How to build confidence in your team?

Anique van Eijk

Confidence is a prerequisite for good team performance. “Everything starts with confidence,” says trainer Anique van Eijk at Effectory. “You need to know where you stand with each other and whether you can count on each other. If that foundation isn’t right, then the team will never be successful.” How to build confidence in your team? This is a key question for new teams, team member changes, dramatic organizational changes, or situations where team members’ trust has been lost.

How to build confidence in your team?

Confidence within teams

When employees within a team trust each other, they assume that the other team members are honest, will do what is expected of them, and will not put them at a disadvantage. Van Eijk: “As a result, they dare to be vulnerable, to allow each other to take over tasks, to trust each other’s judgment, and to seek support if necessary. When there is team confidence, team members feel safe enough to give and receive feedback. And they’re not afraid to talk about conflicts and work them out.”

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Team-building confidence exercises

To build confidence within new teams, team members need to get to know each other better, clarify the expectations of each other, and gain positive experiences together. Team-building trust exercises can help you build up trust more quickly. Van Eijk helps teams improve their team dynamics. This often happens as a result of an employee survey, which shows, for example, that the team has some work to do on leadership, trust, cooperation or communication. How can you use team-building games to build trust?

Ice breakers

To get a group session off to a good start, you can do exercises called ice breakers. Van Eijk: “For example, you can ask everyone to bring an object that means a lot to them. Or you ask everyone on the team to compliment the person sitting next to them. This allows you to quickly make the atmosphere more personal.”

Building trust by getting to know and understand how others tend to react

Within a team where trust is strong, team members have a good idea of each other’s professional characteristics, as well as of how each other tends to react. Van Eijk: “You need to know who the other person is. Confidence can only be created if you know each other’s good qualities and weaknesses.” How someone tends to react is not just down to personal predisposition, but is also shaped by their previous experiences. Van Eijk: “Where do you come from? What did your upbringing teach you? For example, the oldest child tends to take the lead more often, whereas middle children usually aim to create harmony.” Previous work experiences can also affect someone’s behavior.

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Exercises to get to know each other better

What exercises can you use to help team members get to know each other better? Van Eijk: “For example, you could say, ‘Scroll through your videos or photos. Then show a video or a photo that means a lot to you.’” For larger groups, you can organize a ‘mini-reception.’ “This is where you ask team members to walk around in the group. When the trainer claps their hands, each team member talks to their nearest colleague. In groups of two or three, team members then answer personal questions according to the trainer’s prompt, such as: what are you most proud of? What did you want to be when you grew up?” Another exercise is team bingo, where team members need to connect interesting facts to the right colleague, such as ‘plays saxophone’ or ‘was a professional hockey player.’ “Conversation cards with fun in-depth questions can pique curiosity and get the conversation going.”

Drawing a timeline

The above exercises are ‘conversation starters’ to get people chatting. “Other more extensive exercises you can do with a team are to create a timeline: what events have shaped who you are? You can also ask everyone to make a drawing of the kitchen table from their childhood. Who was there at their table? A drawing like this can teach you a lot about each other’s background.”

Four stages towards team maturity

Before a team becomes ‘mature,’ it usually goes through a number of stages. Van Eijk likes to use Tuckman’s stages of group formation: “Teams start with a ‘forming’ stage during which they prefer to avoid any conflict. Then there is a ‘storming’ stage. This is when conflicts are aired.” If all goes well, a ‘norming’ stage comes next, where team members come up with agreements for working together. Over time, these agreements turn into unwritten rules. Van Eijk: “The team then enters the ‘performing’ stage. There is a lot of trust and collaboration happens almost automatically.”

Discussing conflicts to build team trust

However, sometimes a team does not get past the ‘forming’ stage. Van Eijk: “Team members are afraid to talk about conflicts, which prevents the team from growing further.” Sometimes a team can also regress to an earlier stage, for example, due to a breach of trust. Van Eijk: “This requires a new ‘storming’ stage. You have to look for the root of the distrust. The underlying trust issues have to be brought to the table. They need to be expressed before trust can be rebuilt.”

Recognizing lack of trust

What are symptoms of teams that don’t trust each other? Van Eijk: “Often team members are very friendly to each other. They always back each other up and don’t dare bring up any tensions or conflicts.” Another sign that trust is low can be gossiping or making assumptions. “People don’t talk to each other, but over each other. Another sign of low trust is that there is a lot of talk about the details, but very little about feelings.”

