Building trust at work

That trust is an essential building block for functional and equitable teams might feel like it should go without saying. It’s the invisible infrastructure that enables clear, candid communication among team members, and like my beloved local subway system, it requires constant maintenance. A solid infrastructure of trust also supports you, the manager, in creating the space you need to do the work you’re uniquely situated for:

  • Setting goals for your team and communicating them clearly and constantly
  • Identifying and removing obstacles to your team’s effectiveness
  • Synthesizing your team’s work
  • Connecting the people with the right skills to handle different parts of a project
  • Helping your team recognize when they’ve achieved a goal together.

In other words, in order to do their best work, your team needs to trust that the goals you’re setting will get you where you’re collectively trying to go; that your primary motivation in making system changes is to enable them to be as effective as possible; that you have a clear understanding of the impact of their work (if not the details of how to do it) and what their skill sets are; and that you can both identify when a goal has been met and show that you value that effort.

As a leader in a mission-driven company, you’ve likely got a built-in scientific advantage in the drive to establish deeper trust in your team. Research in the neuroscience of trust has shown “that having a sense of purpose stimulates oxytocin production [in the brain], as does trust. Trust and purpose then mutually reinforce each other, providing a mechanism for extended oxytocin release, which produces happiness.” In a mission-driven organization, your team is more likely to be there because they share a commitment to your mission, which can provide a more direct sense of purpose… but you’ve still got work to do to keep that mutual reinforcement cycle humming along.

In an article for First Round, a website focused on resources for tech startups, Molly Graham describes the process of developing trust in your team as “giving away your Legos.” Often, new managers are in that position at least in part because they excelled at their work as an individual contributor. If you’re accustomed to getting praise for your work because of your ability to write an excellent blog post, provide outstanding direct customer service to your patrons at the box office, or capture the hearts and dollars of major donors, it can be difficult to adjust to a role in which the value of your work is measured in other people’s effectiveness. There’s a strong impulse to keep as much control over your team’s output as possible, often to the point of doing much of the work yourself. This can be effective behavior in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. To expand your impact, you need to be able to give away your Legos – which requires you to build your infrastructure of trust.

At the same time that you’re developing trust in your team, you need your team to develop trust in you. In each direction, that trust is driven by transparency and reinforcement, and it’s demonstrated through autonomy and vulnerability; over the next several weeks, we’ll dig into each of those and how they play out in a management context.

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