Social Trust is Required for Extraordinary Teams | Leader 411

Social Trust is Required for Extraordinary Teams


My research with teams naturally leads me to research trust. There are a variety of different types of trust. Physical trust is the feeling that those around you will not harm you physically. Performance trust is the feeling you have when you have confidence in the performance of those around you and that their performance will not harm your performance. These two trusts are generally understood and definitely influence success.

However, despite popular belief, you actually don’t need physical trust or performance trust for a team to adequately get by. Teams can still accomplish goals with low levels of physical and performance trust, but Social Trust is required for a team to be extraordinary.


Social trust is the believing that those around will not harm you socially. In other words, the feeling that you can be yourself, your whole self. We spend much of our mental space worrying what other people may say or do if we say the wrong thing or act the wrong way. It turns out we will maximize success if we reduce the workplace social anxiety by increasing social trust. When people are less worried about social judgement, they spend more mental power doing things like like sharing ideas for a new project, finding new ways to work more efficiently or spending more time supporting their coworkers.

Of course, professionalism is still a must. We are at work and we must perform, but we don’t have to be robots to excel. In fact, after a decade of researching extraordinary teams, the best teams are not filled with super-performing robots. They’re filled with people that laugh, joke and eat while working on project. They enjoy being together and build family-like bonds to the point where they’re sad to see the project completed. I could go on and on, but this is covered later. In other words, extraordinary teams have high levels of social trust.


  • Overhyped optimism, extreme positivity or just always being “happy.” – If that were the case, then we’d really have a tough time having an extraordinary team! Teams high in social trust are still filled with human beings. Team members still have problems. They still have struggles both inside and outside of work. They still have weaknesses and foibles (great word. Look it up here)  The difference is when social trust is high, team members feel that they are able to express their feelings and receive support during difficult times. Teams with low social trust tend to internalize their feelings increasing stress levels.
  • Expensive team building retreats – I love these things, but that’s because I love people. At one time I thought these were amazing opportunities for bonding and they can be though, in reality, they’re not necessarily more effective than many other teamwork initiatives. These expensive retreats can create a sense of organizational support which does have a host of positive benefits, but for trust building exercises, they’re not necessarily needed. If anyone knows of some great company retreats for team and trust building, please list them in the comments below. Like I said, it’s not necessary, but that doesn’t mean great opportunities don’t exist.
  • Touchy, feely, sharing-feelings-in-a-circle and trust falls – If this is your jam, then awesome! I respect that if it works for you and your team. Pa’lante pues!( slang Spanish for “keep going” or “foward”)  Personally, I’m not a fan and fortunately for me, this isn’t required to build social trust. Again though, if you and your team feel comfortable doing this, great! I once saw a team that bonded over tai chi . Many bond over food. Whatever works for you and your team, sounds great, as long as it gets you all together to talk and get to know each other.


There are numerous benefits to having high levels of social trust:

  • Team members enjoy being together. You tend to enjoy being where you can be yourself.
  • Decrease in sick days, personal days, and tardiness – Turns out when you enjoy where you work, you tend to actually want to be there.
  • Open communication – This is critical. Less gossiping and backbiting. People are able to share what they’re thinking.
  • Increase in constructive feedback. With high levels of social trust, team members feel comfortable enough to provide constructive feedback. Feedback is a vital component to growth and its often held back because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
  • Feedback is accepted more willingly – if you know the person delivering the feedback is genuine and you trust they’re there to help, then you tend to be more willing to accept and apply constructive feedback.
  • “Family-like” atmosphere – Just an overall feeling of acceptance.
  • Ideas, good or bad, are shared – if you need creativity, you need ideas. Ideas are how a company outperforms its competitors. All major projects and strategies start with an idea. No one has a monopoly on good ideas. By increasing levels of social trust, you will also increase idea sharing.
  • Brainstorming sessions are often loud and energetic – Umm, this isn’t necessarily a benefit, but I love it.
  • Laughter is common – Humor has many powerful team building properties. It lowers defenses and acts as an invitation to play.
  • Smiling – A workplace high in social trust is a happy workplace.
  • BONUS: Food is common in teams with high levels of social trust – not necessarily a benefit for some, but I love food in the office. I look forward to a time when board rooms have a basket of fruit snacks in the middle of the table.


Social trust is not needed for all teams, but it is if you want an extraordinary team. Here’s how you can increase levels of social trust in your organization:

  • Be an example – if you want others to show social trust, then be socially trusting! Promote a positive and welcoming workplace. Spend time with your employees just getting to know them. Joke with them. Have fun with them.
  • Resolve social trust detractors – There are two types of conflict, task and relational. Task conflict is when people disagree on how to do something. This often leads to a better product. This is good in most cases. Relational conflict is when people just don’t like each other. This comes in the form of judgement, backbiting/gossiping, rolling of eyes or even a physical altercation. Relational conflict is the great vacuum of success. If your team contains relational conflict, get rid of it. Don’t let it linger.  Internal competition? Picking on each other, making fun of each other? Don’t tolerate it. Someone makes fun of another person’s idea? Address it. There’s no place for tearing each other apart on a team with social trust.
  • Provide opportunities to grow social trust. I cannot stress this enough. Sometimes we push our employees to do tasks or achieve goals, but we fail to provide opportunities to do it. Provide opportunities just for people to hang out. It will help make your job easier. One time, I got to work two hours early (4:00am…yuck!) so I could build a miniature golf course for my team. I needed them to bond because I definitely did not have all the answers. They were all way smarter than me, so I needed them to depend on each other instead of looking to me for answers I didn’t have. To provide them with an opportunity to build team bonds, I made this huge miniature golf course from materials around the plant (There’s a long story behind this that needs to be shared at a later time…).  At first when they saw it, they scoffed and thought it was dumb. Then one person tried it, then another, then another until everyone was in trios challenging each other. By the end they were all laughing, having a good time and patting each other on the back. It was the first time they had ever done anything together “outside” of work. It built memories and helped establish a strong foundation.
  • Invest time and energy – Believe me, it is an investment! It takes time, energy, patience and persistence, but it does have a great return on investment. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it will happen. The good news is that employees often recognize good attempts. So, while our ideas for trust-building may fail, team members hopefully recognize that at least you care and that you’re trying.
  • Don’t be a “box checker.” – Employees can smell fake. You all know you’ve had bosses that have just gone through the motions. One of my bosses, bless her heart, would ask me how I was doing, then interrupt me within 15 seconds with the plans for the day. She didn’t care! She was asking just to check the box. Don’t be like that! Care! Put some feeling into it!

In summary, Think of social trust as “the secret sauce” for extraordinary teams. Teams can work without it, but when teams have high levels of social trust, great things can happen.

About the author: John is a recognized professor, public speaker, trainer, author and entrepreneur. Business is his passion and his hobby. He started as a 7th grade history and English teacher (loved it), then produced musical events (loved it) followed by a long stint at a Fortune 100 manufacturing company (miss it sometimes). He eventually earned his his PhD and currently resides in Indiana teaching and researching leadership and entrepreneurship at Indiana University. You can reach him directly at

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