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The role of trust in creating a thriving team culture

In a world where hybrid working is the new established norm, what does that mean for trust in the workplace? Is it possible to overcome the barriers of distance and remote working to build a team culture with trust at the core? More importantly, a culture of trust where each individual in the team can thrive and achieve? 

According to Marie-Claire Ross, author of Trusted to Thrive: How Leaders Create Accountable and Connected Teams, it’s absolutely possible. And in fact, trust is the cornerstone of a team that thrives. 

“Every team leader wants an energetic team that sits in the achievement zone: innovating, being accountable, achieving goals and solving complex problems,” says Ross. “It feels great – to both the leader and their direct reports. Yet, constant disruption and scattered teams are taking its toll. And what’s more this isn’t changing anytime soon.  

“The truth is that it doesn’t matter where you work or how you work. If you have trust as the foundation for your team environment, you can put your team anywhere and under enormous pressure, and they will thrive. Adapting to uncontrollable situations, making fast decisions, continually improving and finding new market opportunities.” 

Ross wrote her latest book in response to a phenomenon she was noticing through her workplace research. She found that the leaders who were able to create high performing teams, even with all the uncertainty and change going on around them, were those who trusted their team members and showed genuine care for their wellbeing. 

As a leader, how can you build that same level of trust in your team and culture even with a hybrid model? Ross shares her insights.  

From apathy to achievement 

Inspired by Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety, Ross created the Achievement Zone Model. Using the basic premise that high psychological safety and high accountability collide to create high performance, Ross extrapolated this into four different zones: 


In the apathy zone, both psychological safety and accountability are low. People are scared of making mistakes and they lack support from their leader and others in the team. Leaders in the apathy zone are typically not leading and employees don’t trust the situation.  


The abatement zone is characterised by high psychological safety with low accountability. The leader of this time may be riding on past success or they’re exhausted and unable to push themselves or their team. For high performers, working in the abatement zone is very difficult because they aren’t being challenged to perform.  


According to Ross’ research, many teams found themselves in the anxiety zone during the pandemic. In this zone there is high accountability with low psychological safety. People generally don’t feel valued in this zone. They are working long hours or with unreasonable deadlines often leading to burnout.  


Ross says that the achievement zone is where we all want to work. It’s where both psychological safety and accountability are high. The environment is supportive and people are challenged to do their best work. Team members learn together and support each other so innovation flourishes. 

As a leader, it’s easy to see which zone you want your team to operate in. The achievement zone is aspirational but it’s also possible to reach. Strong teams built on trust sit within this zone. They trust their leader with their psychological safety. In turn, they are trusted and accountable to deliver results. 

Create a trusting team culture 

Ross says that a trusting team culture is something we all crave. 

“As human beings, we want to be seen,” she explains. “In a trusting team culture we can speak up and we’re valued for who we are. When we really do feel that support system around us, even when we’re working hard, we know that our effort is going to be worth it.” 

But trust is also a two way street. Ross found through her research that often the onus of trust is put on the leader. And while that’s true to some extent, any relationship is a social contract that places accountability on all involved. While leaders must act with trust, so must employees. It’s the role of the leader to role model trusted behaviours and pull people up for poor behaviour or performance. 

“Employees have to show that they’re doing the work, that they’re accountable and they have to be visible,” she says. “For leaders it’s about creating an environment where they’re showcasing the best behaviours and encouraging people to bring their best selves to work.” 

When you can create that trusted environment, people will trust their leader to do the right thing. They feel supported, not just by their leader but by the whole team.  

“Essentially, our brains are constantly scanning the environment to make sure that we’re safe,” explains Ross. “We’re asking, is it safe to be myself? Am I going to get hurt at work? Am I connected to my team? Do I belong here? Is the work that I’m doing meaningful? What’s my future here?  

“Leaders need to be answering those questions that people are subconsciously asking themselves. And when a leader can do that it helps to build trust, which is really the beating heart of a team.” 

In her book, Ross unpacks the Integrated Trust Building System, based on three main practises that leaders need to be communicating to people all the time, both verbally and non-verbally. That is, fostering safety, creating connection and stepping into a meaningful future. 

Fostering safety 

As human beings, we are scared of being with other people and getting hurt. This drives our behaviour all the time, both good and bad. By fostering safety, this is about reducing interpersonal risk. Leaders need to signal to people that they’re in a safe space and that they’re accepted.  

Creating connection 

Creating connection is multifaceted. Ross says that we need to feel that we belong at work but we also need to be connected to purpose and we need to understand how things work together. When people don’t understand the people, parts, products, platforms and how all the pieces come together, they tend to work in their own little silo rather than working for the good of all.  

Stepping into a meaningful future 

This is about more than just the CEO communicating the business vision. That’s important. But so too is the notion that people trust the thinking of their senior leaders. People want to know that there’s a vision, where they fit into it and what opportunities might be available to them in the future.  

Trust in a team or a business relies on the integration of each of these practises. One isn’t enough to develop the kind of trust you need to thrive. Ross also explains that visibility is an important concept for bringing this system to life in a team. 

“It’s human nature to not trust things we can’t see,” she says. “Before the pandemic, I was doing a research project in a large company. I found that employees were complaining that leaders weren’t visible or they didn’t understand what their colleagues were working on. Then the pandemic hit and visibility became even more challenging. 

“But you don’t have to be sitting next to someone to have visibility over what they do.” 

Ross suggests that leaders should make priorities, accountabilities, workloads and projects visible. Not just to the team doing the work but also across departments or teams so they can each understand workloads and what others are working on. 

Trusted to thrive 

Magical team coherence sounds like a good thing doesn’t it? It is! According to Ross, this is what can stem from a strong culture of trust. 

“What I’ve found is that it doesn’t actually matter where you or your team work,” she explains. “What matters most is the energy and focus you put into creating your team culture. The most successful leaders work on building a foundation of trust.  

“When you have trust in place, you can achieve magical team coherence. That is, a wonderful space where you’re all in flow, moving as one, reading each other’s intent and body language.” 

Ross likens this to a “group of professional dancers effortlessly moving in harmony, in addition to the rhythm of the song.” 

What are the benefits of this magical team coherence? Ross says that the team then becomes a place where each human being can thrive. 

“It’s energising and empowering,” she says. “We feel connected and aligned through shared identity and purpose. We feel valued and that it’s safe to share our opinion. We feel that all is possible, that we’re all in this together as a team and the hard work is worth it, no matter the trials and tribulations.” 

If you are looking for new ways to engage and develop your team check out IML ANZ’s High performing hybrid teams Virtual Workshop. These dynamic small group settings are designed for you to connect and learn from others.

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