Mutual Trust: A Foundation for Self-Organized High Performing Agile Teams


One of the major contributors to an agile project's success or failure are the people. When it comes to people and self-organized high-performing teams, mutual trust is the foundational and one of the most critical factors. This article focuses on mutual trust in the context of agile software development, the 7 principles, and related steps on how this can be achieved towards building self-organizing and high-performing teams.

Agile has become a foundational concept now in software development and it would be fair to say no industry or organization would be untouched with one or more concepts in their business operations.

The path towards agile adoption and maturity, although very exciting, is also quite challenging. This is driven by the diversity of context and dynamism around the IT organizations. One of the major contributors to this dynamism is the IT attrition which has been increasing continuously in previous years and further expected to rise3.

If we study the Agile Manifesto, two of the four values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

...and 5 of the 12 principles are related to people only, which emphasizes the importance of people and interactions in agile software development:

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.
  • Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
  • Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
  • Working software is the primary measure of progress.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  • Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.
  • The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly

In view of the above points, it may not be an exaggeration to say that one of the major contributors to an agile project's success or failure are people in some way or the other.

When it comes to people and self-organized high-performing teams, mutual trust comes in mind as the foundational and one of the most critical factors. With the level of dynamism around people as mentioned above, this becomes even more important. It may not solve all problems in agile software development, but if focused on well it can substantially reduce the problems and significantly improve the chances of project success.

This article focuses on mutual trust in the context of agile software development, the 7 principles, and related steps on how this can be achieved towards building self-organizing and high-performing teams.

Mutual Trust


Trust is confidence in the honesty or integrity of a person or thing, delivering what you promise and being loyal to those around you. An example of trust is the belief that someone is being truthful. Trust is important between each and every individual and every society in the world.

Mutual trust is a shared belief that you can depend on each other to achieve a common purpose.

Why Is It Important?

  • Helps in building positive organizational culture. Mutual trust is the building block of any organizational culture. If you trust the people you work with, you can be open and honest in your thoughts and actions, and you don't have to waste time and energy overthinking and worrying about what to share and not share. With low trust, even the slightest problem can become a conflict scenario, with high trust even a big issue can get resolved without even being noticed.
  • Employee engagement and overall satisfaction of employees increase. When you trust your colleagues, you form a powerful bond that helps you to be more engaged and satisfied, and also brings in a sense of belongingness to the team and the organization.
  • Team productivity goes up. If you trust the people you work with, there is a strong focus on accomplishing the team goal with a drive to collaborate and support each other leading to better outcomes.
  • Helps in building a safe environment. Studies have shown that teams that are not afraid of failure and feel safe are more likely to drive innovation, have productive retrospectives that result in improvements, and solve their own issues.

Self-Organization and Mutual Trust

Self-organization is about the teams deciding by themselves how to execute the tasks, manage processes, and monitor progress. Self-organizing teams design their own activities that culminate in final project deliveries.

An environment of Mutual Trust is a prerequisite for a self-organizing team. Without trust, self-organization cannot be achieved.

High Performance and Mutual Trust

High performance in an agile context is driven by overall team performance rather than individual performance. The belief is that the overall team performance is greater than the sum of the individual performances.

This is understandable, as the style of management shifts from “command and control” to “servant leadership,” giving much more control to the team. Unless the team performance is focused upon, high performance cannot be achieved for the team.

An environment of mutual trust goes a long way in laying down the foundation for high-performing teams. Without trust, a team's high performance cannot be achieved. Even if it is achieved, it cannot be sustained for the long term.

Building Mutual Trust

Now let’s take a deeper look at what the core principles that create trust are. The following principles address all interactions within an agile team and with stakeholders. The principles described below might seem to be unrelated and disjointed, but they all try to drive towards a common goal of building an environment of mutual trust.

The initiative should start with leadership and the same to be fostered as culture in teams. The principles are written w.r.t. individuals and their interactions. All individual interactions should keep in mind these concepts towards building an environment of mutual trust.

