the foundation for building cohesive teams

Ellen Decker, MBA

Talent Management Consultant, NobleVision Human Capital

Project teams are comprised of individuals who possess varying degrees of technical competencies and interpersonal skills in conjunction with exhibiting different personality types. The resulting intricacies of the individual team members make the human element of project management a separate and distinct challenge from merely mastering the component processes that are key to the project management discipline. How does an organization, program manager, or project lead harness the collective effort of the individuals to consistently achieve successful project outcomes? How do individuals bond together, i.e., become a more cohesive and thus higher performing team? It starts with a foundation of trust. Without trust, team results will be stifled and performance levels will never reach their optimum potential. This paper will address both why trust is the key ingredient for building a high performing team and how to build that trust into the project team environment.


In the field of project management, much attention has been directed toward the various stages of team development: forming, storming, norming, and performing (Tuckman, 1965). While these stages are defined and described in detail and reflected in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition (2013) as key areas to understand in order to be a successful project manager, there are additional layers to explore in each one of the phases. The focus of this paper will be on the performing stage and the importance of trust among team members in achieving the pinnacle of a high performing team.

Projects can be well planned and adequately staffed with highly skilled, well-intentioned individuals only to be derailed by one or more team members who do not exhibit behaviors that foster trust or that may actually erode what minimal level of trust that might exist. The first challenge for a project manager is to build trust among team members; secondly, that trust must be protected from erosion. Team members’ behaviors directly affect the level of trust in interpersonal relationships. Part of the goal of this paper will be to address specific behaviors that promote and erode trust in an effort to help project managers learn how to develop trust in the team environment.

The Case for Trust

As highlighted by Hakanen and Soudunsaari (2012), existing research supports the premise that trust is a critical piece of team building as well as team performance. In the absence of trust, team members are unwilling to speak their minds, voice their opinions, volunteer ideas, or ask questions. They will hide their true feelings and be unwilling to help others. These are all behaviors that will damage the creation of business networks or ecosystems and hinder the building of high-performing teams.

In another attempt to evaluate how well the concept of trust is reflected in the functional description of the role of a project manager, Brewer and Strahorn (2012), indicate that when thinking about the human aspect of project management, trust is pinpointed as the most significant determinant of project success. Without trust, it is difficult at best and perhaps even impossible to build cooperative processes within the project environment. Kadefors (2004, p. 176) also highlights the connection between trust and project success. If trust exists on a team, members are more inclined to work productively toward a common goal without being concerned about possible hidden agendas, who has formal responsibility for problems, or the risks associated with sharing information. In Mastering Principles and Practices in PMBOK®, PRINCE2®, and Scrum (2015), author Jihane Roudias states:

The ability to build trust across the project team and other key stakeholders is a critical component in effective team leadership. Trust is associated with cooperation, information sharing, and effective problem resolution. Without trust, it is difficult to establish the positive relationships necessary between the various stakeholders engaged in the project. When trust is compromised, relationships deteriorate, people disengage, and collaboration becomes more difficult, if not impossible. (p. 207)

Author Stephen M. R. Covey (2007) refers to trust as an economic equation. More specifically, “Trust always affects two measurable outcomes—speed and cost. When trust goes down, speed goes down and cost goes up” (para. 9). There are numerous examples that illustrate this premise, including the costs incurred as a result of new accounting compliance legislation (Sarbanes-Oxley) in the wake of corporate scandals such as Enron and WorldCom. On the contrary, “When trust goes up, speed goes up and cost goes down” (para. 9). Again specific examples can be found where business deals are completed in a shorter timeframe when trust is present.

What is trust?

Trust is not easy to describe, and there are certainly no shortages in the attempts to define the concept. Merriam-Webster ( defines it as “assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something” and lists words such as “confidence, credence, and faith,” as synonyms ( Hakanen and Soudunsaari (2012) write about additional definitions of trust such as having confidence in others’ goodwill and agreeing to cooperate prior to knowing how others will act. Despite the specific definition used, it is fair to say that trust is a concept or psychological state that is intangible in nature, yet an individual inherently knows when he does or does not trust another. It is personal, it is palpable, and it matters. The ability to create and sustain trust is an interpersonal skill that can be developed over time through the creation and development of relationships with others. While it usually takes a long time to develop, trust can be eroded and even destroyed in short order.

