Trust is the most fundamental and the most difficult to achieve element of an effective team. If you are interested in the topic, read Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” where he builds the pyramid of the characteristics of a well-functioning team, the foundation of which is trust.

In my team-building work, I have started with “humanizing” exercises. I know it seems like a long way around, but bear with me. Trust comes from understanding. Each teammate must perceive the others as fellow humans, vulnerable, with fears and aspirations that we can understand and identify with.

In practice, I think the best way to do this is to create a safe environment to share your life stories and get to know each other. Choose a comfortable and private offsite location. Find an outside facilitator, preferably someone with experience in team building, or at least someone who is not a part of the team, who can ask questions of each member and control the conversation if it gets out of hand. “Tell me about yourself “ is a good place to start with each member. When a sensitive issue comes up like a loss or a setback, ask “how did that feel?”, “what did you do?” This might take a day or two, and often an evening in a quiet bar is useful. Once you become acquainted with one another on this level, then you can begin to understand each others’ actions and behaviors.

The next step is to play some team building games. Ropes courses are a classic example, but there are many less physically demanding exercises where achieving an objective requires good teamwork. After performing each exercise, discuss your performance as an individual and as a group. Talk about how you felt at each stage and why you said or did what you did. Be sure each member says how they felt during each phase of the exercise. Express frustrations and talk about how they perceived their actions and those of their teammates. This allows you to become aware of, and practice the team dynamic when there is little at stake.

Establish what I call the “meta*-channel” where you shift from discussing the issue at hand to talking about the discussion itself. “I feel as if you are not listening to my ideas” or “I don’t understand what you mean when you say…” are examples of meta-channel issues.

Now you have the basis to take your understandings of each other, with empathy and positive intent, back to your workplace.

Soon, you will be able to say “I think we hit that one out of the park!” in your meta-channel discussion.


*meta means “level above”