The application of these principles would not be a one-step quick short-term process but a continuous long-term effort from leadership till the environment is successfully built. Once built it has to be maintained with continuous efforts in training and mentoring the teams.

The 7 Key Principles

1. Making Yourself Vulnerable

It’s important that you are approachable. A simple technique is to make yourself vulnerable.

If you are seen as a person that is perfect it would be difficult for people to connect with you.

Vulnerability is the driving force of connection. It’s brave. It’s tender. It’s impossible to connect without it.

A few examples of how you can make yourself vulnerable are as follows:

  • Sharing with someone something personal about yourself that you would normally hold back
  • Sharing past failures or mistakes that you have made which people may not be aware about

2. Active Listening

To actively listen, you need to fully concentrate, understand, respond, and then remember what is being said.
Encourage others to talk about themselves, Become genuinely interested in other people and demonstrate that you really give importance to the other person rather than yourself.
Mutual trust is about the other person—not you. This is another way that trust will come automatically.

A few techniques for practicing active listening are as follows:

  • Be fully present in the conversation maintaining good eye contact
  • Pay attention to non-verbal cues in addition to understanding the topic discussed
  • Listen more, be patient, and reflect on what you hear
  • Restate, validate and ask questions to drive the conversation

3. Culture of Learning

Learning never stops, and there is a lot you can learn from everyone.
You may feel you may know more than the other person in a particular area, but there would be a long list of areas where you can learn from the other person.
The moment you have a feeling that you do not have anything to learn from the other person, mutual trust will cease to exist.

Below are some techniques by which a culture of learning can be created and developed in an organization:

  • Make learning a habit for anyone and everyone in the organization by making it easy and rewarding
  • Establish a drive that is supported by the organizational goals to share best practices and learnings within the organization

4. Open Communication

Truth is not the same as trust. Truth is a fact; trust is a feeling.
People need truth to build trust. Openness is critical for, “Without openness, trust is blind.”
There are certain things you cannot share and other things you can share.
Be transparent about sharing what you can, and give reasons for not sharing what you cannot.

Below are several techniques to support open communication:

  • Structured and mandated communication channels across the organization, such as one-on-one meetings, skip-level meetings, leadership meetings, town halls, email communications, newsletters, etc.
  • Regular and anonymous employee surveys
  • 360 degree reviews
  • Third party/independent exit interviews
  • Informal gatherings and team parties
  • Environments supporting anyone talking to anyone without restrictions
  • Mechanisms to address employee grievances

5. Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Talk is educational and edifying, but actions are evidence. Provide iconic tangible evidence for what you are claiming can be trusted. Try taking actions and let them speak for themselves. The impact of one small action is much more than a thousand words. Do not promise anything that you cannot do or do not intend to do, and also do not miss anything that you already promised. Follow the principle of “under-promise and over deliver.”
The following are some ways in which this principle can be established:

  • All meetings and discussions should have a clear agenda, tracking what items were met/not met
  • Performance management systems should have quantifiable goals
  • Mature issue resolution/grievance redressal mechanism with tracking of issues till closure

6. Appreciation in Public, Feedback in Private

We all have a high number of strengths and we all do a lot of great things every day.
Finding strengths in others and opportunities for appreciation can do wonders in building trust.
Although it is fine to give constructive feedback to persons/teams, care should be taken to do it in private, making sure the recipient is willing and in the right state of mind to receive it. It’s ok to not give any feedback if the environment is not conducive.

Criticism and/or gossiping in absentia is the biggest trust killer.
This principle can be implemented using the following techniques:

  • An environment of mutual appreciation or a peer reward program
  • Rewards and recognition framework
  • Mature performance management framework

7. Seeking Feedback

Seeking feedback is one of the most important tools for building mutual trust.
It demonstrates your trust in the other person, and helps in understanding the other person’s viewpoint, thereby helping you meet their expectations.
Seeking feedback allows others to see you as being open to change. It is about actively seeking opportunities to improve and starts with the acceptance that everyone, including myself, has room for improvement. To implement in your workspace, make this principle an essential component of the performance management framework and promote 360 degree feedback, where everyone should be giving feedback to everyone else.

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