Building Trust Within Your Team

By Dr. Mary Kay

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Although the importance of building trust as a leadership tool is discussed in any number of books, many managers do not view trust as a problem-solving tool because of two factors: workplace priorities and pressure to get results.

Managers often feel their first priority is production and getting the job done. They are under pressure to complete tasks as quickly as possible because that’s what their managers are emphasizing.

Many managers know that building trust is important, but there are too many day-to-day issues to deal with, so trust often gets neglected. Managers don’t always recognize the connection between the two, believing they are getting paid to get results, not to build trust.

Learning How To Build Trust Video

Dr. Mary Kay – About Leaders Co-Founder and Ultimate Leader Success System Creator

Start With Morale

If morale is low in an organization, it will impact productivity. When this happens, reactive managers often make the mistake of trying to tackle the end product instead of getting to the root of the actual problem. That is, instead of looking at why morale is low or how they can raise it, they focus on increasing productivity by:

  • Reviewing performance data. Placing a chart in the work area so that team members can focus on their performance levels works for goal attainment, but not if morale is the source of productivity problems. Managers who do this sort of thing believe if they talk about production numbers every day, it will be enough to take care of low productivity.
  • Redistributing the workload. Switching team members from one job to another may feel like a fresh solution, but, in reality, it may only cause more resentment and low morale. Instead, managers should look at a lack of trust as a cause of productivity problems.
  • Setting up an efficiency system. If the business is slow, this may seem like the answer. Although looking at inefficiencies is a positive move, the results will only be a temporary fix if trust is lacking in the workplace.
  • Blaming individual workers. When faced with one employee who seems to be frustrating everyone else, instead of trying to develop the employee or communicate with him directly, the reactive manager often makes excuses for why he can’t. “That’s just how he is,” the manager might say, as though he can do nothing about it. “We just have to work around him.”

Any of these four actions will be short-term Band-Aids for the fundamental problem of low morale, which can be like a wound that refuses to heal. In reality, managers need to pay close attention to this phenomenon because though it may seem like just a matter of unhappy employees, low morale goes beyond that superficial level.

When team members are dissatisfied with their work, often it is because the foundation for building trust is missing in their workplace.

The Approach to Building Trust

Try A Different Approach

When building trust among the team, leaders look at the situation differently than other managers. They know the people in the organization drive its productivity and success; they also know if they aren’t looking at change within themselves, they aren’t getting long-term results.

So instead of simply reviewing data and trying to make changes based on cold, hard numbers, leaders first look at themselves and ask:

  • Which of their own behaviors make the team members want to increase their productivity?
  • How can they, as leaders, engage the hearts and minds of their people?

One goal of leadership is to build a team that is empowered instead of disengaged. The first challenge is to figure out how to do that.

Instead of relying on spreadsheets to dictate the direction of their business, leaders look toward people issues when seeking to implement change. First, they try to see how they are engaging with their employees. While reactive managers are in their offices setting up systems, leaders are out seeking the opinions of their team members. They know that to get results, they must have the interest, investment, and trust of those responsible for producing them.

Trust Building

Trust Is Number One

What keeps managers from building trust?

One common stumbling block is simply the word “trust.”

In many organizations, the word trust is so overused that team members don’t seem to know what it means. What’s worse, they often do not see trust in action; they’ve never had anybody teach them how to make it happen for themselves.

Ironically, although trust is one of the most common core values that companies aspire to, if you walked into any given workplace, you would rarely see managers trying to establish trust among their employees. Instead, you’re more likely to hear statements such as:

  • “I don’t know if I trust him to do that.”
  • “I want a guarantee that she’s going to do this.”
  • “I’ve got to follow up and check on them.”

These are typical assertions managers make when talking about employees.

Although they may think that they’re doing the right thing for all involved, all this overbearing attitude accomplishes is alienation and an absence of loyalty. In trying to manage their employees the way they would manage processes and procedures, many reactive managers are pushing their employees away and creating teams that don’t buy into what they’re being asked to do.

