Communication and Trust in Highly-Effective Teams

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CEOs and others are often more effective when they have highly-effective teams at their disposal. At the point where team members all know the team goals, interpersonal conflict is reasonable, and roles are defined, many teams can still struggle. Even with everyone pointed in the same direction, there can be problems:

  • some people won’t share information,
  • some won’t debate the issues,
  • some perceive a ‘kill the messenger’ pattern or have a fear of reprisal,
  • some may exhibit passive aggressive or aggressive behavior,
  • some will agree in a meeting to take action, but fail to take it, and
  • sometimes too many people or the wrong people in the room can cause a problem.
To overcome many of these problems, two things have to happen:
  • team members have to trust the people and the process, and
  • team members have to be willing to contribute to team debates (i. e. , they have to be willing to engage in constructive conflict on the work itself).
When both these elements are in place, team members can be passionate and unguarded in a discussion of the issues. They openly admit mistakes. They respect others’ ideas and opinions. They attack problems, not people. And, even if a decision goes against their position, they often can accept it because their ideas were heard.

Trust takes time to build and it can only be earned. It’s easier with a smaller team which is one of the reasons that many executive coaches suggest a team should ideally consist of less than 10 members. It requires complete honesty (some would say “brutal honesty"), integrity, good communication, vulnerability, and behavior that demonstrates that the team goals are more important than an individual’s goals. Without trust, team members don’t participate fully, issue guarded or political comments, may agree to something in a meeting but fail to buy in, thwart the result or manage to avoid any accountability.

Trust is difficult to create in a competitive environment and most companies provide a competitive environment. For example, to get a promotion, you often have to compete with other candidates or if you appear weak, others may try to take advantage. So how can you show weakness or vulnerability in a competitive environment? It’s best if you pick an area that offers little risk such as sharing and asking something of a personal nature: hobbies, where you grew up, and so on. Developing informal relationships at work makes it easier to engage in difficult work discussions with the same people when the need arises. Getting to the next level of trust can be aided by sharing something you appreciate about other team members. A third approach is to use DISC, InterPersonal Profile (360° feedback), and/or personality tests to help build trust by allowing people to better understand themselves and others.

One of the problems with solving a trust issue is you may never know what the underlying issues are if people are not willing to share them. This is often the case, particularly in a multi-person setting. At times like these it’s important to use an approach that promotes trust and provides useful and timely feedback. Recently we recommended a process to check the trust level and communication effectiveness within a team. The feedback surprised some team members who thought everyone was on the same page. Specific issues, now out in the open, could then be dealt with relatively quickly. Left untended, issues like these can cripple the effectiveness of a team, cause cycle-time delays, and reduce cohesion, team spirit and morale.

Russ Pratt helps professionals and teams function more effectively through consulting, coaching and training. Visit for more information on developing leadership skills and building highly-effective teams.


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