Collective trust



I started as a project manager by accident in 1987. As a software engineer working for a Spanish company, I was assigned to manage six team members on a yearlong software implementation project for a Spanish bank. I had never managed a team, and all my team members were older and more experienced than I was. After some days of working with the sales people and my boss to prepare an initial plan, I realized my team members needed the opportunity to participate in the project plan and give their ideas and feedback.

They brought to the table several potential risks to be managed based on previous experiences as technical experts. They understood my intention was not to be the “king,” but to open a communication channel and listen to them. Because the project involved weekly travel to different locations, we had the opportunity to have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Step by step, I gained credibility.

Over the years, I have listened to similar stories at project management events. To be successful, a team needs to work in a climate of trust and openness. That means members of the team are committed, involved and comfortable enough with one another to be creative, take risks and make mistakes.

Trust is the most important ingredient of a positive atmosphere, but how do team members reach a point where they can trust their leader? These characteristics and behaviors have been helpful for me:

Honest and candid: The messages these characteristics send are: “I say what I mean,” “You will always know where I stand” and “You can be straight with me.”

Accessible and open: The messages these characteristics send are: “I will tell you what works best for me,” “Tell me what works for you” and “Let's not work with hidden agendas.”

Approving and accepting: The messages these characteristics send are: “I value people and diverse perspectives” and “You can count on being heard without judgment or criticism.”

Dependable and trustworthy: The messages these characteristics send are: “I do what I say I will do,” “I keep my promises” and “You can count on me.”

All of these seem to be strong, positive messages, but what one person sees as trustworthy is not necessarily what another sees. To build trusting relationships with team members, project managers also need to provide credible evidence including facts, figures and other measured, quantified data. Subjective evidence includes the opinions of others who are highly regarded (friends, competent colleagues), perceived as relevant resources and knowledgeable about the subject.

Of course, trust is not built overnight. Individuals have their own requirements for how long it takes to build trust with them, including:

One time: “I tend to start with a clean slate.”

A number of times: “I need some history. I tend to let my guard down after a few positive interactions with people or after people have demonstrated their trustworthiness.”

A period of time: “I need some history, but

I prefer a period of time to a specific number of times before I am comfortable trusting people.”

Each time: “I value consistency. Call me pessimistic if you like, but I think I'm being realistic. I guess I can be hard to convince.”

Building trust on a team will be one of your greatest challenges as a project manager. But if you are successful, the other aspects of creating a positive atmosphere—individuals committed to the team's goals, an atmosphere that encourages creativity and risk taking, and team members genuinely enjoying being on the team—will come more easily. PM


Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP, PMI Fellow, is an independent consultant who manages projects in Europe and Asia. He is the author of Today Is a Good Day: Attitudes for Achieving Project Success.