How to Build Trust Within a Cross Functional Team

Today’s guest post is from Rick Lepsinger, President of OnpointConsulting. They are long-time friends of ours, and leaders in the field of leadership development. Rick addresses a key application for trust in the business world – cross-functional teams.

Trust is the foundation of any organization. On cross-functional teams, where collaboration between members of different functional units is a core part of effective day-to-day operations but when no one has direct authority over anyone else, trust is critical. However, it can be more difficult to build in a multi-functional team especially when team members are geographically dispersed.

Building trust among multi-functional team members is a key part of enhancing the overall productivity, profitability, and functionality of these teams.

Recognizing Trust Issues

Recognizing the signs of trust issues is crucial for diagnosing problems as well as guiding any trust-building efforts. Some of the danger signs of low levels of trust on a team include:

  • Lack of Involvement. When team members do not share information or involve colleagues in decisions that may affect them.
  • Lack of Interpersonal Interactions. When every conversation between team members is “strictly business” and team members do not connect on a personal level.
  • Talking Behind Each Other’s Backs. When team members talk about the mistakes of others to everyone except the person who made the mistake.
  • Focus on Functional Rather Than Group Goals. When team members are in it for themselves rather than helping one another meet goals for the good of the whole group.
  • Team Members Avoid Asking for Help. When team members take on too much themselves and avoid asking for help because they believe that they cannot rely on others.
  • Everyone Deflects Responsibility for Their Mistakes. When team members blame others rather than accept responsibility for mistakes or missed commitments.
  • Micro-Managing. When team leaders, and even team members, scrutinize the work and progress of others and start to tell people how to do their work.

Odds are that if trust is lacking, then you may notice several of the above symptoms among your team members. So what can people do to build trust and increase the perception of their trustworthiness?

The 4 Essential Elements of Trust

Many of the aforementioned symptoms of a team with low levels of trust can be attributed to the lack of one or more of the following components (ref the Trust Equation):

  • Credibility. How much team members believe what a person says.
  • Reliability. The extent to which team members “follow through” on commitments.
  • Intimacy. The extent to which team members empathize with others and feel they can confide in one another.
  • Self-Orientation. How much a team member thinks that someone else has his or her best interests at heart.

Actions to Build Trust

Trust takes time and effort to build on any team. Although not always easy, some methods for building trust in a cross-functional team include:

  • Arranging Face to Face Meetings. At least once early in the team’s development, arrange a direct, face-to-face meeting so everyone can put a face to a name. In addition, host online video-conferencing to replicate the characteristics of face-to-face interactions. This provides opportunities for team members to connect and build relationships.
  • Partnering Team Members. Have team members at various locations work closely together on different projects. Then, rotate the teams so that everyone will, eventually, be partnered with everyone else at least once. This provides team members with opportunities to establish credibility (by demonstrating competence), demonstrate reliability (by meeting commitments), and build relationships and demonstrate intimacy.
  • Clarifying Shared Goals and Common Ground. Self-orientation is greatly improved when the entire team is focused on the same objectives. Common ground creates a situation where it is no longer “your” goals or “my” goals but rather “our” goals, which makes cooperation and collaboration desirable.
  • Using Action Plans. Actions plans outline who is responsible for what activity and when that activity is targeted for completion. They can be seen as “contracts” that document agreements. As a result, action plans improve reliability — they increase the likelihood that commitments are top of mind and that people will deliver on their promises.
  • Celebrating Wins as a Group. Whenever a team member or the team as a whole has a major accomplishment (meets a particularly tough deadline, makes a big sale, solves a big productivity challenge, etc.), celebrate that win as a team. This provides a forum for team members to recognize the contributions of others and can enhance the perception of credibility and reliability.
  • Encourage Team Members to Voice Their Concerns. If a problem is ignored, then it won’t get fixed. Such problems eat away at productivity and erode trust over time. Creating a culture where it is expected and safe for team members to voice their concerns and complaints—and acting on them when feasible—is a major part of improving self-orientation and intimacy among the team. When concerns are constructively raised and addressed, team members will feel that they can confide in others without fear of retribution and that their interests are being taken into account.

