Fostering a Culture of Trust

Kismet
5 min readOct 1, 2022

By Kristine Steinberg, CEO of Kismet

What is trust, what does it feel like, how do we foster it, what derails it?

These are essential questions for any leader to consider as they forge a path to organizational success. Trust is at the foundation of all healthy, successful teams; without it, your team and your organization will not reach its full potential.

In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he identifies a simple framework to help assess the level of health within organizational teams. The absence of trust, he found, is the base for all other team dysfunctions that follow. See below for his pyramid framework, which I have been gratefully incorporating into my work with teams for 20 years now.

More recently, Google also set out to discover what it takes to build a high performing team. A two-year secret initiative called Project Aristotle charged a group of internal Google researchers to identify the key factors needed when seeking to build an A-team. They tapped into ancient philosophy, sociologists of past and present, anthropologists, and psychologists to explore the topics of group dynamics and exceptional human productivity.

Project Aristotle’s researchers then applied these insights by experimenting with different configurations of teams at Google — teams with high IQs, teams with similar and mixed experience… They mixed and matched many different types of professionals and what they found was this: the highest performing teams had one powerful thing in common — psychological safety. Psychological safety, when present, allows people to feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable at work.

Psychological safety and trust are very similar concepts — simple, not profound. However, they are extremely hard to achieve and maintain, given that they hinge on consistent human behavior. This kind of consistency can only be achieved when the leaders of organizations are unwavering models for building, fostering, and maintaining trust in their workplace.

I have been fortunate enough to work with many leaders and teams who have taken on the challenge of committing to trust as their primary leadership objective, believing that high productivity would follow.

The first team I worked on this concept with was going through a leadership transition. The leader they had for many years was respected and beloved. Under her leadership, the team and business thrived. When she was promoted, a new leader was assigned to the business. The team was not consulted about this appointment, making the transition for the new leader extremely challenging.

This new leader sought my counsel to help him win his new team over. He had been working with this team and was trying to “learn” about their respective businesses, but his request for information was met with resistance. He was at a loss and couldn’t figure out how to reach the team and gain their respect. He called me to help.

My first step was a discovery process. I interviewed each team member 1:1 to learn their perceptions of the new leader and their insights into the new team dynamic. It became clear through my interviews that there was a dramatic lack of trust in their system. They reported that the new leader did not seem to trust their experience level and was seeking information that undermined their seniority; they felt micromanaged. Using the data gained, I provided critical feedback to the leader to increase his self-awareness and advised him to shift his approach. I then designed a cohesion session to help build the foundations of trust on the team.

We met at an offsite location, and I spent the day facilitating discussions and exercises that allowed the team members to get to know each other and their new leader, personally and professionally. The new leader was vulnerable and shared his intentions, his new awareness of how he was approaching things in a way that was suboptimal to building relationships, and how he wanted to show up differently going forward. As a result of his authenticity, others opened up and unpacked their issues, fears, and tensions. Stories were told, vulnerabilities were shared, hopes and ambition were revealed, and the team started uncovering new possibilities to live into. Trust was increasing in what felt like a very real way. By the end of the day, the group had made significant, observable shifts and a commitment to co-designing a new team culture.

There was renewed momentum and even a competitive edge for being known as the organization’s “most cohesive team.” In the weeks and months to follow, we met periodically to continue to nurture trust and productivity. Soon, global teams within this organization began to notice the success this team was enjoying, and more leaders began seeking me out to facilitate similar experiences.

I invite you to reflect:

  • What level of trust is present in your team or organization? Why?
  • What can you do to increase trust levels?

Consider these guidelines for fostering a culture of trust:

STUDY TRUST. Know what it means, how it is fostered, and how it can deteriorate. Prepare yourself with knowledge so that you are empowered to act. I recommend starting with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni and reading more about Google’s Project Aristotle.

MODEL VULNERABILITY. The best way to encourage vulnerability is to model it as a leader. When you take risks, own up to mistakes, ask for help, and share your workplace struggles, your team will likely do the same.

SEEK TO UNDERSTAND. Pay close attention, listen to your team, and put yourself in their shoes. Can you answer the following questions for each of your team members?

  • What are they responsible for? How heavy is their workload?
  • What are their strengths? Areas for improvement? What support do they need from you?
  • What motivates and drives them? Are you providing them with that inspiration?

ORCHESTRATE COLLABORATION. Make time to consider opportunities for team members to work together and build relationships with one another.

EMBRACE CONFLICT. Do not shy away from conflict, disagreement, or artificial harmony. Leaders should embrace conflict and create forums for conflict and debate. Teams that have fostered trust and psychological safety will produce more creative and more strategic solutions. Bring challenges to the table, make it safe to discuss them, ask your team to hash it out, and illuminate the best way forward.

Kristine Steinberg is the CEO of Kismet. She believes that your life should be deeply fulfilling — not tolerated. Partner with Kismet to dismantle fear, define your path, and lead with courage. Start your transformation today: www.thisiskismet.com.

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Kismet

Your life should be deeply fulfilling — not tolerated. Partner with Kismet to dismantle fear, define your path, and lead with courage.