When this is the general atmosphere in the workplace, the results can be disastrous. Productivity will undoubtedly suffer, and what will be left for the reactive manager to do is keep tabs on employees— in essence, babysit them instead of helping them learn and grow.

This pattern can become a vicious cycle if managers are not careful, which is often how a reactive environment takes hold. But there is a way to break it! To get out of the reactionary loop and build a foundation of trust, managers must match their actions to their words and diligently display, in their own leadership style, four expectations of trust:

  • Be Approachable
  • Accept Responsibility
  • Practice Confidentiality
  • Mutually Support
Being Approachable

1. Be Approachable

Start being approachable today and see what kind of response you receive—all you have to do is make yourself available. Let your employees know that you are there for them when they have problems, concerns, or questions, and when they do come to you, don’t take your baggage into the conversation. Listen to what they say, then react logically rather than emotionally.

This sounds a lot easier than it is for many people. When we hear something we disagree with, it’s a natural reaction to raise our voices and disagree. However, as leaders, we must stay calm, open, and understanding of the other person’s point of view.

We must continue to listen rather than interrupt, shoot the messenger, or try to explain away whatever the problem might be.

When team members choose to confide in you, they take a big step toward showing that they trust you and are helping you start building that foundation. Whatever the topic or whatever issue they have decided to bring to you, wait for them to finish their thoughts before you say anything, and make sure your response is not reactionary. Think things through before you say them; you’ll be surprised at how this one small action can turn the tide of any heated conversation.

Many of our clients take this first step and come back to us saying, “Wow, this works!” As a practice, reacting calmly may not come naturally to you right away, especially if you’ve been a reactive manager for a while. But try it. And stick with it. It won’t take long before it works for you, too.

Accepting Responsibility

2. Accept Responsibility

When we’re feeling under pressure, it’s easy to try to blame somebody else for whatever problems exist. We can complain about people in other departments or locations; it’s better when they’re not around to defend themselves. We can also blame our team members if we have to—for not following through, meeting deadlines, returning phone calls, or not sharing work-related information.

But all this finger-pointing will do is divide your organization and promote fear amongst your employees. Although reactive managers often feel pressured to blame someone or to find a culprit for the low productivity their organizations are experiencing, it is never the best course of action.

Leaders know that playing the “blame game” will get them nowhere but deeper into the vicious cycle, and so instead will take ownership of whatever problems arise. When confronted by a difficult issue, these leaders will first stop and ask themselves, “What can I do to rise above the circumstances?” They’ll look at themselves first, review their actions and habits, and change whatever’s necessary to achieve better results.

During this self-examination, leaders often find that their first shortcoming is not sharing enough information with their employees. Perhaps they unwittingly held back pertinent details that caused the production process to go less smoothly than it otherwise might have. While this would be a prime time for a reactive manager to blame the slowdown on his employees despite it being essentially his fault. Leaders instead approach their employees directly and say, “You know, I think there’s something that I failed to tell you. Maybe that’s why we didn’t get that particular project completed on time.”

This approach will undoubtedly feel refreshing to team members who are used to reactive managers, who would normally just say, “I didn’t have to tell you—you should have known.”

Reactive managers point fingers at everyone else; they want to be right and avoid admitting they made a mistake at all costs. Defensiveness and posturing promote fear—which is the opposite of building trust.

Practice Confidentiality

3. Practice Confidentiality

Every organization has a rumor mill, whether it wants one or not. Gossip is generated by team members reacting with fear to unfavorable situations. People are generally afraid to go directly to the source of a problem to confirm a fact and decide for themselves what is true. Lacking this pertinent information, they jump to conclusions and create conspiracies when, in actuality, there’s nothing there.

Leaders can stop the rumor mill in its tracks by being the role models their team members need. Instead of listening to gossip or passing on potentially false information, leaders go directly to the source to find out the truth about what happened. When other team members see this taking place, they will be encouraged to do the same—with each other and with the leaders as well.

In training sessions, we often ask participants: “If I had a concern about your participation in this session, would you want me to come to you directly and tell you about it, or would you rather I go tell your boss?” The answer is always unanimous: They would rather we approach them directly to discuss the situation.

