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How to Build Trust Within a Cross-Functional Team

Posted by Rick Lepsinger August 27, 2019


Trust is the foundation of any team. Building strong relationships based on trust is especially vital for successful collaboration. Team members must have confidence that other members will hold themselves accountable for their own work and take responsibility for how their actions (or inactions) can impact the team’s overall success.

This is especially challenging when it comes to cross-functional teams in which members from different departments must find ways to collaborate effectively in a situation where no one has direct authority over anyone else. Building trust in teams with multi-functional team members is a key part of enhancing their overall productivity, profitability, and performance. Fortunately, there are a few ways that leaders can diagnose a lack of trust in their teams and implement solutions to build healthy relationships that facilitate better collaboration.

Recognizing Trust Issues

Recognizing the signs of trust issues is crucial for identifying problems as well as guiding any trust-building team development efforts. There are a number of common danger signs that indicate a team is experiencing low levels of trust.

Lack of Involvement 

When team members do not share information or involve colleagues in decisions that may affect them, they are usually excluding people because they don’t trust or respect them. It could indicate that they don’t believe other team members will hold themselves accountable or contribute anything productive to decision making.

Lack of Interpersonal Interactions

If every conversation between team members is “strictly business” and team members do not connect on a personal level, it can be difficult for them to form meaningful relationships with each other. Rather than understanding what motivates and interests other team members, they make assumptions about them and may fail to see the benefits each person could bring to the collaborative process.

Talking Behind Each Other’s Backs 

A sure sign of a lack of trust, negative talk about other team members can quickly create a toxic work environment. While this often begins as talking about the mistakes of others to everyone except the person who made the mistake, it tends to escalate into more general criticisms that create negative impressions of team members.

Focus on Functional Rather Than Group Goals 

Team members who are in it for themselves rather than helping one another meet goals for the good of the whole group can undermine efforts to build trust. Even if a person is accountable for their own work, they often end up neglecting team goals, failing to recognize how the way they complete their tasks has an impact on the team as a whole.

Team Members Avoid Asking for Help

Another problem stemming from poor accountability, team members sometimes take too much upon themselves and avoid asking for help because they believe that they cannot rely on others. Unfortunately, this leads them to take on too many tasks and failing to meet expectations or deadlines.

Everyone Deflects Responsibility for Their Mistakes 

Team members who blame others rather than accept responsibility for mistakes or missed commitments do so because they fail to understand how their actions and performance impacts others in the team. They’re more concerned with avoiding blame than delivering results and they don’t respect their fellow team members enough to be accountable to them.


When team leaders, and even team members, scrutinize the work and progress of others and start to tell people how to do their work, they betray a fundamental lack of trust that the work will be done “correctly.” Part of effective collaboration is learning to give up control and trust others to carry out their responsibilities, but micro-managers are often more worried about being blamed for others’ failures than with giving people the tools and freedom to succeed. 

Odds are that if trust is lacking, then several of the above symptoms are probably visible among team members. So what can people do to build trust and increase the perception of their trustworthiness?

The 4 Essential Elements of Trust

Many of the aforementioned symptoms of a team with low levels of trust can be attributed to the lack of one or more of the following:

  • Credibility: How much team members believe what a person says.
  • Reliability: The extent to which team members “follow through” on commitments.
  • Intimacy: The extent to which team members empathize with others and feel they can confide in one another.
  • Self-Orientation: How much a team member thinks that someone else has his or her best interests at heart.

Actions for Building Trust in Teams

Trust takes time and effort to build on any team. Although not always easy, some methods for building trust in a cross-functional team include:

Arranging Face-to-Face Meetings

Even if a team is not working remotely, if members are drawn from different departments, they may not have the opportunity to meet face-to-face frequently. At least once early in the team’s development, arrange a direct, face-to-face meeting so everyone can put a face to a name. In addition, host online video-conferencing to replicate the characteristics of face-to-face interactions. This provides opportunities for team members to connect and build relationships.

Partnering Team Members

Have team members work closely together on different projects. Then, rotate the teams so that everyone will, eventually, be partnered with everyone else at least once. This provides team members with opportunities to establish credibility (by demonstrating competence), demonstrate reliability (by meeting commitments), build relationships, and demonstrate intimacy.

Clarifying Shared Goals and Common Ground

Self-orientation is greatly improved when the entire team is focused on the same objectives. Common ground creates a situation where it is no longer “your” goals or “my” goals but rather “our” goals, which makes cooperation and collaboration desirable.  

Using Action Plans

Action plans outline who is responsible for what activity and when that activity is targeted for completion. They can be seen as “contracts” that document agreements. As a result, action plans improve reliability—they increase the likelihood that commitments are top of mind and that people will deliver on their promises.

Celebrating Wins as a Group

Whenever a team member or the team as a whole has a major accomplishment (meets a particularly tough deadline, makes a big sale, solves a big productivity challenge, etc.), celebrate that win as a team. This provides a forum for team members to recognize the contributions of others and can enhance the perception of credibility and reliability.

Encourage Team Members to Voice Their Concerns

If a problem is ignored, then it won’t get fixed. Such problems eat away at productivity and erode trust over time. Creating a culture where it is expected and safe for team members to voice their concerns and complaints—and acting on them when feasible—is a major part of improving self-orientation and intimacy among the team. When concerns are constructively raised and addressed, team members will feel that they can confide in others without fear of retribution and that their interests are being taken into account.

Monitoring Team Trust

It’s important to be on the lookout for the danger signs of low trust levels. But, identifying specific issues can be difficult for team leaders who are not co-located with all or some of the team members and for Human Resources experts who may not be active members of the cross-functional team.

One way to build team trust is to use OnPoint’s GRID survey to collect insights and feedback from cross-functional teams. The survey includes questions on elements that impact trust, such as shared goals and clear roles, as well as questions specifically designed to address the quality of relationships and trust among cross-functional team members to help identify problems so they can be corrected.

Cross-Functional Team Building

Topics: Enhancing Cross-Functional Teamwork

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