Building Trust and Improving Communication Among Team Members

Missed deadlines, decreased productivity, low morale and a culture of fear are all symptoms of a lack of trust and effective communication among team members. Members of highly effective teams understand that building trust and effective communication isn’t optional; it’s vital for the success of not only their team but also their organization.

Learning and development (L&D) can help build the trust and communication skills needed for team members to work together as a well-oiled machine in pursuit of organizational goals.

Why It Matters

When team members fail to communicate with each other, numerous challenges begin to arise — resentment, internal competition, a drop in productivity, and even diminished collaboration and support for one another, says Scott Robley, master trainer and client solutions engineer at VitalSmarts. Team members who fail to communicate effectively with one another are also less likely to share their ideas due to an internal culture of fear. “Obviously, when there’s a lack of communication at the very start, when people don’t feel safe to add value, to share their insight, then we’re working with a limited pool of information,” he adds. Robley says the smaller this “pool of shared meaning” is, the less likely a team’s decisions will yield positive business outcomes.

Nathan Murphy, co-founder of WorkStyle, says, “A team’s success, and in turn its financial outputs, is directly linked to its velocity in making decisions and putting them into action. When this process is hindered by poor communication and trust within a team, everything slows down and can often go backwards.” On the other hand, he shares, teams that practice effective communication often are more innovative, improve faster and empower one another to do their best work — all of which help the team fulfill its potential to improve the organization’s bottom line.

The case for building effective communication among team members is clear, so how can L&D jump-start the process?

Making It Happen

Trust and communication are inherently linked, each promoting the growth and development of the other. “It’s this evolving, never-ending cycle,” Robley notes. “When I trust you, it leads to dialogue. I have greater dialogue when I trust — but here’s the cool thing: The more I have dialogue with you, the more trust builds.” By focusing on establishing effective dialogue among team members, training professionals can help build trust simultaneously. “When organizations foster and encourage healthy dialogue, they’re transparent in their intention, their motives are clear and their intentions are declared, then that begins to foster dialogue, and as dialogue continues to happen, that builds safety. That builds trust. That builds respect,” Robley says.

Carol Vernon, founder and principal of Communication Matters, credits communication style assessment tools and other communication style exercises as methods training professionals can use to help team members build trust and effective communication. When using these tools, it’s important to encourage team members to remain open-minded after identifying each other’s communication styles in order to build trust. Vernon says, “Trust is understanding the fact that we are going to communicate differently — not good, not bad — just different. A major part of trust is recognizing those differences [and] coming from a place of good intent.”

To effectively build trust and improve communication, it is important to find the root of the problem: Why don’t team members trust each other? Susan Steinbrecher, CEO of Steinbrecher and Associates and author of “Meaningful Alignment,” says, “For me, the first step [of building trust] is to get to the bottom of why are the counterproductive behaviors happening.” L&D professionals should be wary of common “trust killers” among team members, including gossiping, judging or assuming instead of asking or trying to understand a situation, not honoring commitments, taking credit for someone else’s work, and not sharing information with the people who have a stake in certain issues, Steinbrecher notes.

After identifying any trust killers present, training professionals can focus on building trust by helping team members be vulnerable with each other. Whether it’s asking them to share a personal story or a challenge that has impacted them or having them take a personality quiz and share their results, training professionals should create spaces where team members feel comfortable to let their guards down. “As L&D professionals, we can create that awareness, and we can create the environment in which to build that vulnerability,” Vernon says. “It doesn’t happen from a half-day together. It’s an ongoing commitment.”

Consequently, as team members begin to build trust and effective communication, they will likely be more open to having difficult conversations, which can help resolve conflict, improve communication, set boundaries, hold others accountable and keep the group aligned. Steinbrecher refers to “meaningful alignment” as the ability to have those difficult, “emotionally charged” conversations with the goal of becoming aligned with another person. She adds, “Honestly, if teams are not aligned, I think we all know that there’s a loss of productivity, there’s a lot of inefficiencies, low morale, nothing gets done … [it’s] not a good situation for all involved.”

L&D professionals can help team members have successful difficult conversations by teaching them how to build and maintain emotional composure and how to prepare for any negative emotions the other person may express. When navigating counterproductive emotions during difficult conversations, Steinbrecher says, “It takes a lot of reflective and active listening, which I think of as ‘empathetic responding,’ positive self-regard — those type of things have the ability to neutralize negative emotion and keep that person engaged in the conversation.”

Building trust and communication is no easy task — but it’s worth the investment. Teams that boast high levels of trust and communication often do more than help reach organizational goals: They pave the way for new ones.

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