Our next questions are:

  • What if I told your boss and didn’t go to you?
  • How would that affect our trust?

Again, there is a unanimous answer: There would be no trust between us.

Reactive managers often get caught in this sticky situation; they are prone to spreading rumors about co-workers, distracting others with unfavorable perceptions, and projecting double standards in the workplace. Unfortunately, it is impossible to earn the trust of your team if you’re actively participating in the rumor mill.

On the other side, by repeating only productive information—no rumors or gossip—and communicating directly with those involved in the situation, leaders establish trust with their team members. They know they must practice confidentiality to be trusted and to earn the respect of others.

Mutually Support All

4. Mutually Support All

Everyone deserves to be trusted regardless of their role in the organization. There isn’t a chain of command when it comes to building trust; the playing field is level.

Leaders are well aware of this, so they ensure they interact with all of their team members equally and support one employee’s efforts just as much as the next. It takes everyone to get results, and everyone must feel a sense of equality and trust if you want the team to be motivated to succeed.

This may not be the scenario you’re used to if you’ve spent time in a reactive environment. Reactive managers tend to work more on their relationships with their bosses than their team members; often, they have no patience or time for those they supervise. This attitude comes across as phony, and employees can see right through it; the result is a lack of respect for the manager and a loss of credibility.

Reactive managers, however, don’t see it quite the same way. “These people report to me,” they’ll argue. “I’m stressed out enough—what do you want me to do?” They focus on their egos, caring only about themselves to the point they destroy whatever trust might have existed.

But leaders know it’s wiser to focus on what’s best for the team, not what’s best for themselves. They are outwardly focused and flexible, willing to help anyone on their team who needs a hand—as well as teams in other areas of the organization.

For example, consider a successful facility in an organization achieving top results. Because they are doing so well, the leaders at this branch are eager to share their techniques and practices with other locations to help the organization. Compare this to reactive managers, who would keep the information to themselves, scared that if they share it, they risk being knocked out of the first place. As a result, the organization suffers.

For an organization to be successful, everyone must feel as though they have a stake in the outcome of their work. This begins with trust—which you can’t expect team members to feel if you play favorites or put your ego first.

Mutual support will earn you mutual trust, and that’s what it takes to get results.

Successfully Building Trust

Putting It All Together

Think for a moment about the people within your organization whom you trust. The odds are excellent that these people exhibit all four trust expectation behaviors: being approachable, accepting responsibility, practicing confidentiality, and mutually supporting all.

But do you? Try putting all four of them to work right now, and you will see a difference—possibly even before the day is over.

To test your leadership skills, let’s go through an exercise we use in our training sessions. Think of an employee with whom you’ve had problems; for this example, we’ll call her Jane. Could it be that Jane does not work to her full potential because she doesn’t trust you? Let’s go through the four expectations of trust and see the cause of Jane’s problem.

  • Have you been approachable to Jane? Are you as receptive to her as you are to other employees? Do you greet her in the morning? Or, like the reactive manager, do you avoid her because she annoys you?
  • Have you accepted responsibility for the fact that you might be part of Jane’s problem? Look at your actions: What could you be doing differently with her? Do you blame Jane when things go wrong, even if it’s not entirely her fault? Are you focusing on helping her succeed? Or are you just focused on her next vacation, when she’ll be out of your hair for a week?
  • Have you been practicing confidentiality with Jane, or do you complain about her to others? Reactive managers will bad-mouth others. Are you guilty of this bad habit?
  • Do you support Jane as much as everybody else on the team? Do you give her the same amount of work? Do you provide her with the same resources that you would another employee?

When using this checklist, many of our clients realize they are not practicing the four expectations of trust with employees. However, when they change their behaviors and concentrate more on being approachable, responsible, confidential, and supportive, they begin to see results immediately.

What about you? Are you ready to do some self-examination and fine-tune how you interact with challenging employees? Take the first step—try adjusting the way you interact with Jane. You will be amazed by the results.