Signs that team members trust each other

When members of a team trust each other, they don’t mind if things get tense from time to time. “Team members aren’t afraid to bring up difficult issues. For example, team members are okay with saying: ‘I feel like this meeting isn’t going anywhere. Do you feel the same way, or is it just me?’” Another sign of trust can be that team members can tell how someone else is doing with just a glance. “Teamwork then becomes very natural.” It also becomes easier to give feedback in a team that trusts each other, even if it is negative. “It takes very little energy because you trust your colleagues.”

Building confidence in a new team

Confidence needs to be built up within new teams. But even older teams can be faced with low confidence. What are possible reasons for this?

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Breach of confidence by a manager

What are the possible reasons confidence has diminished in a team? “The reasons for this may be down to leadership. If the manager acts in an unacceptable manner towards a particular employee, this may create a general sense of insecurity. The manager’s behavior sets off alarms which also causes other employees to be on edge.”

A breach of confidence can also be the result of organizational changes that employees disagree with or have not been involved in. “This is often difficult for managers. They are caught between the interests of the organization and the interests of the team.”

Distrust within the team

The way team members interact with each other can also be the cause of low trust. “It may be inappropriate behavior, from exclusion to annoying remarks that are repeated over and over again. It could be that one of the staff is intentionally trying to stir things up.” In all cases it is important to go back to the root of the breach of trust in team-building sessions.

Many teams are dealing with unaddressed conflict. “This can be about all kinds of things. From the division of tasks to the number of hours everyone is working.” Sometimes team members don’t speak each other’s language. “This makes it difficult to connect, because there are constant misunderstandings.”

Old breaches of trust

Once distrust has crept into a team, it can take a long time to recover. Van Eijk: “Even if the employees involved have already left, the old conflict can remain part of the team dynamics. It can even be ‘contagious’ for new employees. The team has to let go of the past before they can start with a clean slate.”

Van Eijk recalls a particular team where someone was fired in an unpleasant way, where there had been lots of arguments and conflicts. “That was still very fresh in the team’s memory, even though that person had already left. There had been no mourning period. People were still angry, or afraid that they would be treated the same way. I then asked the team, ‘Who is upset by this? Who still needs to clear the air?’ By talking it out, we were finally able to move on from what happened.”

Breach of trust at the top

Sometimes trust problems come from above. Van Eijk: “If the employee survey shows that, socially, people feel unsafe and managers generally get a low score, that can be a signal that there is something going on in terms of trust.” Often the cause is at the top of the organization: “The problem often starts at the top of the tree and seeps down from there. There is no point in telling teams, ‘You all need to work on trust.’ In this case, it’s important to start that process at the top.” 

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Creating a climate of confidence

In order to build confidence during group sessions, it’s important to create a safe atmosphere at the beginning of the session. Van Eijk: “Before the session, you should always talk about the ground rules for the conversation. This allows you to create the right framework for talking to each other in a trusting way.” These could include rules like, ‘I think it’s important that everyone feels safe to express themselves. Everyone is speaking for themselves and not for anyone else.’ Or you could say, ‘We often make assumptions. So let’s try to be inquisitive and ask questions of each other, rather than just sharing opinions.’ 

Calling time-out

Van Eijk: “You can establish these rules by asking the team, ‘What do you need to be able to learn today? What do you think is important for today’s conversation?’” The trainer can also choose a number of rules in advance. These often have to do with the purpose of the meeting. “If a team finds it difficult to get specific, for example, a condition may be that the meeting has to end with concrete action points.”

If the team accepts these rules together and writes them on a flip chart, it is a safer way to start the conversation. Not only the facilitator, but also the team members can always call a time-out later and refer to the ground rules. “Each team member is free to say, ‘We’ve just drawn up some ground rules and we’re starting to not follow them.’” The trainer can also intervene. “For example, they can say, ‘I feel like people aren’t following this rule. Am I right? Do you feel the same way?’” 

Trust as a ground rule

Some rules are about trust itself. “For example, it’s important to always say that what is being discussed here won’t leave the room.” If one of the team members brings up this ground rule themselves, this can be an opportunity for a team-building trainer to open up the discussion about this. “For example, you might ask: ‘Has it ever happened to you that others shared your personal information? Here, or elsewhere?’ It may indeed turn out that someone has experienced this in a previous job, for example. Sometimes the right direct question can really get the conversation going.”

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