Our planet is experiencing a “trust crisis.” Heads of state, chief executives, and leaders from civil society recently met virtually for the World Economic Forum. The theme of the forum was “A Crucial Year to Rebuild Trust.” This global “trust crisis” trickles down to the local level where the absence of naturally occurring trust-building opportunities wears at the fabric of social connections within our organizations. We no longer get to enjoy chance meetings in the hallway. We meet by phone or video conference, losing the ability to observe subtle but important nonverbal signals. Some of us have new team members who we have never met in person!

Over the next two months, this newsletter will focus on the topic of trust – responding to your questions about it and sharing suggestions for how to build it. Below, a question from a client:

Dear Drs. Graham and McDonald:

I joined a new company in September 2020, becoming the manager of a team that has worked from home since I arrived. I’ve never met any of my team members in person. They’ve been polite to me, but I can tell they don’t trust me yet – even after almost six months as their leader. Individual members of the team are highly skilled and incredibly bright, but they have been through some tough times and are suspicious and highly critical of each other.

This team has a ton of potential, but they can’t fulfill that potential until they learn to work together. My question for you two is, how can I overcome their skepticism of me? And, how can I encourage them to trust each other?

Hopeful in Houston

Dear Hopeful,

First things first: there is no quick fix here. There is nothing you can say that will make people trust you – or each other. Trust is earned through many small actions over time. Here are some ways you can start the process:

  1. Be patient. Don’t get defensive or caught up in trying to prove yourself. Since you haven’t done anything to warrant your team’s distrust, don’t take their skepticism personally.
  2. Get curious and gather information. Ask for input on how to improve the workplace processes and atmosphere. Recognize that you’ll have to repeatedly ask questions like, “What can I do to be helpful to you?” Expect it to take time. You may have to ask many times before you start receiving honest answers.
  3. Take action. When you receive input, make a sincere attempt to follow their suggestions, or be sure to have a conversation about why you aren’t able to do so. Take care to “close the loop” when a topic is raised so that your team knows you are truly listening and doing what is within your power to take action on their concerns. Even if you can’t fix a problem, making an honest effort goes a long way towards building trust.
  4. Model trust. When addressing concerns, don’t allow team members to gossip or criticize their peers. They will soon realize that if you don’t listen to this type of non-constructive criticism of their coworkers, you aren’t going to listen to others’ criticisms of them. Model trustworthiness by refusing to participate in unproductive conversations while remaining open to valid, work-related feedback.
  5. Invest in them. Schedule virtual one-on-one meetings with every team member and get to know each other on a personal level. Learn what’s important to them. Ask non-intrusive questions about their lives. Remember the small details they share about their hobbies or families and follow up about how these things are going. It will take time, but eventually, they will recognize that you are genuinely interested in them.

Modeling these behaviors is the first step to building trust within the group, but we all know that building trust takes time. In our next Q&A newsletter, we’ll provide ideas on how you can lead your team to build an atmosphere of mutual trust using Brené Brown’s BRAVING approach.