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How to build trust with employees

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Team cohesion is particularly pivotal right now, as your organization navigates the next phase of this crisis. But you can’t achieve cohesion without trust.

Building trust with virtual teams is no easy feat when everyone is fighting anxiety, uncertainty, and stress from all angles. You can’t control the outside factors affecting your people’s personal lives, but you can still take steps to promote team-building—and reap the benefits of employee engagement.

In doing so, remember that trust is a verb, too. That means you need to actively trust:

  • The company culture you’ve created
  • People’s decision-making abilities.
  • People to collaborate and delegate.

Let’s walk through what each of those trust actions look like in greater detail.

Trust the company culture you’ve created.

Cohesive teams function fluidly when they’re supported by a culture of trust. That requires everyone being on the same page, but also assuming the best intentions from one another. When employees genuinely believe everyone is working toward the same goals, they can engage in healthy conflict and disagreement.

In fact, at PI, conflict is a key component of the Trust Triangle—one of the rubrics we refer to regularly in team-building exercises and meetings.

Dani drawing trust triangle

It might seem counterintuitive, but disagreement is essential to progress. Put another way, a culture that doesn’t allow for dissenting views or healthy conflict won’t evolve, because team members don’t feel safe to express themselves. That lack of confidence—rooted in a lack of trust—can hinder innovation, personal development, and ultimately, team cohesion. 

Organizational trust, at its core, is about confidence. When people are confident in the company’s mission, values, and stated strategy, they can operate and disagree without assuming ill intent. There’s a collective trust that, regardless of differing perspectives in that moment, team members are working in unison over the long haul. 

To healthily disagree, you need to also commit to established next steps. Then, hold yourself and one another accountable to them. This applies to everyone equally, from the executive team to the least-tenured individual contributor. Easier said than done, but if you’re intentional in your efforts at accountability, everyone will see you’re living by those stated values. 

A culture of trust promotes all these things, as well as diversity, inclusion, ethics, and fairness. But it also fosters employee engagement and employee retention, which are essential to sustaining and perpetuating said culture. 

Trust people’s decision-making abilities.

Have you ever taken a job that seemed like a great fit on paper, only to be discouraged when your skills weren’t leveraged effectively? The four driving forces of employee disengagement—job fit, team fit, manager fit, and culture fit—can all directly correlate with trust. Even if you were a perfect “resume fit” for the role, if you didn’t feel trusted to do the work, it’s no wonder you felt the way you did.

At the team level, one of the most important expressions of trust comes in the form of recognizing people’s expertise. That means playing to their strongest behavioral drives, such as attention to detail in those with higher formality patterns. But it also means giving people space to display their prowess. You can underscore people’s strengths in a number of ways, such as through:

  • Opportunities to lead new projects
  • Presentations to the team or group
  • Mentorships with other employees
  • Workshops or professional development initiatives

In each case, you’re displaying trust in their knowledge of their craft, but also in their decision making. You’re empowering them to choose appropriate materials for slide decks, stay on-brand in presentations, and represent your team well. 

Those might seem like minor things, but they’re crucial to promoting hard work and discretionary effort. And as a bonus, you’re building up your bench. By giving everyone on your team chances to refine their leadership and decision-making skills, you’re setting the team up to be more cohesive, and not miss a beat when someone’s out.

Trust people to collaborate and delegate.

You know what else trusting, cohesive teams do? They take time off!

That’s right—the most well-oiled, productive organizations are also the ones that understand the value of recharging. Of course, to do so, you need to feel you’re supported by those around you. This goes back to building up that bench. 

If you’re an executive or manager who doesn’t feel comfortable taking a week off, it might be because you don’t trust your people to appropriately collaborate, delegate, or divvy things up while you’re gone. You might be most inclined to handle things yourself.

It may feel like you’re just pulling your own weight or getting your hands dirty, engendering respect from your team. But you might actually be sending the opposite message. Your team may see your reluctance to step away as a sign that you don’t respect their professionalism or self-sufficiency. 

Look at time off as an opportunity to build relationships. Meet with certain team members in advance, catering to their strengths as you determine who owns what in your absence. 

Lean on the behavioral styles of certain people who feel a stronger need to collaborate. Let your more formal or dominant personalities delegate tasks. And let your more social and analytical profiles work together to solve problems. Trust people to maintain a harmonious work environment and recognize the strengths, stretches, and shortcomings in one another. You’ll return to a team better for the autonomy it was granted.

Well-balanced teams are often the most cohesive. Team members understand where their goals may conflict with their strengths, and are conscious of how and when they’re being stretched. They’re self aware and self-policing, recognizing their limitations.

But even if balance is an ongoing aspiration, you can foster some of these same essential qualities by working hard to build trust. In doing so, you’re laying the groundwork for everything else a cohesive team needs to fall into place.

Want to learn more about building and managing cohesive virtual teams? Check out these additional resources.


Andy is a content writer and editor at PI. He's an unashamed map geek, hoops enthusiast, and Goldfish cracker aficionado.

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