Ask people what they believe to be the foundation of teamwork and it won’t be long before you hear the word trust. Whether you’re talking about athlete teams or work teams, the productivity and effectiveness of those teams is a foundation of trust. While we have a lot of agreement about trust being critical to the effectiveness of teams, we may not have as much agreement about what people mean by trust.

I once was told that trust means that I can depend on the person to be there for me and I can know that person will support me. This implies to me that the trust is based on knowing how someone will behave in all situations before the situation actually happens. This implies that I can trust someone because I know how they have behaved in the past and that behavior has also been to support my perspective. However, is this meaning of trust what is needed to help teams be as effective and productive as possible?

Perhaps we may need to look at trust differently. Perhaps we should look at trust to mean we can count on people to behave with the best intentions for the team. We may not know how the person will behave in any situation before it happens, but we can have trust that the individual will behave with the best intentions for the situation. While we may not know how the person will behave, we do know the person well enough that we know they will do what’s best for the team and not just for some special interest.

In this definition of trust we have the belief that all members of the team will work to put the team needs and interests ahead of any individual member needs or interest. I can trust that when the team needs to make a tough decision, every member of the team will decide based on what that member believes to be best for the team.

In a basketball game, this level of trust is demonstrated by the following. The coach takes out the starting point guard and the backup point guard performs better than the starter. Therefore, when the fourth quarter starts and it is a close game, the coach decides to stay with the back-up point guard, As a result of the performance of the team, the back-up point guard plays the whole fourth quarter. The team ends up winning the game. The star player of the team is interviewed and asked about the coach’s decision to not bring back the starting point guard. The star responds with something that says, I trust that the coach was making the best decision for the team.

At the same time, this meaning of trust would also allow for a different reaction if the team had lost. Perhaps not in public, but in the locker room, behind closed doors, the team members could have confronted the coach about this decision and they would have discussed it. The team members would be comfortable with each other enough to openly confront the situation and discuss the outcomes of that decision. The coach would not feel the team members were questioning his/her ability, only sharing their disappointment with and alternatives to the decision.

Over the years, in my professional career, I have experienced very little trust like what I just described. Instead, I have experienced trust defined as you need to behave in such a way that I can trust you will always support my wishes and desires. As a result I have experienced a lot of teams that have very little teamness when it comes to tough decisions. The team members relate well on the surface, but avoid the tough decisions. Therefore, the outcome is that the team is not a highly effective team.

To be a highly effective team, the trust level needed is one where all team members have the belief that the other team members will act in the best interest of the team. And when they don’t behave in this manner, the rest of the team members will feel comfortable in confronting the team member about his/her behavior.

Until the next time, think about the teams of which you are a part and ask yourself with what definition of trust do the team members operate. Without a foundation of trust that says the team members will behave with the best intentions, there will be no teamwork.