Why do people always roll their eyes when the term team building comes up?  Two words:  Trust Falls.

Nearly everyone has been subjected to this activity in their lifetime, and I use the word subjected intentionally.  Trust falls may be a fun activity for youth at summer camp, but as a way to build trust between co-workers they are not only worthless, but actually, counter-productive.

Trust Fall

Here’s Why

The type of trust needed between co-workers isn’t the type of trust developed by doing a trust fall.  Only a real jerk would allow a co-worker to fall to the ground.  The willingness to catch someone falling off a platform will not translate to trust-building or trust-maintaining behavior back at the office.  The shared experience may have some benefit, but that benefit may even be outweighed by the negative feelings people have about the activity itself.

The type of trust needed–vulnerability-based trust–is built through shared experiences, successful work, a personal relationship and an understanding of individual and shared goals and expectations.

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, labels vulnerability based trust as the most important trait of a cohesive team and defines it by describing what it is not.  “Trust is not the ability of team members to predict one another’s behaviors because they’ve known each other for a long time. Even the most dysfunctional teams, or even families for that matter can learn to forecast one another’s words and actions based on observable patterns over a long period of time.”

Teams that have vulnerability-based trust are teams on which people are willing to share their ideas and opinions without fear of being attacked personally or having that information used against them in a political manner.  They are willing to be themselves and not afraid to share their weaknesses and needs with their team.  It requires time, energy and an on-going commitment to build work relationships based on mutual respect and a sincere interest in the well-being of others.

Teams that accomplish this level of trust can address challenges head on, engage in sincere and heated debate on important issues and look for new opportunities to increase performance.  They are willing to ask one another for help and advice, and to admit mistakes and accept responsibility for their actions.

Five Behaviors

The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

Simple Concept, Hard to Achieve

If we all agree that trust is important in teams–and based on all the leadership literature I read, we do–why is it so hard to achieve?  Lencioni describes it this way. “Human beings, especially the adult variety, have this crazy desire for self-preservation.  The idea of putting themselves at risk for the good of others is not natural, and is rarely rewarded in life, at least not in ways that most people expect.”

Many people have been rewarded in their careers, implicitly and explicitly, for being cautious, guarded and for “looking out for number one.”  When we come across leaders or co-workers who are open, willing to take risks and want to build sincere personal relationships, we can be taken aback.  But here’s the thing, teams that can do that consistently perform better than those that can’t.

Trust Building Activities

To drive home the point, building and maintaining trust is a long-term, on-going commitment.  No one tip or trick will do it, and unless these ideas are used sincerely, they won’t help a team that doesn’t trust one another.  Next month we’ll look at ways managers and leaders can build trust among their teams IN the office, but here are a few activities we use with clients to help establish or increase trust in teams.

  • Everything DiSC®–This personality and behavior assessment is excellent.  It’s scientifically valid and reliable, easy to understand and connects well with people.  How does this build trust? It gives team members a common understanding and a common vocabulary for one another’s behavior.  When co-workers see the framework behind behaviors they are much less likely to attach negative interpersonal explanations to interactions.
  • Biography Through Geography–When people know each other better, they are more likely to trust one another more.  Because adults are often so guarded, it is amazing how little even long-term coworkers know about one another.
    • In pairs or small groups have each person tell their biography through the important places in it.  Where they were born, where they grew up, where they went to college, where they’ve lived and great vacations they have taken are good to include.  After they’ve gone, ask what they’ve learned about one another, and what similarities or connections they found.
  • Team Development Events–Going out for happy hour or bowling are fun and good for team bonding.  They are low-commitment opportunities for people to connect and socialize.  But, getting a team off-site to participate in a team development event has a much bigger impact.  It requires a larger commitment and immediately communicates that the team and its performance matters.  A well-designed event will offer a fun, challenging shared experience that draws out similar behaviors, both positive and negative,  to those team members see in the office.  They can then label and discuss these behaviors in a less emotionally charged setting.


Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC® and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.