Trust isn't a precondition for team success

Trust isn’t a precondition for team success and we have to stop treating it that way. Don’t get me wrong; trust in teams matters - a lot.  But too many teams believe that they need to build trust first in order to improve their performance or address their issues.  

Try thinking about the level of trust in a team the way you think about body temperature and having a fever. Low trust is an indicator that something is off in a team just the way a temperature of 102° is a clear sign of physical illness.  I could treat the fever without ever addressing its underlying causes. I might feel better but not actually be better. Likewise, low trust is a symptom, the outcome of some set of conditions or actions within a group that have eroded people’s confidence in one another.  

Too many teams treat the fever; they engage in trust building exercises as readily as you might swallow a couple of aspirin to bring your temperature down. In some cases teams believe trust building will change team performance. In other instances, they conduct trust exercises hoping that they won’t have to face an uncomfortable or difficult underlying problem. No matter how well they know each other’s Myers-Briggs® types, no matter how effectively they complete a ropes course or a trust walk, the underlying causes of mistrust won’t go away; they must be identified and addressed before the climate in the group will shift.  

By the way, high trust is no guarantee that a team will be high performing. Familiarity and mutual confidence do not breed performance. They can help, but simply knowing each other better isn’t a path to better collaborative results. In fact, I’ve seen low-trust teams produce strong results, and numerous high trust teams that were having a great time but not producing satisfactory outcomes.  While the level of trust can be a useful indicator of a group’s operational health, it is far from the only one and it should never be treated as a cause. Low trust is always pointing to something else that has to be dealt with. We’ll talk about a different way of thinking about trust and other indicators of team health in later posts.

-Carlos Valdes-Dapena, MSOD, MFA

May 17, 2017