Six Ways to Build Trust and Three Ways to Break It


I'm going to assume that you never engage in abusive behavior, insults, intimidation, or physical threats, all of which torpedo trust and create fear, and should never be tolerated in the workplace. But, there are some widespread management behaviors that are counterproductive and destroy trust. Below are three actions you'll want to avoid: 

  1. Withhold feedback. If you observe behavior or results that are not what you expect, tell the person immediately, or this very week. Do not wait until the annual performance review cycle. Do not wait until you get around to it. Withholding feedback communicates that you are more interested in judging a person than in helping him or her succeed.
  2. Dismiss evidence of the team's capacity. I hope you are using some reliable way to assess the capacity of the group. I personally like velocity, a measure of how many points (an estimate of size and complexity for a piece of functionality) a group can complete in a given time box. Suppose the team is consistently completing ten to twelve points in a two-week iteration, There are six weeks until release date and the customer (or your boss) wants 300 points of functionality out the door in that release. One manager I met was in this situation. Rather than go to the customer and discuss what they could do to change the release date or release fewer features, he exhorted his team "You've got to try!" Well, they were trying, and the manager's response made him look like an idiot. The group didn't trust him to stand up for them or to create a situation where they could succeed. They felt set up and abused. No trust there.
  3. Micromanage. There are two aspects of micromanagement, both of which you should avoid. The first on is specifying exactly how something should be done when there's more than one way to do it. That communicates that you don't trust people's competence or judgment to find a reasonable approach on their own. The second aspect of micromanagement is incessant inquiry into status. I had a manager (briefly) who stopped by each desk several times a day to ask, "Are you done yet? What are you working on now? Do you need more work?" Clearly, he didn't believe that we'd actually work without his constant urging. He thought we'd slack off if he didn't ride us. In short, he communicated he didn't trust us. Of course, you do need to know what the status of work is-but there are better ways of obtaining that information than hounding and harassing people.

Obviously, there's more to creating the bonds of mutual respect and trust than I can cover in one, short column. However, if you consistently practice these six actions and avoid the three, you will be well on your way to creating a trusting atmosphere. When trust is present, you will have a conduit for accurate information because people won't be afraid to tell you what's really going on. When trust is present, people will be more creative because they won't be afraid to take reasonable risks and try novel solutions. When trust is present, the people in your group will work hard for you because they know you are working hard for them.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at and on her weblog at Her email is

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