Speaking Up

Why Employees Don’t Speak Up

Employees like Jane will have no problem coming to you with their concerns if you’re a receptive, attentive leader. When employees approach you so freely, you can rest assured you are an Ultimate Leader and have a great relationship with the people you lead.

But what if your team members don’t want to talk to you? What if they don’t trust you? Would they risk speaking up to a supervisor they have no faith in?

Probably not, and therein lies the problem that must be solved: If your employees don’t trust you enough to talk to you about what’s wrong, how will you ever know?

In the Ultimate Leaders Success System, there are methods for soliciting feedback from your employees. One good way is to include them in a meeting and ask for their input on how to fix a problem, handle a change, or gather their opinions on efficiency issues. This works well if there is a foundation of trust already in place, but if your team members sense a lack of support on your part—and fear reprisal for what they might say—you will not receive the feedback you need. Team members know what is not working but will not open up unless they trust you.

The Learning Curve

In today’s competitive world, successful organizations are learning organizations—they believe in building trust, engaging their people, and developing them. Toward this end, leaders use a learning curve when working with their teams by structuring conversations according to a proven pattern.

Adult Learning Curve
The Learning Curve concept is part of Module 1 in the Ultimate Leader Success System.

When it comes to the curve, we’ve found that people learn in four stages:

  • Norm: their current mindset
  • Storm: their initial reaction
  • Form: the light bulb goes on
  • Perform: they get it done


To get results, you must work with your team members NORMS or their point of view, which reactive managers rarely do. Often, they’re so focused on their attitudes and mindsets that they never find out what someone else thinks, much less what they know or believe to be true.

“I’ve got an announcement to make,” a reactive manager might say. “We’re switching the time we come to work next week. Let me tell you about it.” As the manager speaks on this subject, team members grow increasingly anxious, thinking of why this sudden change will not work for them. After the manager is through explaining the entire thing, he then thinks to ask, “So, does anyone have any questions?” and everyone looks at him in silence. “Okay,” he concludes. “Then let’s do it.”

This, to a reactive manager, has been a good meeting. To everyone else, the communication has not broken the surface level. Out of touch with what his employees think—and showing them that he doesn’t even care—he has forced the communication away from himself and into the hallways and restrooms and has put the rumor mill into action.

Finding out about your employees’ NORMS, however, can turn a situation like this right around. All you have to do is ask some questions: “Starting next week, we have to start coming an hour earlier. What do you all think about that?”

Leaders invite the input that reactive managers actively avoid, knowing that it’s the only way to get the team’s support—especially when the topic is difficult.


Once the question (“What do you all think about that?”) is out there, then comes the STORM, the natural reaction most people have when you try to introduce them to change. Even though you may listen to your employees’ problems and come up with solutions that you think are for the best, chances are that the team will resist by coming up with reasons why your resolutions won’t work. They’ll express frustration and confusion, complain, and ask their own questions.

It’s essential, however, to let them ride this STORM out. It’s not your job to stop it! If you don’t let team members communicate their thoughts and feelings, you will plug their learning curves; you’ll make it clear to them that you don’t want to hear what they’re thinking and feeling, and, in return, they will lose the trust and respect they feel for you. This is the fate of the reactive managers who frequently plug their team member’s thoughts and feelings during this STORM phase; for leaders, this is rarely the case.

Leaders will not run away from the STORM but will stay and listen and let it all play out. Employees won’t feel safe if they’re not allowed to STORM and feel even better when they see their leader has not been scared away.


To FORM means to understand, to commit to a plan. During this stage, the proverbial light bulbs will turn on over your team members’ heads as they come up with their own solutions to the problem at hand.

This aspect of the FORM phase is essential because, as humans, we remember little of the information we are supposed to absorb— especially when someone is dictating it to us. Some studies have shown that we only retain 20% of what we write, 20% of what we hear, and 20% of what we see.

However, we remember 80% of what we say and do ourselves, so it stands to reason that allowing your team members to become involved in the solution-forming process is most effective.

Hands-on involvement makes a lasting impression on our brains. In short, if you want your employees to hear what you’re saying, you do the talking; if you want them to learn it, they need to do the talking.


