How to Quickly Build Trust in Project Teams


Trust is a critical component of a successful project team. Traditionally, however, trust takes time to develop and grow, and if the team is not co-located, it can take even longer for that trust to be established and normalized. But what if you don’t have time to let trust develop organically? What if the trust doesn’t develop at all – how long can you wait to find out? Is there an alternative? What can you do as a leader to accelerate the trust-building process?

Allowing trust to develop naturally is a passive approach. With projects having limited time and limited resources, the passive approach is just not enough. Instead, you must take specific action to facilitate trust among the team. One approach to consider is the Swift Trust Model. As it applies to project teams, the basic idea is that the project team is established with the assumption of trust, with the understanding that this initial trust will be validated through the actions of the project team. For this approach to be successful, the project manager must account for the activities and communications necessary to validate the trust in planning the project. What activities are these? Specifically, they are activities that accelerate relationship building among team members. It is through this relationship building that trust is strengthened.

Among project teams, particularly teams that are virtual, trust is measured almost exclusively in terms of reliability. Project team members know that project tasks are interdependent, and that their success depends on their colleagues’ completion of assigned tasks. In other words, can I trust you to complete your task correctly so that I may be successful in my task? If the team has worked together before, they will have experience with who is reliable and who is not. But if the team has come together for this project, they will need more information. How can the project manager support the team in learning?

Plan for trust-building activities. Team members, particularly on technical teams, respect what they see and experience. Trust is built by successfully working together. Don’t wait for the project tasks to be complete to demonstrate success – that takes too long. Find ways for team members to communicate their abilities and successes up front. Use the project plan to schedule ways for individuals and workgroups to present their work to the team. This could include such activities as technical progress reports, presentation of research findings, technical exchanges, Q&A sessions, and trainings. Plan opportunities early on for individuals to demonstrate their abilities to their team mates. For example, if you have a specialist on your team, assign her to give a 1 hour tutorial explaining her expertise and how it applies to this project. You can also assign tasks to temporary work groups. Assign two or three people a task to work on for a week, giving them a chance to work together. Then re-group team members to other work groups. This is particularly useful during the technical planning and analysis period of a project. What activities you plan depends on the project and the team; the point is to consciously plan trust-building opportunities as early in the project as possible.

Enforce the assumption of trust. Start by walking the talk. Demonstrate your trust in your team by your own actions. Also, explain to the team up front the assumption of trust, and that it is necessary to a successful project, and that there will be opportunities to verify this trust. Don’t try to be tricky – confide in your team that this is the approach that you are taking, and that you need their support. Also, watch out for cliques. This can occur if some of the team has worked together on past projects, or can form from common backgrounds or styles. Make sure that your communication plan takes into account appropriate media and frequency to allow for all team members to participate equally. The project manager must act as “vibe-watcher” and promote inclusion and belonging among all team members. The trust-building activities should support this.

Promote the shared vision of the project. As part of establishing the team, the project manager must confirm that all team members understand the goal of the project, their role on the project, and what is expected of them. In addition, each project team member must commit to the plan for the project. The shared vision of the project is the foundation on which the team relationships will be built, and if any team members are not committed to the shared vision, then it will be difficult for the team to trust. Regularly promote the shared vision, check in with team members to determine if they have concerns, and address these concerns immediately.

Spare everyone the “team building exercise.” I know, among some this may be heresy, but no team I’ve ever worked with really came together over bowling, paint ball, or Pictionary. Some members of the team may enjoy it, but there will be others who hate it. Besides, it never works out the way you think it will, and if it’s after hours, people feel obligated to come, even if they’d rather be somewhere else. And if you team is partly or all virtual, it can backfire on you, setting up uneven relationships where locals are more privileged than remote workers. Look instead for opportunities to recognize team members and work groups for project related achievements. But if your team is all in one place, feel free to buy them a pizza for lunch on a rainy day. That would probably be ok – just ask them what kind they like.