as much as 22 percent. Measure and ignite your culture of innovation.