It was both exciting and intimidating to participate in weekly operational and strategic meetings as a new member of the team. One of the first things I observed was how the CEO was building trust among the team members at almost every meeting.

I was the newly appointed vice president for medical affairs (VPMA). I had convinced our CEO that is was time to add a formal physician leader to the executive team. It was 1999, and most hospitals of similar size and scope had a full-time VPMA or CMO (chief medical officer).

There were several members of the executive team that had never worked with a physician executive. And that was not the only reason that trust was a bit of a challenge. Each of the executives in the room were focused more on their own division and its performance than on the performance of the executive team as a whole. Adding a physician to the mix added a whole new level of discomfort.

Over time, mostly through gentle encouragement by the CEO and his astute way of pulling all of the team members into the important strategic decisions, we began to work as a team. Part of that working together involved building a high level of trust.

I don't think we fully developed that trust, however, until later in my career. The CEO that hired me moved on to another, bigger challenge. And our COO had taken the reins, first as interim, and then as permanent CEO.

He was very interested in creating a strong, highly functioning team. So we spent time in retreats, and during weekly meetings, discussing and discovering how to develop a more cohesive and effective team. We spent much of that time on developing trust.

I wrote previously about the importance of trust in a team, and how to identify a lack of trust in this post: Six Signs of a Lack of Trust in the C-Suite. The foundation of an effective team that confronts challenges, engages in fierce conversations and gets results, is a culture of trust.

I'm not talking about the kind of trust in which you trust your colleague to do her job, or you trust that your staff will complete their projects. Building trust that I'm referring to is the trust that I can speak my truth and that my colleagues will listen and engage honestly with me.

It is trust that I can be vulnerable in a meeting or in my interactions with co-workers, that I can admit my mistakes and that I can disagree without being criticized. It is trust that politics and game-playing will not be tolerated.

So, why bother developing THAT kind of trust in a team?

Because those are the teams that are really effective. Teams with that kind of trust will express themselves without holding back, and have the kind of conversations that generate great ideas and solutions. Those teams work together to solve organizational problems rather than focus on their silos (divisions or departments). They care less about how they look and more about how successful the whole enterprise becomes.


Who is Responsible for Building Trust in Their Team?

The primary responsibility for fostering an environment in which trust can grow falls to the leader, of course. Some of the mechanisms for effectively building trust can only be done by the leader.

But every member of the team can encourage and promote attitudes and behaviors that promote trust. Members can also participate in being vulnerable within the group, which is one of the hallmarks of a team infused with mutual trust.

Still, the leader must inspire the team to build trust. The leader should talk about the value of trust, vulnerability, and teamwork. He or she should clearly work to limit political agendas and encourge transparency within the executive team. And the leader should acknowledge team members that demonstrate and support trust as an organizational principle.

What Tactics Are Effective for Building Trust?

I think there are at least four major behaviors that must be encouraged and embraced in order to fully develop trust in all members of the team.

1. Encourage Personal Relationships

Some might call this team building. But it is more specific. This component of building a team is dependant on developing personal relationships with others on the team. This does not mean becoming best friends with them, or spending every Saturday at their home.

Each person should develop knowledge of the teammates' families, interests, hobbies and personal backgrounds. This will need to be led by the CEO/team leader and actively supported by the team members. There are specific exercises that can be done to improve this aspect of fostering trust. The following are a few that I have participated in myself.

  1. Start by simply spending a few minutes at the beginning of a regular team meeting with each member talking about their personal background. Talk about your family growing up, your hobbies, your interests and your family now. How did you come to work in healthcare?
  2. During a retreat or strategic planning meeting, try some exercises to enhance this process. One I liked was this:  Each participant writes down three things about themself that nobody else knows. But one of them is NOT true. Then each person takes a turn describing these three “fun facts” and another participant has to guess which of the three is not true. It works best when participants write things down that seem very out of character, making it more difficult to distinguish the false from the true facts.
  3. In subsequent meetings, try this exercise: Have each member in turn tell the group the characteristic that they most appreciate about the member sitting next to them (pick one side!). Then spend a few minutes discussing how the person came to display that characteristic.

2. Promote Individual Commitment to Being Vulnerable

This is where the CEO/team leader really needs to take the lead. He or she must take opportunities to be vulnerable, admit to needing help and soliciting input. In fact, the leader should refuse to provide an opinion on an important strategic issue until all other sides have been heard.

building trust

The CEO might ask the COO to present an overview of a new project that is being planned, and then solicit input from everyone before offering his or her thoughts. Also, the CEO might admit that there is no clear answer, that he or she has not led such a project before, and is depending on all of the insight of the team before making a final decision to proceed.

Team members should then offer their opinions and themselves demonstrate their vulnerability. The CEO can then acknowledge when one of the team members is demonstrating vulnerability.

The CEO might also try to “come clean” with examples where he or she failed to follow the commitment to vulnerability and renew the commitment to follow the principles outlined above.

3. Encourage Fierce Conversations and Embrace Collegial Conflict

One sign of trust is the ability to engage in serious, difficult conversations. The leader should promote these conversations, and encourage participation:

“I know these conversations can be difficult. It may sound like some of us are attacking other members of the team. But the only way we're going to explore all aspects of this decision is to hear everyone out. As long as we go into the conversation knowing that we're not here to demean or belittle anyone personally, we can work through all of your perspectives.

“We must have a clear understanding of where each of you stand. I want you to vigorously debate the ideas here, yet remain respectful of those expressing them. Our success depends on hearing everone's opinion, as difficult as that may be.”

Then the leader has to listen carefully, and be sure to intervene if there are any personal attacks. For important discussion like these, everyone should be asked to contribute.

4. Admit mistakes

The leader can start the process by admitting prior mistakes. Let's face it, none of us is perfect. We all fail from time to time. If trust is generated through vulnerability, well, vulnerability is demonstrated through admitting mistakes.

Even the best CEO chooses the wrong strategic initiative, hires the wrong associate, or rushes to judgement on an issue from time to time. When encouraging trust, a statement like the following can be helpful:

“Last year, this team had a healthy discussion about starting a new service line. I know several of you had major concerns about proceeding. When I decided to move forward, you all got on board and supported the project. And I appreciate that.

“In retrospect, it was the wrong decision and we are now going to abandon the project. I take full responsibility for making the decision and I appreciate that everyone worked hard to make it work. I will certainly learn from this and take steps to avoid making this mistake in the future.

“This just demonstrates that I am fallible, and that more than ever, I need the expertise of this entire team when making such an important decision in the future. So, I strongly encourage you to continue to share your opinions with me and the team.”

Final Thoughts

The CEO will create the setting where building trust can be achieved. But all of the team members needs to be willing to expose themselves. They must also be sure to avoid the temptation to hold off-line conversations or engage in political maneuvers rather than open discussions.

If you want to use a tool to assess the level of trust in your team, you can down load the 2 page tool here:

Signs of a Lack of Trust Checklist

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See you in the next post!