Trust—The Foundation of High Performing Teams

by Jo Anne Nelson on January 15, 2010

In life, trust is the social glue that holds us together. When it is lost, the ground seems to fall rapidly away. Relationships and collaborations are lost to resentment and inner turmoil.

As never before, we get it today that work is life and life is work. Today, we know that to enter the doors of the office is not to hang the coat or hat of our lives on a peg for nine or more hours. So, in this context, what is the experience we choose to craft? Are we to build and model trust? Are we to choose to spend our days with others who do the same? Or, shall we take a different path?

If we choose the path of trust, how do we build its foundations and cement its blocks together? What are the basic elements? How do we recognize it, and when do we know it is not there?

For many of us, it is an important yet relatively intangible construct that we most often intuit rather than assess with demonstrable grounding. Without competency in grounding trust, we find ourselves at the mercy of repetitive patterns that emanate from our personal histories. For example, “I find it hard to trust that guy because he reminds me so much of my brother. Regardless of how hard I tried, I could never live up to his expectations.”

By the same token, there are those of us who give it so freely and without grounding that we repeatedly find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of realizing, too late, that someone we recently met and found interesting and/or attractive is undeserving of our confidence.

So, how do we know when to trust and when not to? Thankfully, there are some relatively simple answers to this important question.

Members of high performing teams grant, build and maintain trust on an ongoing basis. In order to do so, they use a clear framework and distinctions.


The standards by which we assess trust vary with the nature, character and horizon of time over which we are committed to maintaining a relationship. For instance, we might easily trust a person providing a limited service – pizza delivery – as long as they show up to deliver the pizza and give us the correct change. However, when we enter longer term and/or more intimate relationships, our standards for building and sustaining trust are elevated significantly.

Work relationships develop very different standards for trust than casual relationships. In friendships there are higher standards compared to work relationships. And, in love relationships, they move toward an even higher level.

The core questions involved in assessing your standards for building trust in any relationship are:

  • For the sake of what am I entering into or maintaining this relationship?
  • What matters here?
  • What are the costs associated with building and sustaining the relationship?
  • Am I committed to making it work? Or, are the costs of doing so too high for me at this time in history?
  • If I assess the costs as being higher than I want to “pay”, what are the costs of quitting the relationship? Am I willing to live with them?


All trust evolves within a framework or context. The core issues involved in context are:

  • Do we share the same framing and expectations for our relationship, or are we living in different stories?

Is there a shared background of obviousness/structure of interpretation, or am I thinking red while she sees blue?

How many times have you seen breakdowns among people that are primarily generated by misaligned expectations and bull-in-the-china-shop actions?

In both personal and working situations, it is important to acknowledge the cultural, geographic, gender and other influences that affect relational dynamics in an up front and direct manner. By doing so, a solid foundation of shared expectations and values can be negotiated to the benefit of all.

Next time, we’ll look at the distinctions High Performance Teams use to ground trust.

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