Establishing Trust Is the Fastest Way to Fix a Dysfunctional Team

June 29, 2021

by Nashater Deu Solheim

The basis of willing and winning relationships is trust. What would you do for someone you trust as opposed to someone you either didn’t know or actually mistrusted? For example, if you’re a complete stranger to a coworker whose help you need, you must present your case to get onto their priority list amongst the million other things they need to do.

In organizations, trust is universally recognised as the foundation upon which high-performing teams are built. Likewise, absence of trust is the biggest cause of a dysfunctional team.

Without trust as the foundation and glue between members of the team, the ability to reach their full potential is severely limited. Take military teams as an example; the need to trust each other literally with each other’s lives is at the core of their ability to pull together and perform under extreme conditions.

The question I often get from leaders is, “I know that trust is important in teams, but how do I actually build that in practical terms?” Here’s how.

Stage #1: Finding Common Interests

Trust building begins even at the first meeting when two people don’t know each other very well, if at all. At this stage, superficial common ground is established and the conversation circles around commonalities such as working in the same company, knowing someone in common or living in the same neighborhood. The conversation is sprinkled with questions such as, “Oh, so you know Mario Rossi,” or “Have you been to this conference before?” or, “I really enjoy that TV series, too.”

This is safe ground for both parties, and a thin layer of trust is established based on a pleasant interaction and mutuality. For a new leader meeting the team for the first time, this conversation focuses on saying hello and shaking hands, maintaining a light touch in mutually sharing where they have been, their common experiences, backgrounds, networks, and social interests.

If they decide they have nothing or very little in common, they will not move to stage two and stay at the superficial level of engagement at stage one. When two people establish what they have in common and like each other, they are more willing to go deeper when they meet the next time and then more open to listening to each other.

Stage #2: Having More Personal Conversations

When the two parties meet again after the stage one encounter, they move to stage two. Stage two lasts longer and the conversations run deeper, moving beyond common ground questions and answers into more personal and values-based sharing.

Questions here venture into a more personal level and tone and may sound like, “You said you have two children. How did you spend the weekend? I prioritize family time, too, and I spend as much time as I can with my children above work.” The conversation still seeks common ground but touches on what motivates and drives both people and what they value. Over repeated encounters, more and more is shared. We remember the stories and can pick up on those each time we meet, thereby giving a feeling of knowing each other.

When solid common ground is established at the second stage, trust has reached a strong point. Both people feel they have more in common and see the world in more or less the same way. They value people, time and resources in a similar way. They begin to feel connected and because they know each other better, they are willing to deepen and build on the trust they have. While it sounds like a simple phase, it lasts several encounters and builds like a steep slope.

Stage #3: Asking for Support

Stage three begins when you’ve met repeatedly, and common ground has been established. The two people have now perhaps been colleagues for a significant amount of time. They’ve spent social as well as work time together and exchanged quite a bit of personal information. The relationship is on much safer, solid territory and can tackle those conversations on which long-term relationships are built.

In stage three, one person can ask for support from the other. If there’s a conflict, productive dialogue ensues without risking the relationship. Because they have enough trust to move on from common ground, they may discover differences related to politics or religion, but the established relationship is strong enough to respect those differences. The differences or disagreements don’t threaten the foundation of the relationship, because it’s standing on a good deal of trust and solid ground.

Stage #4: Benefitting from Differences of Opinion

At stage four, the relationship is able to manage and indeed benefit from differences of opinion and differences of ideas and perspectives. They can utilize disagreement, even where it might be a conflict, for testing out and shifting their own perspectives, gaining new insights, and continuing to deepen the trust through mutual sharing and learning.

What This Tells Us about Dysfunctional Teams

Understanding how we build trust sheds light on why conflict may occur when two people first meet. Without the trust that comes from first establishing common ground, there’s no motivation to accept another’s difference of opinion or decision.

For example, imagine a new leader who comes into a team and immediately gets into conflict conversations with team members over opposing priorities. Because he didn’t take the time to get to know the team or let the team get to know him, not only might arguments ensue, but the relationship is potentially soured beyond saving. Those initial judgments are difficult to overcome.

A leader who can only describe the team members or colleagues by virtue of their tasks and responsibilities doesn’t know them beyond stage one. If disagreements or conflict arise, the relationship doesn’t have the solid ground of trust to tolerate the differences. The leader described above started at stage three without the solid ground built in earlier stages. He’s on thin ice and conflict defines the relationship from the outset.

Be Curious

Some leaders struggle with knowing their team or colleagues. Effective team leaders are curious. They ask questions to find out more than the tasks their team members enjoy doing. They want to learn what gets employees out of bed in the morning, what motivates them, and what they value. It takes time, but it pays off in solid, long-term, trusting relationships.

These kinds of leaders tend to be followed in spite of those around them feeling obliged contractually to do so. They have high-performing teams and respectful, cooperative, and collegiate rules of engagement. They have also built trust so deeply within their teams that they can challenge, handle conflict and differences of opinion, and use them to renew their agenda, goals, and targets in a positive way.

The preceding article is adapted from The Leadership PIN Code: Unlocking the Key to Willing and Winning Relationships.


Dr. Nashater Deu Solheim is CEO of Progressing Minds and author of  The Leadership PIN Code: Unlocking the Key to Willing and Winning Relationships, which debuted on the 2020 Forbes list of 8 books “..that make you reconsider the way you manage relationships.” She is an HBR contributor, executive coach on leadership influence, and a keynote speaker on her experience as a psychologist working with psychopaths, the serving military, and with leaders in business settings. She is an accomplished moderator on the international stage. Nashater has over 25 years of practical business experience across diverse sectors for governments, global corporate, SMEs and with entrepreneurs. Nashater has held executive leadership positions within strategy, and leadership development in international corporations and SMEs. She holds a doctorate in Psychology from the UK and trained as an Expert Negotiator at Harvard Law School.