Building and maintaining trust in teams

“Trust. Takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair” – Anonymous

Trust goes to the heart of why some organisations are brilliant and others are sub-par. Trust between a leader and their employees. Trust between peers. Trust between partner organisations. Trust within and between teams.

New research published in the February 2018 edition of the Journal of Organizational Behavior does a deep dive into trust in teams, identifying the key factors which help build and maintain trust.

The research

Ana Cristina Costa, C. Ashley Fulmer and Neil Anderson carried out an integrative review of 125 empirical studies, research papers, meta-analyses and books. They categorised trust studies across different types of teams including established (ongoing), project, cross-functional and virtual. They then distilled down their findings to create a model of trust in work teams.

The researchers explored various psychological theories and models as the basis from which to focus their attention. These included:

  • The integrative model of trust which suggests trust is  function of a person’s tendency to trust people in general combined with their perceptions of others’ overall trustworthiness;
  • Cognitive trust foundations where people use knowledge available to them to make decisions about how trustworthy others are; and
  • Affective trust foundations which is based on emotional investment by a person, assuming that their effort will be reciprocated by others and hence, build trust.

“…members who experienced high trust initially were more willing to share information and accept influences from team members, which in turn sustained the initial high trust”

The findings

The model the researchers developed identifies individual-level factors, team-level factors and contextual factors which help build trust and the outcomes which this can then achieve.

“…team trust is particularly critical to team performance when team members are sufficiently different from each other and subject to each others’ actions”


  • Trustor characteristics such as ease with which they trust others; and
  • Interpersonal relationships based on history, similarity with others (this tends to be a factor for newer relationships), behaviours (tends to be a factor for more developed relationships) and shared perspectives (tends to be a factor for well established relationships).


  • Team composition: Several of the studies which were examined found demographic diversity to be negatively associated with trust, the same being the case for cross-functional teams. If similarity is a driver for building new relationships, the lack of similarity between people could be the thing that gets in the way;
  • Relationship ties: Those teams where people had strong and dense ties between each other tended to have higher levels of trust;
  • Task interdependence: The degree to which people needed to rely on each other to do their work was found to drive trust in teams;
  • Virtual relationships: Virtual teams were found to be able to build high levels of trust but this was dependent on how reliable, consistent and responsive team members were;
  • Team leadership: High-quality relationships between a leader and their team members helped facilitate trust. This was particularly the case where the leader actively helped team members, demonstrated openness and were generally emotionally accessible; and
  • Team climate: In top management teams, trust and mutual respect stemmed from how safe members felt to give honest feedback and challenge each other in an open environment.


  • Organisational structure: The extent to which decision making was centralised or decentralised was found to impact trust within and between teams. Highly formal, traditional power-based structures didn’t facilitate high levels of trust in the way participative structures did;
  • HR management practices: Reward systems which were seen as fair and motivating by employees were more likely to help facilitate trust in teams. However, the researchers found that team-based rewards and incentives might actually demotivate high-performing team members; and
  • Organisational culture and climate: Organisations with clear ethics and strong corporate social responsibility were more likely to facilitate trust. Collaborative cultures were also found to help build trust, along with innovative and co-operative climates where top managers openly shared information in their teams.


  • Individual-level: Teams with high trust tended to have individual members with high levels of job satisfaction and loyalty to the team and organisation. Individuals also tended to be more open in their communication, proactively sharing ideas and knowledge along with helping to solve problems. They also tended to exhibit lower job stress.
  • Team-level: The researchers found that there was a positive relationship between team performance and trust. This was even stronger when there was task interdependence, different levels of authority and diversity of skills. These factors then helped to drive satisfaction, commitment and cohesiveness.

Implications and solutions

“…trust in teams is vital for the effective functioning of work relationships”

This research adds value by providing managers and practitioners with a framework to focus attention. The researchers do urge caution, however. Teams where members trust each other can veer toward group think if left unchecked. This is the ‘dark side’ of trust which needs more research.

It takes a long time and a lot of effort to build and maintain trust in and between teams. Here are some things managers and practitioners can do:

  1. Think about how you select people in to the team. Don’t just think about selection in terms of the job description you’re recruiting to. Think about the make-up of the team in terms of personality, behaviour and dynamic. How well would the person be likely to complement the wider team?
  2. Develop team objectives. As we’ve seen from the research, task interdependence is a key factor in helping to build trust. Giving people objectives where they need to work together and are reliant on each other to achieve success in performance appraisal is one way to do this. Another way is to give people the freedom to set up their own project teams in order to deliver a piece of work.
  3. Develop team ground rules and values. Clients have told me this is the most valuable thing they have done in order to facilitate trust. It’s something I used to do with teams I led. Organisational values can often be bland, homogeneous statements. Team-level specific values offer a compass and framework to help people work well together. This isn’t just an activity for permanent, established teams. It’s a really valuable activity to do with project and multi-disciplinary teams.
  4. Review relationships with other teams. The success of organisational-wide projects can hinge on the quality of relationships and levels of trust between different teams. In some organisations I’ve worked with, there are often low levels of trust between those ‘on the front line’ (e.g. social work) and ‘the corporate centre’ (e.g. finance). I recently helped a client, about to launch a major transformation programme, to get the relevant team leaders together to agree ways of working, identify areas of overlap and how disagreements will be sorted out. This will then be replicated with the project teams when they’re set up.
  5. Role model trusting behaviour. If you lead a team, how do you demonstrate to team members that you trust them? As we’ve seen from the research, you play a key role in determining the levels of trust in your team. If you want your team members to trust each other and you, then you need to show them you trust them. This can be something as simple as asking for feedback on your leadership style, or giving people responsibility for high-profile projects. Think, also, about the things you say about your peers who lead other teams. If you say things that give your team the idea you don’t trust your peers then don’t be surprised if they then don’t trust other teams.

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