Types of Trust

Just as there are multiple definitions of trust, there are various viewpoints on types of trust. For example, Svenn Lindskold (as cited in Project Management for Instructional Designers, Chapter 5.2, n.d.) describes four kinds of trust:

  • Objective credibility - A personal characteristic that reflects the truthfulness of an individual that can be checked against observable facts.
  • Attribution of benevolence - A form of trust that is built on the examination of the person's motives and the conclusion that they are not hostile.
  • Non-manipulative trust - A form of trust that correlates to a person's self-interest and the predictability of a person's behavior in acting consistent in that self-interest.
  • High cost of lying - The type of trust that emerges when persons in authority raise the cost of lying so high that people will not lie because the penalty will be too high.

Predictive and vulnerability-based trust

Author Patrick Lencioni (2002) highlights a simple distinction between two very different types of trust: predictive and vulnerability-based trust. He refers to predictive trust as “a more standard definition of trust, one that centers around the ability to predict a person's behavior based on past experience. For instance, one might ‘trust’ that a given teammate will produce high-quality work because he has always done so in the past” (pp. 195–196). This is generally the type of trust we think of as applicable to the work setting. We trust people to do what they say they will do as a result of past history and our observations of their behavior. In contrast to this more common definition, Lencioni writes about the second type of trust that is vulnerability-based, “In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another” (p.195). In other words, team members need to learn how to be transparent or open and honest with one another.

He expands upon vulnerability-based trust by discussing why predictive trust is insufficient in creating a high performing team. This concept has been formulated after working with thousands of organizations to improve teamwork, organizational health, and employee engagement. That is what makes it so powerful. It is derived from observation and practical application versus merely being floated as a theoretical concept.

Lencioni further espouses, “it requires team members to make themselves vulnerable to one another, and be confident that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them” (p.196). What are some of these individual vulnerabilities? They include the things that we as humans do not want to expose…our weaknesses, fears, technical or interpersonal inadequacies, errors made, or need for assistance. According to Lencioni, people will begin to act without concern for protecting themselves only when they are comfortable being exposed to one another, the good and the bad. Once that occurs, team members can focus on the work rather than engaging in unproductive behavior designed to protect them.

In addition, there are others who support the concept of vulnerability-based trust as the key way to view trust. One proponent, Geof Lory (2006) states, “Trust will only be developed if we are willing to be vulnerable” (para. 11). In About Trust & Interpersonal Relationships in the Workplace (Thompson, n.d.) once again trust is defined by vulnerability. An individual will be open, transparent, and thus vulnerable with those he believes to have his best interests at heart.

According to a study by Trusted Advisor Associates (Green, Styer, & Bowers, 2010), a management consultancy focused on the role of trust in business, data from more than 12,000 responses point companies toward methods that will produce a measureable impact on their trustworthiness. Insights gained from this research show that credentials and skill mastery are least helpful in building trust, thus more skills training would not necessarily build trust relationships. However, intimacy skills can be taught. According to the authors, “The skills of intimacy are among the most learnable. It is easier to learn to listen and to empathize than it is to gain an advanced degree (pp. 6–7).” They further point out that most companies do little to develop the intimacy skills of their people, which becomes a missed opportunity.

It is the concept of vulnerability-based trust which is rooted in intimacy that will be used throughout the remainder of this paper as the type of trust project managers need to utilize in leading their teams to cohesiveness and higher levels of performance. More pointedly, the term “trust” will hereinafter refer to “vulnerability-based trust.”

Personality Types and Vulnerability

As introduced in the abstract, individuals possess unique hard skills, soft skills, and personality types, producing a multitude of combinations on the human side of project management and related team performance. When contemplating the practical application of how to build vulnerability-based trust as a foundation for a cohesive and higher-performing team, it is important to consider how differing personality types approach and/or respond to the concept of being vulnerable. Assuming a stance of vulnerability should not be confused with being weak, soft, or touchy-feely. Rather it is the ability to be open and honest in communication about one's shortcomings; however, different styles will by nature have differing responses to putting this into action. Incorporating personality style is helpful as a backdrop when applying the concept of building vulnerability-based trust.

For purposes of addressing the connection between personality and vulnerability, this paper will utilize the Everything DiSC® circumplex model (Exhibit 1), which according to authors Mark Scullard and Dabney Baum in the Everything DiSC® Manual (2015), has its foundation in William Marston's book, Emotions of Normal People, published in 1928. Rooted in Marston's theory, the scientifically validated instrument known as Everything DiSC® (originally created by Inscape Publishing, now John Wiley & Sons, Inc.) identifies four primary personality types based on behavioral responses. These are known as Dominance (D), Influence (i), Steadiness (S), and Conscientiousness (C). Understanding the differences in personality type and what drives each one can assist in helping teams better understand how to deal with various reactions to the concept of building vulnerability-based trust as the foundation for developing a more cohesive and thus higher-performing team. Definitions/descriptions of each of the four primary types follow.


