Why Teams Don’t Trust One Another – and How to Fix It

Why Teams Don’t Trust One Another – and How to Fix It

Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.—Stephen Covey

In an election year, the issue of trust is front and center as candidates at the local, state and national level argue who is the most trustworthy.

Trust also is becoming a bigger deal in companies, especially as cross-functional teams strive to develop a cohesive strategy to drive innovation. Unfortunately, leaders are discovering that no matter how talented a team may be, innovative ideas may flounder and productivity may drop if team members lack trust in one another.

This lack of trust can be the result of several different factors. For example, science shows that human beings often make snap judgments about people they meet for the first time, but research shows that our own intuition can be wrong when judging those we don’t know well. First impressions are not always the best way to judge a person and can prove to be inaccurate, experts say.

Further, some employees may have had poor experiences working on cross-functional teams in the past, further eroding their willingness to trust such teams again. Additional obstacles to establishing trust include old-fashioned turf battles, poor communications and an unwillingness to change how work gets done.

This all points to the fact that is can be very challenging for leaders to instill trust among cross-functional team members. A recent study found that nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

“The reason why most cross-functional teams fail is because silos tend to perpetuate themselves: for example, engineers don’t work well with designers, and so on,” says Behnam Tabrizi of Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering.

Still, even teams who are familiar with one another can have trust issues, which is why establishing trust is the “No. 1 challenge for leaders,” says  Thomas Barta, a former McKinsey partner and leadership expert.

He explains that managers must serve as “integrators” for teams, helping members better communicate and understand one another.

“Think about how trust is established – it’s always about your credibility and knowledge,” Barta says. “Most leaders are good at putting that on the table, but then they need to look at the second component of trust: intimacy.”

Barta explains that when employees from different functions get together, it can lead to some strong differences of opinion and leaders need to help workers get past those defensive positions and instead learn about one another. “Trust and intimacy come about by building a relationship with someone – finding out who they are and what they’re about,” he says.

Creating a joint vision

At Halogen Software, at least a handful of cross-functional “working groups” are in play at one time, created and disbanded as needed, says Dominique Jones, chief people officer.

“I think one of the lessons we learned is that in the first meeting everyone wants to jump in and fix whatever it is in five minutes. But it’s best if they take an hour or so just to understand one another – to know the background of those in the room,” she says.


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