On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Is trust "nice-to-have" or a business imperative?

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Trust photo

We've all been taught that trust is important at work. But does trust really matter or is it simply "nice-to-have"?

Does trust, or lack of it, affect team performance and impact the bottom line? Do some teams need it more than others do? Does trust in your team members matter or is trusting your team leader enough? Let's examine what team science can tell us about these questions...

We'll start by looking at trust in your team members, what researchers call "intra-team" trust.

Do team members need to trust one another? Researchers from the Netherlands, USA, and Australia, led by Bart DeJong from Vrije University, recently published a meta-analysis in the Journal of Applied Psychology. They statistically combined the results from 112 prior studies involving over 7700 teams and found that teams with higher levels of intra-team trust consistently demonstrated better performance, even after accounting for how much they trusted their leader and how effectively the team performed in the past. Trust among teammates directly affects team performance.

They found that the relationship between trust and performance was strongest when team members needed to rely more heavily on one another to get work done ("high task interdependency"), although trust and performance were positively related even when task interdependency was lower. Interestingly, they found that trust was linked to team performance in both short-term and on-going teams.

Is trust more important in virtual teams than in co-located teams? DeJong and his colleagues didn't find a difference but Christine Breuer and her colleagues found that trust was more strongly related to performance in virtual teams. Both DeJong and Breuer's research indicated that trust influences performance in remote and in co-located teams – so attention is merited in both settings. But because it can be more difficult to build and sustain trust when working remotely, extra attention is warranted when team members work at a distance.

Do team members need to trust their team leader? DeJong's meta-analysis and other studies have revealed that trust in one's team leader is also related to team performance. In an interesting study of 6,500 hotel employees reported in the Harvard Business Review, Tony Simmons found that hotels where managers were perceived as following through on their commitments were more profitable. Even a one-eighth of a point improvement in a hotel's score on a five-point scale could be expected to boost a hotel's profitability by 2.5% of revenues (in this study that translated to more than $250,000 per year, per hotel).

Do team members need to feel trusted by leadership? In a longitudinal study of 88 retail stores published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Sabrina Salamon and Sandra Robinson found that when employees felt trusted they were more likely to accept responsibility for helping the company achieve its goals, which in turn resulted in higher sales and better customer service levels. So trust is a two-way street.

A few thoughts on building trust. The research is clear. Trust isn't just "nice-to-have," it is a business imperative worthy of attention. In general, the extent to which someone trusts you is based on their perceptions of your:

  • Ability – does the person think you are capable of delivering on your commitments?
  • Integrity – does the person believe that your principles and values are acceptable?
  • Intent – does the person believe that you will look out for their interests and needs?

Because trust is based on perceptions and interpretations you can't "control" it, you can only "influence" it. Sometimes people will unfairly distrust you. Perhaps their perceptions are an inaccurate reflection of your intentions. Or, if you are in a leadership role, sometimes an unpopular organizational action (e.g., a downsizing) will affect someone's perceptions of you, even if you weren't involved in the decision. You can't make someone trust you, but you can act in a manner that increases the likelihood that they will trust you.

  • Monitor your "trust score." Look for signs that indicate how much people trust you. Do they seek your input? Voice their concerns to you? Those are signs of trust. We all like to think that we are perceived as trustworthy, but be alert for signs to the contrary.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes. Avoid defaulting to what you believe a person "should" think. Ask yourself, how else might they interpret what I'm saying or doing? It could be different than your intentions.
  • Avoid making commitments you may not be able to keep. For example, if the final decision about a problem is outside your control, it is better to say that you will "look into it" rather than saying you will fix it. Failing to live up to commitments is a huge trust killer.
  • Own your mistakes. We all make mistakes. If you do something wrong, admit it and take responsibility for it. Be clear about what you will do going forward and then live up to those commitments.