Parachuters forming a circle of team work
Parachuters forming a circle of team work
How Can We Build Team Trust?

How Can We Build Team Trust?

How Can We Build Team Trust?

Team trust is one of the most important factors in team performance and one of the most elusive values to purposely create and quantify for many teams.

In his book, 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni (2003) places lack of trust as the basis for all other team dysfunctions.  In his research on team trust, Researcher Paul Zak found that in organizations with high levels of trust, employees had double the energy, 60% more enjoyment ,were 76% more engaged and were more 50% more productive. Further, he found that turnover in high trust organizations was half of what low trust organizations experienced  (Zak, 2019).

Trust is clearly vital for performance, as well as engagement. So, how do teams achieve it and…and hold onto it?  

What Does Trust Mean to Your Team?

Before building trust, a common understanding of what trust means to team members (including leaders), both individually and collectively, needs to be established, according pioneer team coaching consultant and researcher, David Clutterbuck, in the recently published second edition of his book, Coaching the Team at Work (2020).

“Among the tools we use, is to ask [team members] to describe the differences between relationships outside  the team, where they feel they have strong trust and where they don’t. ‘What’s the difference between these relationships?’,” Clutterbuck says. He then asks team members to reflect on and share with the team, relationships outside the team in which they feel trusted or not (Clutterbuck, 2020).

Sharing of examples by team members helps to illustrate the complexity of trust, he says, and leads  to an exploration of the indicators of trust for the team.

Through his work with hundreds of teams, Clutterbuck has established the following list of the most common indicators of trust within and between teams:




Doing what you say when you say you will

Reliability and competence

Doing it to the best of your ability

Positive attitude

Telling me when you make mistakes that affect me


Keeping me informed of what I need to know

Attentiveness to my needs

Giving me honest feedback when I need it


Supporting me when I am having difficulties


Looking after my reputation/watching my back


Maintaining confidences that I share with them


Taking decisions on my behalf, when needed


Being honest about any other agendas they may have


Source: Clutterbuck, 2020

The Oxytocin Connection

In an article for the Harvard Business Review (2019), based on the research noted above, Zak also found that building trust is the primary difference between effective and ineffective teams and organizations.

Zak’s research led him to look for a neurological signal that leads us to trust others. Following his knowledge that the hormone, oxytocin, in rodent brains signals that another animal is safe to approach, he decided to find out if the same was true for humans. Through his research, he confirmed that oxytocin reduced the fear in humans of trusting a stranger.

Over the next 10 years, Zak continued his oxytocin research to determine the promoters and inhibitors of oxytocin production. He found that :

  • Stress inhibits oxytocin production and therefore trust
  • Oxytocin increases empathy and trust

From the lab, Zak and colleagues took their work to the field, where they measured employee oxytocin  and stress hormones. Between measurements of oxytocin and stress levels, and a survey he developed, he studied several thousand leaders, from which he derived a framework of eight management behaviors that foster trust. These are:

  • Recognize excellence
  • Induce “challenge stress”
  • Give people discretion in how they do their work
  • Enable job crafting
  • Share information broadly
  • Intentionally build relationships
  • Facilitate whole person growth
  • Show vulnerability

Though their research approaches were very different, Clutterbuck and Zak both elicited information directly from team members to determine what they need to trust their teammates, including leaders. Each looked at the unique experience of participants and teams in their research, and through time, uncovered some universal themes. Through widely different approaches, they also arrived at some common themes.

Based on the work of both, trust includes:

  • Knowing each person we  work with beyond the fleeting conversations we have at work.
  • Reminding ourselves of our values,  living them, and to recognizing that we all may temporarily suspend living our values when under stress.
  • Recognizing what may inhibit our trust of others and our own trustworthiness.
  • Recognize that in the complex adaptive system that is our bodies, behavior is influenced by neurology, physiology, psychology, and... We are all much more than the sum of our parts.

Suggested Resources:

  • Coaching the Team at Work, 2nd Edition, David Clutterbuck, 2020.
  • Examining the Effects of Trust in Leaders, Jixia Yang, Kevin Mossholder, The Leadership Quarterly (2010)
  • How our Brains Decide When to Trust, Paul J. Zak, Harvard Business Review. July 18, 2019
  • Leadership Team Coaching, 3rd Edition, Peter Hawkins, 2017
  • The Impact of Positivity and Transparency on Trust in Leaders and their Perceived Effectiveness, Norman, et al, The Leadership Quarterly, 2010

Primary Category