8 Simple Ways to Build Trust and Team Performance

how to build trust and high performing teams
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8 ways to promote trust and build high-performing teams

I once had to suspend a member of my team in the middle of delivering an important project. It was a difficult decision and painful for everyone involved, but it needed to happen. The actions of this individual had eroded the bond of trust that they had with the rest of the group. As a result, the whole team was no longer working effectively. If the individual was allowed to continue, the productivity of the whole organisation would have been undermined. Trust in the leadership, team discipline and work processes would have been damaged. 

The behaviour of the individual had impacted output but, in the end, it was all about trust. Trust takes time to build and a moment to lose. Helping to reinforce trust within a team, and to avoid these breaches of trust, is a vital part of a manager’s role. That is because where there is a lack of trust there will also be a lack of high performance.

Even without this example, we all know that trust is important in any relationship. But what do we mean by trust? How would you define it? And having defined it, what can we do to develop trust in our relationships at work?

Defining trust

Trust can be thought of as faith, belief, or hope. It is the feeling of confidence that we have in a person, organisation, or thing. Trust has both a logical and emotional quality. We choose to trust a thing because of how we think and how we feel. 

In relationships, trust is foundational, whether that is with friends and family, or with colleagues at work. In the context of relationships trust can be defined as:

“The willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the action of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action.” 

Aljazzaf, Oerry, Capretz (2010)

So, whether we are starting to get to know someone and building rapport, or maintaining a long-lasting relationship, trust is critical. But, knowing this, how do you develop a culture of trust and psychological safety in the workplace?

The neuroscience of trust

The first thing we need to understand is how our brains work when it comes to putting faith in someone. Paul J. Zak has spent many years studying the neuroscience of trust. His research has centred around how higher levels of trust are linked to the brain producing higher levels of oxytocin. 

It is great knowing that oxytocin helps to develop trust, but it is unlikely that we will be wanting to dose ourselves with synthetic hormones just to be more trusting! Fortunately, during his research, patterns emerged of actions that promoted oxytocin levels (positive behaviours) and things that inhibited its production (such as high stress). These were narrowed down to eight key behaviours to foster trust.

The 8 behaviours that foster trust in the workplace

So here are the eight behaviours, identified by Paul Zak, that can help to release oxytocin naturally and build a more trusting and effective culture in the workplace:

  1. Recognise excellence
  2. Induce “challenge stress” (difficult but achievable tasks)
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work
  4. Enable job crafting (let employees choose projects to work on)
  5. Share information broadly
  6. Intentionally build relationships
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth
  8. Show vulnerability

Let’s expand each one a little more. 

1.     Recognise excellence. 

Public recognition of someone, when they have achieved something, can be a huge boost to oxytocin. If the praise is unexpected and personal it is even more powerful. Such recognition also boosts confidence.

2.     Induce “challenge stress”. 

Challenge stress is the idea of setting difficult but achievable tasks. These stretch targets prompt personal growth and team development as they require focus and collaboration. These are the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) championed by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. The balance here is to find the right level of challenge so as not to push people into negative stress and therefore managers should monitor such goals and adjust them accordingly.

3.     Give people discretion in how they do their work.

If people feel empowered to do work in their way, they are likely to be more motivated and therefore more productive. This trust and freedom have also been shown to improve creativity and innovation. The opposite of this autonomy is when people are micro-managed which has opposite effects.

4.     Enable job crafting. 

Job crafting goes beyond discretion about how they do tasks and takes this further to allow employees to choose which projects to work on. Not surprisingly, people work harder on the things they care about. Google has famously championed this way of working, allowing employees to pursue personal projects for 20% of their time alongside normal responsibilities. The challenge for the leader is to align people with their passions while covering all the operational outputs required of a team. 

5.     Share information broadly. 

People like to be informed; conversely, they hate it if they feel kept in the dark, even if unintentionally. This is because we all need levels of certainty to avoid negative stress. To build trust, organisations need to be open about goals, strategies, and even challenges.

6.     Intentionally build relationships. 

Relatedness is important. We all want to feel part of something. But you must be intentional about building a sense of belonging to build high-performing teams. Creating social events and opportunities for social interaction is very important. As mentioned earlier, achieving challenging tasks also helps build and deepen these relationships.

7.     Facilitate whole-person growth. 

Good leaders have and promote a growth mindset. They help people to develop personally as well as professionally. They also do not limit a person’s growth to the opportunities available within their organisation. Work-life balance, considerations such as family and health, should sit alongside discussions about performance for a person to feel truly valued and supported.

8.     Show vulnerability. 

Finally, people need to show each other vulnerability. Opening up to someone (in an emotionally intelligent way) is an act of trust in itself. As Brené Brown highlights in her book Dare to Lead, when a leader shows vulnerability – when they are truthful about what they don’t know, acknowledge mistakes, or ask for advice from subordinates – it actually promotes credibility and strengthens team bonds. 

Encouraging positive behaviours in your team

Whether you are a leader, a team member, or a freelancer working with multiple clients, building trust is vital to effective work environments. Therefore, if you want to have good relationships and high-performing teams, seek to build trust through these 8 behaviours:

  1. Recognise excellence
  2. Induce “challenge stress” (difficult but achievable tasks)
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work
  4. Enable job crafting (let employees choose projects to work on)
  5. Share information broadly
  6. Intentionally build relationships
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth
  8. Show vulnerability

If you are intrigued by the mindset of trust then I recommend you read How to Stop Your Primal Brain from Hijacking You at Work which explores neuroscientist David Rock’s SCARF model and the psychology behind our social connectivity. This will really help you improve your one-to-one as well as your team interactions.


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