Exhibit 1: Everything DiSC® Circumplex Model.

  • The Dominance (D) style refers to a direct and dominant disposition and reflects descriptors such as aggressive, strong-willed, and forceful. This style prioritizes action, results, and challenging self and others and fears things such as loss of control, being taken advantage of, and vulnerability.
  • The Influence (i) style is associated with an interactive, influencing disposition with descriptors such as sociable, lively, and talkative. Similar to the D style, the i style prioritizes action but also included as other priorities are enthusiasm and collaboration. This style fears social rejection, disapproval, and being ignored.
  • The third style, Steadiness (S), is one that is described as having an accommodating, steady disposition and is associated with adjectives such as careful, soft-spoken, and self-controlled. Priorities for this style include collaboration (shared by the i style), providing support, and maintaining stability. This style is wary of change, loss of harmony, and offending others.
  • The Conscientiousness (C) style is characteristic of a private, conscientious disposition and can be associated with descriptors such as analytical, reserved, and unemotional. The C style prioritizes stability (like the S style), accuracy, and challenge (as does the D style) and fears being wrong, criticism, and sloppy methods.

It follows that allowing oneself to be vulnerable in order to build trust within a team might be more difficult for certain personality types than others as implied by the descriptions aforementioned. Therefore, it is valuable to have this knowledge of team member personality types when attempting to determine (1) the best approach to discussing vulnerability-based trust and (2) how each person might be likely to respond.

As one might expect from studying the personality types listed above, it might be more difficult for the D and C styles to embrace vulnerability than it would for individuals who fall in the i and S styles. People with the D style may view being vulnerable as a threat, being weak, or too touchy-feely. Individuals who exhibit the C style may tend to be very reserved and private and also view being vulnerable as an uncomfortable or unnatural state.

On the other hand, people with the i style generally do not feel the need to be guarded and are good at modelling open behavior, making vulnerability more easily achievable. The potential risk with the i style is perhaps sharing too much information, making others uncomfortable with the depth of their personal disclosures. Lastly, people with the S style are humble and not necessarily interested in focusing on themselves, but if they are confident others want to know their feelings or opinions, they are more likely to share, especially when they know their revelations will be received with patience and compassion.

Evidence of Trust

How does a project manager know if there is trust on his/her team? There are signs that will indicate whether or not team members are operating on a foundation of vulnerability-based trust. Some of these include (but are not limited to):

  • Team members are eager and energized to share their thoughts and ideas.
  • Individuals apologize for their mistakes.
  • Members are willing to accept responsibility for their actions.
  • Members embrace accountability.
  • People engage in productive conflict around ideas.
  • Individuals are willing to admit they do not have all the answers; team members openly and willingly ask for help from others.
  • People are willing to take a risk and reveal information about themselves.

On the flip side, what are indications that there is a lack of trust on a team? Some of the more common signs that trust is missing include:

  • Team members engaging in politics and back-stabbing,
  • Individuals withholding information,
  • People seeming reluctant to ask for help or feedback,
  • Team members lashing out at one another,
  • Co-workers pointing fingers and blaming others,
  • Individuals assuming a defensive or resentful posture,
  • People taking pleasure from criticizing others, and
  • Lack of engagement in constructive interaction or being unwilling to voice ideas or opinions.

If this sounds like your team environment, it is prudent to step back and evaluate the need for and how to go about building a higher level of trust on your team.

Practical Application

Prerequisites for Building Trust – Awareness and Willingness

Discussion of a concept is an important first step but must be followed by practical application in order to provide value, that is, the “HOW.” How do team members go about building vulnerability-based trust? There are two critical components necessary to consider. Individuals must be aware of how certain behaviors they exhibit may or may not be contributing to the creation of vulnerability-based trust. However, awareness is not sufficient; an individual must also be willing to adjust his/her behavior accordingly. In reality, if one is aware of what he is doing to erode trust but not willing to adjust, there will be no positive outcome. On the flip side, if one is willing but not aware, he will not know what to do to adjust. In each case, no growth will occur. Both components must be present in order to successfully develop any type of interpersonal skill dependent upon behavior change.

Trust-Building Behaviors

Although trust is an intangible quality, the ability to build trust is a teachable competency because it involves changing behavior, which is something within an individual's control. In the impactful words of former CEO of Campbell Soup, Doug Conant, “You can't talk your way out of something you behaved your way into. You have to behave your way out of it” (Eisenstat, Beer, Foote, Fredberg, & Norrgren, 2008, para. 19). Key behaviors that inherently build trust with team members include, but are not limited to:

  • Treating others as equals,
  • Maintaining consistency between your words and actions (saying what you will do and doing what you say you will),
  • Working for the benefit of the team rather than for your own personal gain,
  • Acknowledging your inadequacies to team members,
  • Admitting your mistakes,
  • Apologizing when an apology is appropriate,
  • Maintaining open communication,
  • Sharing/volunteering information,
  • Demonstrating genuine caring for others, and
  • Soliciting ideas and opinions and help from others regarding your area of responsibility.

