The Foundational Importance of Trust to Team and Organization Performance

Posted by: Gary Frank Comments: 0 0

Whenever I facilitate a teambuilding meeting or executive team retreat, I do an overview at the very beginning that addresses the following three points:

  • Teams are the building blocks of organizations
  • Effective organizations are a function of effective intra and inter-team relations
  • Effective teams are a function of effective interpersonal relations

The first point comes from an overview article on Organization Development that my colleague Jack Sherwood wrote. It’s a simple but very powerful idea that organizations are not large, uniform entities – monoliths. They are instead a collection of teams differentiated and then re-integrated in meaningful ways to cooperatively produce an intended outcome.

The second point is a logical extension of the first. If teams are the building blocks of organizations, then organizational effectiveness is due, at least in part, to effective intra (within) and inter (between) team relations. If individual teams are working well and are, in turn, working well with other interdependent teams, then the organization works more cooperatively and an essential condition for organization success is established. This is critically true of the executive team.

The third point extends the logic one step further. Teams are comprised of people and human dynamics are at the center of everything teams do – planning, communicating, making decisions, solving problems, executing work, etc. To the extent that teams function at a high level, then the quantity and quality of communication, well-reasoned decisions, insightful problem solving, and thoughtful planning and execution follow.

What makes interpersonal and team relationships at all organization levels effective? In a single word, the answer is trust.

Two statements written years apart capture the essence of trust differently from most dictionary definitions but are more germane to the context addressed here.

Stephen Covey offered this perspective on trust:

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

Many years earlier, the journalist and essayist, H. L. Mencken, wrote:

“It is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest, that holds human associations together.”

If trust is the glue of life and holds human associations together, then it is a property of interpersonal and team relationships to which leaders and managers across an organization must pay explicit attention.

A great deal of research has been done on the matter of trust over the last several decades and that research describes a number of relationships that go to the heart of effective organization functioning. The essence of that research, greatly distilled, is summarized here.

Trust covaries with properties of interpersonal and team relations that are essential to effectiveness. To co-vary means that two variables move in the same direction together. As one increases, so does the other and vice versa.

In the most general terms, trust covaries with:

  • Interpersonal openness – the higher the level of trust between two people or within a team, the greater the level of meaningful disclosure
  • Willingness to take risks – the higher the level of trust between two people or within a team, the greater the willingness to make oneself vulnerable and take appropriate risks
  • Owning behavior – the higher the level of trust between two people or within a team, the greater the willingness of individuals to own up to and take responsibility for oversights or mistakes

Beyond these broad strokes, the research further identifies specific dimensions of productive team and organization behavior that co-vary with trust.

Dimension As perceived trust increases, so does:
  • The amount of communication
  • The accuracy and timeliness of information shared
  • The open exchange of ideas, personal opinions, and value judgments
  • The timeliness of feedback
  • The amount of influence conferred upon others
  • Shared influence among all team members
Problem solving
  • The critical exchange of relevant viewpoints and reactions
  • More extensive search for alternative solutions
  • Cooperative behavior because of belief in others’ altruistic motives
  • A productive orientation to conflict due to the foregoing

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni offers a related and compelling case for the importance of trust to organization functioning. Lencioni depicts a cascading progression of related outcomes within a team that can go well or poorly depending on the initial state of trust. The progression goes like this.

If there is absence of trust within a team, then fear of conflict drives inauthentic dialogue. (Think low interpersonal openness, low disclosure, and low risk-taking.) Inauthentic dialogue results in guarded behavior and artificial harmony at best. This condition leads to a lack of commitment to decisions and related plans of action. Without joint, unified commitment among the members of the team to decisions and actions, accountability is avoided and when this condition is pervasive, results are at risk. If there is high trust within a team, then the progression becomes, with a lot of team effort, a virtuous opposite.

The stakes are high for any team, but they are even higher for the executive team. The adage, “As the top goes, so goes the organization,” is nowhere truer than for an executive team.

Do you know what the level of trust is for your team? Is your team functioning as effectively as it might? How healthy are the quantity and quality of communication with your team? Do the members of your team feel comfortable in taking risks and being authentic with each other? Do they engage in critical dialogue when problem solving or when conflict arises? Do they own their missteps or mistakes without fear of reprisal because there is a climate of support and cooperation?

Performance Development Associates can help you assess the level of trust among the members of your team and help you build intepersonal trust that leads to high performance. Visit to learn more.

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