Team Trust: Why are members of my team so guarded and less genuine with one another?

At the heart of team trust lies the willingness of people to abandon their pride and their fear and simply be themselves. While this can be a little threatening and uncomfortable at first, ultimately, it becomes liberating for those who are tired of overthinking their actions and managing interpersonal politics at work. There are many reasons why a team might be guarded and less open with one another. Here are some possibilities to consider:

  1. Some people are naturally more reserved, so it may be more difficult for them to feel comfortable opening up. Some team members may be more introverted. For these people, letting down their guard may be more difficult, since it goes against their natural tendencies. It’s important that all team members recognize that this natural restraint isn’t a flaw that needs to be corrected. Everyone has natural preferences, and part of being a team is learning how to work with one another. However, there are things that can be done to help more reserved members—and in fact the whole team—open up. For example, the team can validate the opinions and ideas of more reserved team members when they do speak up; team members can take opportunities to share information about themselves, perhaps in pairs or small groups; or the team can participate in activities in which team members share personal stories, information, or values, all in an effort to build comfort and trust among team members. Using an assessment like the DiSC is a great way to help a team open up and learn about one another’s workstyles.
  2. Team members think they have to act/talk in a certain way to fit in or to get ahead. If team members feel that only certain behavior is acceptable, the team or organizational culture may be at the root of the issue. Some people may be very uncomfortable with this, whereas others, who may be more politically aware, may embrace it. In either case, team members may not be behaving in a genuine manner. To help team members explore the culture and the impact it may be having, consider conducting an exercise in which you ask the team to brainstorm words or phrases that come to mind when thinking about the corporate culture. Then ask, “How much of this applies to this team?” “What have you observed?” “How is this culture affecting team productivity and success?” Another option is to review the DiSC Team Culture Report and use that information to frame the discussion.

Team members have been judged by others in the past, so are reluctant to be open now. If team members felt judged in the past, they may understandably be reluctant to open up now. One way to help ease this reluctance is to help team members see how a similar situation could be handled differently now. For example, you could ask team members to describe a past experience. Ask the rest of the team to consider how they might feel if it happened to them. Then ask the team to imagine what would happen now on this team. How would team members respond? What would they say? What new experience could this team create to help this person be more open in the future?

Helping team members accept that it’s okay to be vulnerable is a really tough message to get them to internalize. Vulnerability-based trust is definitely not a natural behavior in the workplace. In fact, it’s the opposite. The workplace teaches us to put on a competent, poised persona at all times. We have to project that we are pretty much always “on top of it,” that we’ve always “got it together.” Why?  We don’t want to be judged. We harbor the buried assumption that weaknesses and vulnerabilities will damage our credibility and respectability.  Trust on a team is not a virtue, it’s a strategic necessity. Without it, we shut the gate on internal talent and industry competitiveness.

Part 1: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to be vulnerable with one another

Part 2: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to willingly apologize to one another

Part 3: Team Trust: Why are members of my team so guarded and less genuine with one another?

*Based on Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team” a trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Tom Sullivan of ProGrowth Associates is an Accredited Facilitator and Authorized Partner of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.

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