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The Most Important Thing You Need to Know to Build a Successful Team

March 15, 2018

A few years ago, I worked with a
team in which everyone disliked each other. Themes that surfaced when I spoke
individually with the team members included: 

●      “I feel disrespected on a daily basis. It’s toxic. I’d be better
off without the team and just doing my work alone.”

●      “No one values my work or really understands it. And they don’t
care to find out.”

●      “Our meetings are terrible – we get nothing done. No one listens
to anyone else. We just talk over each other and the loudest voice wins the

One thing was unanimous - the
number one priority that people on this team identified was “
Team members intuitively identified the heart of what helps successful teams

It’s great to see this team’s
wisdom validated by recent research. In Project Aristotle, Google’s study of
100 of their teams for more than a year, researchers found that
In another study of 195 leaders from around the globe,

This is not rocket science – to
some degree we all know that trust is important! The real question is

Take a little assessment for yourself – have you or your team done
any of these?

❏     Believed that because you are all incredible people who care
deeply about your organization’s mission, you will just naturally trust one

❏     Assumed that because you trust everyone and get along with folks
well, they feel the same about you (or each other)?

❏     Organized a team building retreat or meeting to build trust with
employees, and then failed to follow through on action items to maintain trust
after the retreat ended?


These are common mistakes that I see in my work on team building
with organizations and social change leaders. We assume trust will take care of
itself, or we invest a little bit in trust building activities through a
meeting or retreat, but we don’t reinforce the work or breakthroughs in our
day-to-day environments. Finally, we make faulty assumptions about the degree
of safety on the team based on where we sit in the organization. This one is
particularly common if we happen to be the team leader or the supervisor. 

So what can we do? Here are three
things you can start immediately to build trust. 

of the best ways to do this is to think about where you sit in the
organization. Are you in a position of privilege or power that might make it
difficult to gain honest feedback from team members? One of the best ways to
check your assumptions is to use an anonymous team survey to get a sense of how
people feel.  One that I like to use is

 Project Aristotle at Google
found that
Norms are often the unspoken and unwritten ways that guide how a group
of individuals behave with one another. One of the best ways to influence team
values and behaviors is to bring these norms out into the open and evaluate
them together. Invite your team together and ask people to share responses to
these questions:

●      What do I need from this team to do my best work?

●      What kind of behaviors does our team need to let go of to build

●      What kind of new behaviors does our team need to strengthen trust?

●      What might get in the way of practicing these new behaviors, and
how can we address those potential obstacles?

As a group, identify a set of
norms that you want to practice with one another. Print these out, put them on
the wall, and make the practicing and evaluating of them a standing agenda item
at your team meetings.

Social researcher Brene Brown
talks about the
as a foundation for connection, trust, and safety. What does this
mean in practice? We need to be willing to take risks and not pretend that we
know everything. When confronted with something new, challenging, or
uncomfortable on our teams, it is our responsibility as leaders to be
transparent and communicate honestly. 
For example, instead of pretending that everything is okay on your team
when people are clearly not working well together, you can say instead, “I want
to acknowledge that it’s been really challenging to work together. I see us
fighting with one another and I have personally experienced the lack of trust.
It’s not fun. I want to do better as a group to figure out how we can work
together. I am not sure what to do, but I’m committed to figuring it out with

One of my favorite quotes is
“Hope is not a feeling, it’s a practice we need to engage in every day.” The
same is true for trust and safety. The two are critical for creating thriving
teams. And the real work for creating trust happens in small actions on a daily
basis. Trust building happens through the way we listen to one another, speak
to one other, through how we see others and allow ourselves to be seen.
Checking assumptions, creating group norms, and modeling behavior for others to
see (not just talking about them) are three concrete ways to begin to break
down the walls that might be inhibiting successful collaboration in the

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