Should I trust you? Does it matter?

By Dina D'Avirro Varacalli

Yes. Yes, there should be trust amongst team members. Yes, trust matters - a lot.

Trust can feel like something nebulous, but it’s ingrained into our very nature. Starting over 3 million years ago, when Homo Habilis started to use tools and exist in social groups, we also started to trust each other, we had to. After all, you had to trust that the person making your spearhead would do it right otherwise you’d be dinner instead of catching dinner for the group. Today, life is a little more complicated, and so are the myriad of ways we have to trust each other, but we still do it a hundred times a day. As you drive through an intersection, you trust the driver at the red light to wait; we trust the people at the grocery store to do their job and stock the shelves; we trust the city works departments to keep fresh water flowing to our taps and keep our lights (and computers) powered. Trusting our work teammates is no different. Trusting that everyone will do their job so you can focus on your own instead of covering your own back is necessary if a team is ever to look at the bigger picture and achieve team goals. If you were on a hockey team, but couldn’t trust each other to skate properly, much less score a goal, the rink would look like a bunch of Peewee kids all sliding and fumbling around, chasing the puck in one big swarm.

Intrateam trust significantly relates to higher team performance. A recent meta-analysis of 112 studies (over 7,760 teams) showed that intrateam trust positively relates to team performance even accounting for good leadership or the team’s past performance. Trust amongst team members results in focus on collective goals instead of personal interests. The more a team shares decision-making responsibilities, the more important trust is as a factor to successful completion of that team’s goal.

You don’t have to like someone to trust them. Trust can feel complicated and touchy-feely because it’s so ingrained into our every relationship. But don’t mistake trusting someone with liking that person. In fact, we often hear people saying they “respect” someone’s skills but still think they are a jerk. Really, they have high trust in their ability but low trust in their benevolence; but clearly, that person is not liked. Trusting your teammates does not mean liking them.

What exactly is trust? Is it just being able to fall backward into the (hopefully) waiting arms of your teammate? We’ve all done some team building, trust exercises, but we probably all had the feeling that being able to catch someone doesn’t really translate into real life. So, what does?

Ability, Integrity and Benevolence are the ingredients for trustworthiness. Ability refers to skill level, your ability to perform the tasks to get the job done. When your star forward breaks an ankle and can’t skate, you don’t let them play, regardless of their past success. Likewise, when a teammate at work can’t manage the source control system properly, you don’t trust them to get the job done, regardless of their excellent coding skills. If you can’t or don’t get the job done, trust is eroded.

Integrity means how reliably and consistently you meet the bar. Integrity has an ethical component to it; it implies honesty, openness and being fair; it’s a measure of moral fiber. Your star defenseman may come away from the boards with the puck, but if it’s because he’s throwing an elbow to the opponent’s face, you won’t trust that the same results can be achieved time and again; not to mention, the way control of the puck was achieved is distasteful. If your teammate proclaims they have completed their ticket, but the code doesn’t even compile, you won’t trust them to deliver quality product next time. A lack of integrity can destroy trust within a team.

Benevolence is how much we look out for each other. We show benevolence through our care, generosity and kindness to others. When a player never passes the puck even when others are open, and then comments that the teammates could never have made the shots anyway, they won’t be trusted to carry the puck anymore. When a highly skilled team member uses sarcasm and put-downs to criticize other teammates, their feedback - or anything else - won’t be trusted anymore.

Trust can be measured. Some have proposed a mathematical definition of trust that exhibits how each metric interrelates:

Trustworthiness = Ability x Integrity x Benevolence

The formula involves multiplication because if any one metric (measured on a scale from 0 to x) is a zero, you lose all trust. Also, if someone has a low score in one metric, they won’t be as trusted as someone who shows consistency across all three metrics.

A star player, who has won multiple sportsmanship awards, but has been found to place bets against his own team in order to support a gambling habit is shown to have no integrity. They might be a 5 (out of 5) in ability and a 5 in benevolence, but their 0 in integrity means people will no longer trust them to win games for the team.

The zero case is obvious. When it comes to day-to-day with colleagues - trust makes more sense with some math.

Sam might be an excellent programmer with some amazing skills (ability 4), he might organize company runs for charity and pull off the holiday gift exchange every year (benevolence 4) but he takes credit for everyone else’s ideas and badmouth teammates to other people (integrity 1), his trustworthiness is low (16).

Robin is a junior with improving skills (ability 3), she gets her deliverables in on time even though she repeatedly admitted she was stuck and had to ask for help (integrity 3), but she always finds some positive feedback to give (benevolence 3); her trustworthiness is much higher (27).

Trust can be built through open, honest communication, being reliable, extending your trust to others and working together. We don’t have to rely on throwing ourselves into each other’s arms to build team trust. But we do have to increase our own trustworthiness. Here are a few hints how.

Do your job. If you are supposed to do something or you say you’ll do something, then do it. If you can do something but never do, it’s the same result of not having that skill at all. Reliability and consistency are important ways of measuring skill.

Communicate honestly with your teammates. Tell the truth, admit when you don’t know something or when you are wrong. It’s better to admit ignorance or being wrong than being branded a liar. Explain your thought process. Transparency and honesty in communication improves integrity.

Treat your team members as you would like to be treated. Work together with your team, solicit input from others, then give them a chance to express their opinions and thoughts. Truly listen to your team when they do talk and be cautious of your reactions. Dismissing someone’s opinions or laughing at their thoughts is a sure-fire way of decreasing your benevolence.

There’s a reason why “Trust No One” is the theme of horror movies and spy novels. If you trust no one you go against millions of years of human evolution. It’s not the way to live or work together. Instead, learn to trust your team and become more trustworthy yourself. Then, when you all take the ice as a cohesive team, you’ll have a much better chance at the cup!