How to build a culture of trust on your team

Trust makes doing your job as a leader easier in just about every way imaginable.

You don’t have to read up on all the theories around this. You can feel it in your gut. Personally, I know I’ve performed far better under a manager I trusted compared to one that didn’t have my best interests at heart. I bet you’ve had the same experience.

So if we take it for granted that trusting relationships coincide with the people around us performing at their best (which, of course, means we can perform at our best), then how do we establish that trust?

Certain personality traits are part of the equation. An even bigger part is behaviours, which most of us learn through years of trial and error. After 7.5 years leading teams, I’m confident enough in these behaviours to share them and (hopefully) provide a shorter path to managerial bliss for others.

Fostering trust through behaviours

When I think about the best managers I’ve worked under or alongside, as well as what’s worked with my teams, there are a handful of behaviours that seem to go over well.

Care. Good leaders don’t fake this. They actually, truthfully care enough to understand their team’s different circumstances, backgrounds, cultures, and struggles – and celebrate their successes. It makes the people around them feel safe.

Listen. They listen to what other people are saying and resist the urge to offer solutions to every problem they get a whiff of. (To be fair, I find this really really hard.) Active listening builds rapport with the other person. Simply waiting for a chance to speak does not.

Empathise. Trusted leaders imagine how other people might feel about anything from an internal decision to an error message in the product. By using empathy as their compass, they signal to people affected by a decision or action that they’re not alone and have been heard.

Communicate. They share as much as they can as often as they can. The trust they show in their teams by being open and truthful with their teams earns reciprocal trust.

Show vulnerability. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? It’s ok not to have all the answers. Your team doesn’t expect that of you. (They do expect you to admit what you don’t know, however – see “Communicate”, above). It’s also ok to be passionate about things, both at and outside of work. Vulnerability and passion make you relatable, which, in turn, engenders trust.

Be kind. I don’t think this needs an explanation.

Putting trust into action

Ok. Well. That’s all lovely. Job done, right? Wrong.

One of the most important jobs to be done as a manager (and often an unspoken one) is to manifest those behaviours in your day-to-day behaviour. If you’re suffering a failure of imagination right now, that’s understandable. Let’s take that rather overwhelming list of abstract concepts and put them in terms of everyday life at the office.  (See how I just empathised with you there?)

Share the pain

If you manage a front-line team, occasionally tackling some of the problems on the ground will help to give you first-hand perspective on what the team is going through (good and bad). Aside from being “Empathy 101”, rolling up your sleeves and pitching in when your team is overwhelmed shows that you care.

Managers who work remotely, or manage a team distributed across time zones, may need to ask team members to accommodate the occasional meeting outside of their typical work hours. This isn’t horrible, per se. Just make sure that you are the one being inconvenienced at least 51% of the time.

Lead by example

Whether we like it or not, leaders heavily influence the culture of their team. If you’re seeing behaviour in your team that isn’t productive or is counter to the mission of the team, ask yourself “Am I also exhibiting this behaviour?” By the same token, make sure you exhibit the positive behaviours you’d like to see more of from your team.

The meetings you run are an easy place to start. When we’re passionate about the topic at hand, we tend to forget our manners and interrupt our teammates. As a leader, you can set a positive example by coming back to the person who was interrupted. It’s as simple as saying “Before we move on, I want to make sure Maria has a chance to finish her thought from a moment ago.” Then listen.

Give (and invite) feedback

Feedback to your direct reports (or peers, for that matter) should be honest and frequent. Don’t delay until the annual review, especially if the feedback is critical. In the book “Radical Candor”, author Kim Scott says you should “challenge directly, and care personally.” I’ve found that to be very effective. My other big takeaway is that feedback should be framed in terms of behaviour – whether good or bad – instead of personal traits. And when possible, provide examples of the behaviour so it feels real.

It runs both ways, too. It’s much harder to develop as a leader if you’re not getting feedback from the people you’re leading. The ideal scenario is that your team trusts you enough to give honest feedback and challenge your decisions in a constructive way. You can set the example (see above!) by giving feedback the way you’d like to receive it.

Guide and develop

The more I learn about leadership, the more I realise it’s less about directing people and more about guiding and developing them. By “directing”, I mean giving orders – which has it’s place. For example, new starters sometimes need to be told what to do and how to do it in order to understand how the team functions. Teams with operational work may have run-books or checklists that just need doing. But if a person is only ever told what to do, they may not feel challenged or inspired. And they sure as hell won’t feel trusted.

“Guiding and developing”, on the other hand, means understanding what motivates people. What direction do they want to grow their career? How can I help them find opportunities to get there?

Pointing someone toward an appropriately challenging project not only shows that you care, it shows you trust they’ll rise to the occasion.

Empower people

Because we’re increasingly dependent on others – be it service dependencies, infrastructure dependencies, cross-team dependencies, etc. – we don’t have full control over every aspect of our work. Therefore, as a leader, it’s important to develop the right behaviours in your team so they remain empowered in an increasingly interdependent company.

Help find areas where they can make an impact and influence (if not own outright). Delegate authority, not just tasks. Demonstrate confidence in them, even if it means taking a leap of faith occasionally. Feeling empowered rocks.

Trust starts with you

There is a lot more to leading a team (or team of teams!), but I believe building trust is the most important. When your team trusts you, they bring their full selves to work each day. You get to know them as a whole person, which helps you understand how they can best contribute. They don’t feel the need to hide mistakes – instead, they feel empowered to learn from them. They respect decisions, even as they challenge them.

There’s a lot more to building trust than just being a nice person. When you take on a leadership role, you’re essentially starting from scratch. But the good news is that trust begets more trust. It’s a virtuous cycle. Take the first step by placing your trust in your team. Given time, they’ll return it.

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For more ways to build trust and empower your team to do the best work of their lives, visit the Atlassian Team Playbook – our free, no-BS guide to unleashing your team’s potential.

Check out the Team Playbook

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