Using these methods, it is possible to increase trust between team members on a multi-functional team.

Monitoring Team Trust

It’s important to be on the lookout for the danger signs of low levels of trust. But, identifying specific issues can be difficult for team leaders who are not co-located with all or some of the team members and for Human Resources experts who may not be active members of the cross-functional team.

One way to monitor team trust is to use OnPoint’s GRID survey to collect insights and feedback from cross-functional teams. The survey includes questions on elements that impact trust, such as shared goals and clear roles, as well as questions specifically designed to address the quality of relationships and trust among cross-functional team members to help identify problems so they can be corrected.

For more information and advice about building trust within a matrix organization, contact OnPoint Consulting!

Making Collaboration Work

I’ve got a problem. Once or twice a week, someone approaches me and says:

I really like what you do. I do something very similar. We should talk and figure out ways to do things together.

The problem: this almost never works.  Let’s figure out why.

Intent is Necessary but Not Sufficient

I’m glad people want to collaborate with me. I increasingly have little patience for those who won’t.  And when I’m the one who won’t, I know I should hit the reset button and start the day over. After all, collaboration is the new competition.

But intent alone doesn’t cut it. I can feel it in my schedule. I hate to be rude, but I just can’t take any more meetings based on goodwill and karmic synchronicity. Millions are in sync with me; I’m in danger of feeling boring, not lonely.

A Clear Vision is Necessary but Not Sufficient

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. From a false assumption, any conclusion logically follows. So clearly you’ve got to be clear.

But clarity alone is worth not much. 20 years in strategy consulting taught me that a brilliant strategy and four quarters is worth a dollar. Despite what the Hegelians and the authors of The Secret will tell you, thought alone will not move matter.

Action Steps are Necessary but Not Sufficient

Before nearly every keynote address I give, someone says, “What our people really want are tangible action steps they can begin using the very next day.”

Okay, here you go. Tell the truth. Tell your spouse you love them. Make lists with five bullets. Fix your attitude. Meditate. Exercise. Be kind to dogs. Read your client’s industry newsletter. Listen better. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Yes, that’s what people want. But try just giving action steps, and see if you get paid.

The Three Pathologies of Collaboration

If you’ve only got one of these three factors working, you’ve got bupkus.

More frequently, you’ve got two factors working.  But if you’ve only got two, you’ve got a pathology.  There are three pathologies:

  • Spinning Wheels. You’ve got Intent and Vision, but no Action Steps. You get no traction. You keep on talking, but it’s always to the same people, and you’ve already convinced each other. You need some action steps.
  • Grinding It Out. You’ve got Intent and Next Steps, but no Vision. You’re all processes and metrics and execution and best practices, but you never get anywhere, because you never figured out how to aim, align, coalesce, define a purpose, set a goal, do the vision thing. You’re only running a ground game, and it’s wearing down your offense.
  • Passive Aggression. You’ve got Vision and Next Steps, but no Intent. Your team is talking the talk, but blame-throwing behind the scenes. You’re all brains and no heart. You’re stuck in a 70s military strategy game, all Machiavelli and no truth-telling. You need some positive Intent.

Those people who call me up and offer to work together?  Wheel spinning. The solution, I’m finding, is to say, “Fabulous; you come up with one great Action Step, and I’ll buy lunch. Until then, let’s not “do lunch.”

Do you work in a grind-it-out organization? Swallow your subject-matter-expert pride and hire a motivational speaker. It’ll do you good.

Do you work in a passive aggressive organization? You’re far, far from alone. Go sit in on a 12-Step program and realize that you do not have to be co-dependent.


What do you think? What does it take to make collaboration work?

Note: if Anne Evans or Howard Schwartz are reading this, big props to you for an earlier version of the pathologies. And if you’re not reading it, write me and explain why.