3 Things you can do today to foster trust on your team

Trust on a team usually is one of those things leaders sort of go off a gut feeling. However, it should be much more intentional than that. The latter leads to playing favorites based on having a good relationship with a team member versus actual building blocks of trust (ability, benevolence, integrity). You can start building trust with team members today by taking three simple steps: Measuring the problems areas where you don’t trust, building a structure of fair accountability, and holding regular 1:1 meetings to facilitate open communication and foster improvement.

What is TRUST anyway?

The willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action necessary to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.


For everyday folks, you may not think about trust in that way because it is just something that our mind does, and you might attribute it to a feeling. We hold some accounting of people’s actions or inaction in our heads to make these determinations. But, in the workplace, we need to get out of our “feels” a bit and take a more intentional approach to trust. Organizational trust can be reduced to three ingredients that go into the “trust” cake: ability, integrity, and benevolence.

These items are all measurable and non-subjective, as far as a human will let them be. Ability is a simple answer to the question, “do they have a track record of accomplishing tasks in the domain in question” or are they capable. Integrity digs at the question, “do they have a history of behavior that aligns with your group’s version of acceptable behavior or moral contracts?” Lastly, benevolence or kindness answers the question, “does this person want to do good to me?”

3 Steps to building trust

The first step to building trust is to have an accountability system in place.

The three steps that I have outlined here, some of which you may already do, are built to foster an environment of trust. The people we lead deserve for their leaders to be engaged in this intentional way. Try to look at these through a new lens and focus solely on trust. To build something as abstract as trust, you must nurture it and have it at the front of the mind.

The first step to building trust is to have an accountability system in place. Second, you will need to think about problem areas and ways that you can measure improvement and failure. Last, a manager needs to hold regular check-ins or 1:1 meetings with their team members.

Building a culture of accountability

Martial Arts is a big part of my life, and in the system that I practice, respect plays a big factor. We have a two-way street of accountability in place in our dojo. We address each other, both teacher and student, as sir or ma’am. It doesn’t matter how young or old the student or teacher is; that is the standard. The system we have set up is super simple; if you don’t address someone in the required way, you do 10 push-ups. Coaches, students all call each other out and point out when the standard fails. The owner has a bar of professionalism and depends on each person to hold themselves to that standard.

This is a simple structure, but shows some of what accountability is - delivering on a commitment to an outcome and following through with initiative is a pretty simple exchange if ordinary people are involved and have benevolence towards each other. Accountability is not the same as responsibility and is very much a choice someone has to make. With trust, accountability systems are enormous because people will have no reason to hold up their end of the contract if you don’t have accountability.

What does a healthy accountability system look like? There are 5 things that you can include in a simple method to ensure everyone from the top down is being held accountable. Peter Bregman points to clear expectations, clear capability, clear feedback, clear measurement, and clear consequences. These pretty simple guide rails allow all parties involved to hold each other accountable.

Measurements, opportunity over problems

Once trust is established, metrics start to mean less.

Measuring progress and using it as a key indicator to hold an employee accountable is a slippery slope. If your mentality of tracking numbers or output is that the end result is to hold employees to the task, you are doing it wrong. Unless it is a finite metric, it can quickly turn sour and icky really quick. Most people don’t want to be tracked in the “icky” sense, and they don’t want to be part of a culture that requires it. However, there is a place for a baseline of productivity and measuring. Production lines are a straightforward example: If most line workers crank out 50 widgets an hour; Leslie has only produced 20 for the past two hours. Then, a manager can begin to supervise and coach Leslie a little bit. Is she sick, does she have family issues, did we fail to train her properly?

So approach metrics from a “how can we improve” perspective. If you are doing metrics correctly, the KPI that affects positively or negatively should point you to the place to praise a win or dig in to find a root cause for a loss in productivity. The other positive perspective we can gain from metrics is competence. Both at the individual and team level, this allows the manager to trust a team over time. Once trust is established, metrics start to mean less.

The last thing, don’t make metrics part of performance talks. The employee knows they are falling behind, they know you know the numbers. You shouldn't start off the performance talk with, “so Liam your numbers have dropped this quarter?” How about you do a bit of leg work before the conversation, figure out the issue, and talk to his supervisor and peers. Figure out the cause of the individual failure. Start the conversation there, “Liam, I wanted to allow you a chance for some training for your position. We want you to gain some further knowledge on X”. You don’t have to say bring up the numbers, but simply present the solution to fix the numbers in a positive light. In the end, that moment will trust in the proverbial bag for the manager.

Hold regular one-on-one meetings

We just mentioned having talks with employees for a performance review or performance improvement situation. However, if you as the manager spent regular time in one-on-one (1:1) meetings with each employee on your team and understood where they are as an individual, that performance talk probably wouldn’t have happened. Instead, the issue probably would have been brought up naturally in the 1:1.

Just we said early, the employee knows their performance if they are honest with themselves, and they know you know. So, if you asked a team member, “How do you think things are going?” It wouldn’t be too far-fetched for them to respond back with something like, “yeah not so good. I am falling behind because I don’t really know how to get the machine running again after a malfunction.” So then, you can act immediately and not have to wait for a performance improvement plan to occur.

In this way, you build trust and relationships with each employee, and those contracts start to create a weight of trust. Overtime issues begin to present themselves magically, and the job of managing your process and leading your people just became a little easier. The time you put in for these meetings will pay off, and your employees will trust you because you are passing the vibe along that you care for their well-being and care about their careers.

It's not you, It's me!

I don’t know if you realize this, but most team performance issues boil down to individual performance, and it is usually not a team member, but the leader. The three things I have outlined here align with the areas that make up our ability to trust (ability, integrity, and benevolence). Culture is an organic thing, but it is much more meaningful if it starts and is generated top-down. So, building a culture of trust comes from the leader’s desk first.

So to recap, to foster trust on your team today - build a system of accountability by setting clear expectations and providing clear consequences. Next, measure things to allow yourself to build confidence in the capabilities of your team, but don’t turn them into the THING or the way you judge performance. Instead, let them be opportunities to improve and make your team stronger. Lastly, regularly hold meetings with all your team members to gain insight into their lives and context for performance and behavior. Most of all, focus on trusting people and asking why you don’t trust this person or team and start to work on helping yourself build the confidence to put your trust in them by following any or all of these simple suggestions.

Check out my sources

  • Mayer, R., Davis, J., & Schoorman, F. (1995). An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust. The Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 709-734. doi:10.2307/258792
  • The Right Way to Hold People Accountable. (2016, March 09). Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-right-way-to-hold-people-accountable
  • HarvardBusiness. (2021, June 15). How to build-and repair-trust at work | Christine vs. work. YouTube. Retrieved September 16, 2021, from How to Build—and Repair—Trust at Work | Christine vs. Work - YouTube