Building trust in a relationship requires time and consistency in exhibiting trust-promoting behaviors. The impact of negative behavior can have a more significant impact than a positive experience; thus it is arguably more important to avoid certain trust-eroding behaviors such as:

  • Elevating individual needs over those of the team,
  • Gossiping,
  • Withholding information,
  • Acting dishonestly,
  • Lying,
  • Demonstrating an unwillingness to accept responsibility or admit mistakes,
  • Blaming others for problems,
  • Using harsh or sarcastic verbal communication, and
  • Displaying negative body language.

With more and more teams operating virtually, it is worth noting the implications of building trust in this type of environment. Since the premise of trust as the foundation of a cohesive team is rooted in observable behavior, virtual team members can participate in the same type of behaviors as in-person teams to foster trust.

Five Behaviors Model

Why is trust so important as a foundation for a cohesive, high-performing team? According to Patrick Lencioni’s (2002) theory on teams and grounded in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, there are five behaviors necessary for building a truly cohesive and effective team. A subsequent partnership with with John Wiley & Sons produced the current model known as The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ (2014) and is illustrated in Exhibit 2. All five behaviors are highlighted below, but it should be noted that without the foundation of vulnerability-based trust, none of the other behaviors will occur, and the team will deteriorate into dysfunction, negatively impacting project success rates.

As stated the first behavior to be practiced is that of vulnerability-based trust. When there is confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, they are able to be vulnerable with one another, thus removing barriers to performance that would otherwise exist. Once this level of trust has been created, it opens the pathway to the second behavior, mastering conflict.


Exhibit 2: Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ Model.

Conflict in this case refers to the debate of concepts and ideas versus conflict that people try to avoid in the workplace – that which can be personal and destructive in nature. With a foundation of vulnerability-based trust, team members operate in an environment that is less focused on politics thus paving the way for finding the best solution to problems as quickly as possible. When team members are able to freely discuss ideas and issues without fear of retribution (because they operate on a foundation of vulnerability-based trust), they can move to the next layer of Lencioni's model, which is commitment.

By embracing conflict and healthy debate in the team environment, members are able to achieve clarity and buy-in on decisions even if they initially disagreed. According to the model, great teams understand they must be able to commit to decisions made even if the outcome is uncertain and everyone does not initially agree. Commitment should not be confused with consensus.

The fourth behavior listed as part of Lencioni's model is embracing accountability. This differs from the commonly accepted concept of being held accountable by management. Rather Lencioni's premise is that team members must be able to call out peers on behaviors that might hurt the team. When a team achieves commitment on decisions made, it is important for members to provide direct feedback to a peer who is not supporting a decision to which he committed.

The fifth and final behavior is that of focusing on collective results. The ultimate goal of building trust, promoting healthy conflict, achieving commitment, and embracing accountability is achieving team results. Again this is why trust is so critical; it creates an environment where individuals are focused on doing whatever they can to help the team accomplish its goals versus protecting or promoting themselves.


Much has been written about the importance and value of trust in creating a culture of high performance. In fact, according to Covey (n.d.) “trust is more than a nice-to-have, soft, social virtue, it is a hard-edged economic driver. Trust…is the currency of the new, global economy. High trust increases speed and reduce cost in all relationships, interactions, and transactions. High trust also increases value – value to shareholders and value to customers” (para. 2). This paper has examined the concept of trust as the critical foundational building block for building cohesive, high-performing teams. More specifically, the argument has been made that the specific type of trust necessary for consistently higher team performance is vulnerability-based trust. It follows that the ability to foster vulnerability-based trust in a team environment is a key leadership skill that project managers must be able to master in order to be successful in a team environment.

Project managers can be leaders on their teams whether in a formal or informal capacity. Regardless of title, how can a true leader be spotted? Look to see if anyone is following. People will not follow those they do not trust, and they will not trust managers who lack credibility or managers who behave in ways that erode trust.

How do project managers develop their competencies in building trust among team members? Most importantly – GO FIRST. Model the behavior by exposing your own vulnerabilities. Show you genuinely care about people. Demonstrate empathy. Listen more than you speak. Put others first. Finally, again quoting Doug Conant (2015), “The very first job of a leader is to inspire trust.” Inspire trust and people will follow you.

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© 2015, Ellen Decker, MBA
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA



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