building trust through your team design

Almost every framework or model of team effectiveness includes some reference to trust amongst the team. And this is a hot topic. A simple Google search of “trust in teams” yielded up “about 699,000,000 results in 0.60 seconds”. Littered through the articles are reasons why trust is important or what it looks or feels like within the team. However, very few give solid definitions or steps to build trust.


Many models suggest that trust is built by sharing personal stories and getting to know each other more deeply, being vulnerable towards each other. Whilst this is true, it is only half the story.

Whist working at Shell, the trust equation quoted in the book “The Trusted Advisor” proved popular (Maister, Green & Galford, 2000). The elegance is in its simplicity. Although originally developed for a sales / consulting context, the essence of the formulae holds true for nearly all teams. The author Charles Feltman (2009) has an almost similar explanation of trust in his book. He refers to these as trust domains

elements of the trust equation

Credibility (competence): has to do with the words we speak. In a sentence, we might say, “I can trust what she says about intellectual property; she’s very credible on the subject.” It is the assessment that you have the capacity, skill and knowledge to do what you say you will do. This domain has a lot to do with standards and getting really clear on our respective standards often limits the speed by which we race to mistrust.

Reliability: has to do with actions. It is the assessment that I can trust your commitments. Reliability is the domain that is often most problematic on teams.

Intimacy (care): refers to the safety or security that we feel when entrusting someone with something. We might say, “I can trust her with that information; she’s never violated my confidentiality before, and she would never embarrass me.” It is the assessment you have my interest at heart or at the very least we have shared interests and when we care like this we are free to work easily with each other. The most important behaviour associated with care is listening.

Self-Orientation (sincerity): Is the assessment you are honest and integral in your actions. Every interaction is an opportunity to build or damage trust. The assessment of sincerity is that I trust your intentions and know that you are open and honest with me not simply in terms of your logic but emotionally as well

breakdown in trust due to misalignment and poor assumptions

Feltman notes that trust is an assessment of the elements of the trust equation (or domains) against our standards. More often than not we fail to communicate the required standards for behaviour and immediately assume the other as untrustworthy, whether in a one-to-one relationship or within a team.

Why does trust in teams break down? Especially if we believe that people generally come to work to do a good job and make a real difference. How can you, as leaders, design your team so that it promotes trust, even before you launch your team?

A common reason for this breaking down is misalignment around expectations created by untested assumptions. The assessment referred to above.

For example, if as a team we have not agreed on how we will do our work together, or where responsibilities rest for interdependent work, there is a good chance things will go wrong. We do not like vacuums or ambiguity when it comes to our work. When they exist, we tend to fill them with what we believe are the right things to do. However, the choices we make, if misaligned, can create tension and in turn erode trust.

If I assume you will write our team report by a certain date and then send it around for comments, and you assume we agreed you would write and submit the report directly to the CEO, I’ll probably feel ‘pissed off’. If interactions like this occur often enough, trust between us is eroded.

designing teams that build trust

Well designed teams promote and deepen trust. As part of their working norms, they communicate and are clear on the collective and individual standards to be achieved. It is not always the case that trust is needed before you can design your team.

I was recently asked by a client to link the trust equation and the 6 Team Conditions framework. This was a good challenge to take on and deepened my understanding of both. I have previously written about the 6 Team Conditions framework and how it puts the required work of the team front centre. The essence of the framework is that if you design your team well, focusing on the essentials and enablers for success, you create the conditions for trusting working relationships. 

Below is how I link the two frameworks. I invite others to share your thoughts. 

Trust Equation Element 6 Team Conditions
Right People:

We each know that we have the right people on the team with required skills to deliver the required work.
Sound Structures:

We have established, follow and hold each other accountable for our agreed work practices, team norms and behaviours.
Real Team & Team Coaching:

We have a stable team which has an established rhythm of reflection and feedback that supports individual and collective growth and development.
Real Team & Purpose:

We rally around a clear and compelling team purpose linked to the work which requires interdependency.

I am not suggesting that spending time together and getting to know each other is unimportant or doesn’t contribute to creating trust. We have all recently experienced the challenges of building and maintaining trusting relationships whilst being forced to work apart from each other.

What I am proposing is that by focusing on the conditions that have been proven to promote team effectiveness, leaders can lay the foundation for building and maintaining trust within their teams. 

A simple team test is to have each member score the various elements of the trust equation and then explore the results. In doing so, reference recent experiences that will make the conversation real, rather than abstract.


The Game of Teams Podcast, 1 Dec 2021, hosted by Tara Nolan.

Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C. (2001). The trusted advisor. Simon & Schuster.

Feltman, C., Hammond, S. A., Hammond, R., Marshall, A., & Bendis, K. (2009). The thin book of trust: An essential primer for building trust at work.

Do you need to strengthen trust within and across your teams?

Contact us today to find out how Nexi Consulting can support you and your teams.

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