Building of trust in teams


“The essence of trust is not in its bind, but in its bond” – Unknown

When I think healthcare, I think teams. This comes from my original healthcare role, as a veterinarian. As a new graduate, I very quickly discovered how important my nurses, receptionists, cleaners and fellow vets were in my daily work activities. Without them I would have been stuck. These people managed my time, gave me advice, held patients, prepped patients, assisted surgery, kept the workplace sanitary, and in some cases, kept the workplace sane with counsel and laughter. Teams. Critical in every way.

When I worked as a manager in corporate healthcare roles, teams were also crucial in delivering business results and working toward common goals – no matter how big an organisation was, it relied on departmental teams, and cross functional teams to achieve.

I also think teams with healthcare because I’ve worked with numerous teams as a trainer, coach and facilitator, the goal always being to support managers to develop extraordinary teams. Because ultimately teams impact patient outcomes, impact business results and just as importantly impact our workplace culture.

Teams in healthcare can be complicated.

In healthcare one of the big challenges I see with teams is the complication and necessity of different teams working together – admin teams working with nurse teams, working with clinician teams, working with other clinician teams in some cases. Each of these types of team have their role and their focus. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes it’s a disaster.

When it works well, these different functions understand the part they and others play in the moving cogs of a business and in the patient experience and outcomes. They respect the expertise each person brings to their unique role and they trust each other to do their best and take care of their part in this complex environment. They communicate with each other, share ideas, resolve challenges and provide feedback. They each know and work toward a common goal.

On the other hand, when it doesn’t work so well, the cogs stop working smoothly and put at risk the patient experience and outcomes, business results, and workplace culture. The different functions protectively guard their responsibilities and fiercely stand their ground without considering the roles others play. They gossip about and demean other teams. They assume the worst in others and so make assumptions that put up barriers to communication and cooperation. They do not share information and in severe cases undermine others. Negativity, toxicity and distrust fester and grow.

It makes me tired just thinking about it! In the worst cases,  you might see that nurses are frustrated by clinicians, clinicians don’t trust nurses, admins don’t expect anyone to do anything right! And patients or clients are just a downright inconvenience to everyone! (thankfully, this last, in my experience is rare!)

It’s not nice working there and it’s not nice for patients and clients. And they notice – tension, toxicity and distrust are obvious. Especially if you are sick, stressed or tired as a patient or client – you see the negativity more because you are attuned to it being unwell and feeling awful anyway.

What sort of environment would you like your healthcare workplace to have?

How would you like people to feel when they interact with your business? How would you like employees to perform throughout the day? Once you’ve answered those questions – what next? Build it. Even if you are starting from the lowest base. Even if you don’t own the business and have to influence others.

So how do you create the workplace that you desire? Where do you start?

You start by building trust.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental factors for a successful team is the building of trust across the wider group or business. Many such teams are made up of people from varied roles, departments, and often cultures – it is no surprise that there will be different perspectives, working styles, goals and personalities, all of which can fuel the obvious question – “Who are you and what do you offer the team?”

In any team different styles and perspectives can create tensions and it is often exaggerated in cross functional teams where there are different reporting lines and core responsibilities at play. It is critical that the team leader encourages and allows time for exercises that build understanding and trust. The popular Forrester/Drexler Team Performance™ Indicator identifies mutual regard, forthrightness and reliability as being the keys to success for trust building; without these you may have caution, mistrust and facade.

How do you build team trust?

So how do you build trust in a cross functional/departmental setting? Below are some ideas for team leaders to consider.

  • Putting people at ease through informal interactions – When you can, allow time and space for people to mix and to chat in a relaxed environment. If you have a cross-department meeting, or a practice meeting or a staff announcement, you might organise coffee half an hour before. If people take lunch breaks then have a table they can sit and interact at. The environment should be as relaxed as possible and team leaders should, mingle when they can and facilitate a sense of inclusion. Whatever works for your situation, it is important that there is time to get to know each other outside of meetings and formal work interactions. This does not have to mean going out for dinner or drinks – it can be more simple, and in the workplace – not everyone wants to socialise outside of work. Even if the team has worked together for a long time, everyone can benefit from the opportunity for this connection or reconnection.
  • Understanding backgrounds – Even if everyone knows each other, there is enormous benefit in introducing what different departments, teams or individual team members bring to the table. Sometimes we might think we know someone at work, yet we have no awareness of the skills they have or the experience they bring. Such an introduction can be done by simply going around the group and having them describe their working background. This is a great tip for when cross-department project teams might be formed. If more structure is needed (so one person doesn’t take up all the time!) write 2-3 questions on a whiteboard for people to answer. For example: What past experience can you bring to a situation? What expertise should we be calling on you for? Encourage the sharing of different roles – the challenges, opportunities and responsibilities in the bigger picture of whatever workplace you work in. Sometimes we just don’t realise what others face in their roles, or how we impact them if we miss something in ours. As I often say, most people do not deliberately try to make it hard for others. Most issues between teams in healthcare really just boils down to a lack of understanding. So help them share! It’s all about making time for valuing individuals, their backgrounds and work focus.
  • Developing ‘norms’ – Across and within teams, it is ideal to agree on certain operating principles. We facilitators often call these ‘norms’. Determining norms can be done using an external facilitator or the team leaders can coordinate discussion. It’s a good idea to involve the team members in deciding these norms, if possible. And a tip is not to make them vague – rather than say for example ‘timeliness’ – be specific. What does timeliness mean in your world? A single word can mean different things to different  people, so flesh it out a little and make it meaningful. A good question to ask to start these discussions is “What helps you contribute effectively and feel productive in a team?”
  • Lead by example – Show how you would like the workplace, team culture and cross team interactions to look like by actually demonstrating the behaviours needed. Be honest and open with feedback, have a laugh, share with colleagues in different teams, get to know team members, be kind. Whatever you think is needed to create the best workplace and team environment – do it yourself. Make it obvious (in a genuine way!).

These are a few ideas to help build trust across teams. These types of activities will need to occur throughout the time working together – creating and then sustaining trust. Trust is a foundation of a great workplace. What role will you play in helping to build trust?

If you’d like to build your team leadership skills in an easy and flexible way, then click here and I’ll show you where you can get more help!


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