Creating Trust on Project Teams

Valarie Griep, MBA, PMP - September 2011

The Tie that Binds

Trust is the bond in productive relationships. Synonyms for trust are words like confidence, reliance, conviction, faith, and belief. We crave these attributes in our relationships because they touch on something utterly human residing deep within us. In our daily interactions whether with people we know well or even those we don't, we expect trustworthiness.

On our project teams, trust is the implicit binding contract we should establish early and reinforce often. In the absence of trust, team members are left to convince each other of their good intentions, determine hidden agendas, and discover true meaning behind communications. Without trust, teams encounter constant resistance to new ideas, demands for proof, and petty conflicts. Trust is oil to the teamwork machine and without it the machine will eventually come to a halt.

As Project Managers, we are responsible for initiating, planning, executing, and steering our team toward completion of the project goals. Creating and nurturing an environment of trust is imperative to our success.

Five Kinds of Trust on Project Teams

One: "We have something in common" trust
Projects are structured around specific goals, and the most effective project teams are made up of members who want or need to reach those goals. The problem being solved, or the new product being created, or the process being improved, all represent something members have in common and can rally around. Common desires or shared pain can provide a foundation for trust. Encourage team members to share real examples that explain how achieving the goals will make a difference to them and the stakeholders they represent. Detail and context are important in these examples because they relay the story behind the goals—adding clarity and depth that can establish a united understanding of what must be accomplished.

Two: "It was my idea" trust
Involve team members in the project's planning and problem-solving. Soliciting and incorporating their ideas will enhance their buy-in to the resulting work and be a sign of your respect for their stake in the project. The greater team member involvement and sense of contribution, the more likely they will see the team's wins as their own and champion the results. And in tough times, when faced with painful compromise, their involvement in the project to date will lessen the likelihood team members will stand back from difficult decisions or attempt to point fingers.

Three: "You understand me" trust
Know your team member's strengths and find ways to leverage their best for the project. Also be on the lookout for specific weaknesses or skill gaps that could hinder the project. If you do find weaknesses, ensure task assignments are staffed to compensate and allow for skill development. Leveraging strengths and compensating for weaknesses contributes to productivity and can help team members grow professionally. Team members will learn to trust that you have not only the project's best interest at heart, but theirs as well.

Four: "We're in this together" trust
Show you are 'all in' when it comes to the project by sharing information and discretion. Invite questions and answer them honestly. Admit what you don't know. A transparent approach allows your team to see who you are, how you respond to difficult situations, and ultimately will speed up their decision to get 'all in' as well.

Five: "Walking the talk" trust
A Project Manager who doesn't follow through on their own commitments will be unable to earn the trust of their team members. In the same way, if a Project Manager allows team members to shrug responsibility, other members will quickly grow leery of project promises and deadlines. Breed an environment of responsibility by doing what you say you will do and holding others to their commitments as well.

A sure way to earn trust is to first extend it to someone else. The next project team you lead, or even find yourself a member of, think about these 5 kinds of trust and how you might demonstrate your trustworthiness.

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