Once your team members have formed their solutions, they will be ready to move ahead and PERFORM the way you want them to. If you allow them to follow this learning curve—from beginning to end, without interruptions or shortcuts—you will achieve ongoing, sustained results and add another layer to your foundation of trust.

So why don’t all managers do this if it’s so effective? Mainly because they fear the process itself. The NORM, STORM, FORM, PERFORM learning curve creates a lot of energy as it goes along, to the extent that many reactive managers would not be able to contain it. Instead, they would revert to the old skill set that tells them to defend themselves against the opposition, prove the employees wrong, and crush their efforts to resolve the problem in their way.

But with Ultimate Leaders, that’s not the way it’s done. All the team members want you to do is communicate and listen; it’s up to you to keep those lines open to hear what they have to say. In return, they will give you their best ideas and their most honest efforts; they will see that you are ready to trust them because you have created commitment and buy-in—you have shown your employees that you value their expertise and expect them to be just as invested in the outcome as you are.

When you let your team members express themselves, even the ones who oppose you most will become your greatest advocates.

The Learning Curve Gets Results

The Learning Curve Gets Results

When you present a potentially unpopular idea to your team, the reaction you’re most likely to get across the board is, “This will never work.” But instead of being reactive and attempting to sell your employees on the idea of liking the change, you must instead listen to their concerns. As a leader, you must stop and say, “Yes, it is different. And how is that going to affect us?”

And then, again, you must listen. As you do so, take the time to engage each team member; listen actively, and when they’re done, paraphrase what they’ve just told you: for example, “So your concern is transportation, Mary,” or “You have child-care issues, Mark.” This shows your team members that you’re really hearing what they’re saying and that you’re trying to work with them, not against them.

Leaders encourage their team members to participate in the learning curve process fully and, in fact, jump right in and STORM along with them. Leaders listen to everything their employees say without trying to fix their problems right away. Still, once the STORM dies out—when people start repeating themselves—and the conversation turns toward the FORM mode, the leaders can ask questions such as: “What can we do to make this unpopular change work out?” and “What are we going to do when we leave here?” Then they add, “Let’s go do it.”

The learning curve is a powerful tool to use when announcing a change to wary team members. It can also be used for a number of other tasks, including communicating unpopular decisions or relieving tensions between team members. Ultimately, the learning curve allows you to structure any conversation so that the recipients of your message have a chance to react, form their solutions, and perform the very thing you had hoped they would do all along.

Take this building trust leadership tool you’ve just learned and use it in your next conversation. You’ll see immediate results if you only change how you interact with one or two of your employees to start or alter how you react to challenging questions in a staff meeting.

Once you’ve established trust, you have a great start toward resolving most of your “people problems.”


Building Trust In a Nutshell

If you can’t understand why someone’s not doing what you want them to, look at yourself first and figure out if you are the cause of their hesitancy. Use the checklist to see if you are conforming to the four expectations of trust:

  • Am I being approachable?
  • Have I accepted responsibility?
  • Am I practicing confidentiality?
  • Am I mutually supportive of the person I consider difficult?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” take immediate steps to change them to “yes.” Stop talking, and ask more questions; really listen to what your employees have to say. You do not need to fix or solve their problems immediately, and often listening to them first will help the solution present itself.

When presenting change or difficult decisions to your team, utilize the learning curve tool and guide them through the NORM, STORM, FORM, and PERFORM stages. Remember that it’s okay for there to be initial resistance; the most important part is creating a connection and coming to a solution together as a team.

How are You Building Trust Within Your Team?

If you have ideas about building trust that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay
Dr. Mary Kay is a business leadership strategist, executive coach, trainer, author, and co-founder of the About Leaders community. She’s consulted with hundreds of companies and trained thousands of leaders. Her Ultimate Leader Success course helps managers become more confident, decisive leaders. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Samoual Hassan says:

    Open communication is essential to building trust in a team. Encourage everyone to communicate openly and honestly with each other, without fear of judgment or criticism. Make sure that all voices are heard and respected so that everyone feels comfortable.

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