Business management

Why high levels of trust result in high-performing teams

Psychologists and behavioural scientists Dr Anna Koczwara and Hannah McQuoid Mason apply sports psychology to team building.

There is no shortage of sporting events showcasing examples of the power of teamwork. Leicester’s epic win of the Premier League; Ipswich FC overcoming incredible odds over other Championship teams through their relentless focus; and England rugby team’s sixth consecutive Women’s Six Nations title win.

Looking at the mental focus behind the performances of top athletes offers valuable insights into building trust within teams.

In Sarina we trust

A mantra from the Lionesses, England’s national football team, to describe their coach Sarina Wiegman

Trust underpins every human relationship, influencing how people and organisations relate to each other. Nearly every human interaction is, to some degree, dependent on trust.

How confident do you feel to predict the future actions of someone else? Trust is a leap of faith, as well as a belief that an individual or team won’t let you down. In the quote above we can see clearly how the Lionesses feel about their coach, but how do you inspire this feeling among your teammates and colleagues?

Leading with trust: How to instil trust in your team

The role of leader is in many ways like that of a good coach or manager helping individuals plan and prepare. This can be technically, by building their skills and capabilities – and also mentally, by visualising what success looks like in a game or meeting, anticipating the tricky questions or blockers and planning appropriate responses.

In both sports and business a good manager is also a coach, facilitating learning, providing stretch and growth alongside feedback and challenge, but, importantly, trusting and empowering team members to make those decisions.

I don't have a method. I have good players. I would not be in the final without these players. They are the team! And most important, they trust very much in what they are going to do.

Pep Guardiola
FC Barcelona. 2009

There are two types of trust we need to show as leaders

Think about which one comes most naturally to you – and where you might need to focus to build trust consistently across your team or the wider workplace.

1.  Competence-based trust concerns one person’s confidence in another’s abilities, primarily using their historical performance to predict how they might perform in the future. We may think of them as a ‘safe pair of hands’.

  • Richie McCaw, former All Blacks captain, was focused on being the best from his very first game, aged 20, when he was named Man of the Match. His win percentage was 89% across his Test career, and he was key to introducing and developing sports psychology within the team.


2.  Integrity-based trust requires us to have faith that an individual or a business will honour their word even during challenging times. They do this by abiding by a set of accepted social rules and norms that most would agree are desirable and decent.

  • Jurgen Klopp recently stepped down as manager of Liverpool Football Club. His authenticity and empathy as he communicated his departure was notable, and he has been exceptionally transparent about his need to leave to protect his future wellbeing and that of his family. 

Your business can learn from the sports industry

The sports industry and businesses can and do learn from each other. It’s increasingly common for sports psychologists or ex-professional athletes to share their stories of inspiring others , of personal grit and adversity. And, likewise, sporting bodies at the highest level are increasingly turning to those more accustomed to advising businesses, for new insight.

  • As Steve Martin, who currently works with the Premier League Managers Association and also teaches executives at Columbia Business School, reflects: “In sports, leaders typically have all the responsibility and little power so their ability to connect with others and influence is their only real currency. This is increasingly the case in business too. Leaders simply can’t demand compliance and loyalty anymore.”

Stay on the front foot of high performance and make building and maintaining trust a cornerstone of your own leadership strategy with these takeaway tips:

How to introduce competence-based trust

Trust can be gained by demonstrating experience, signalling expertise and highlighting knowledge. We don’t all have the luxury of a reputation as formidable as Jurgen or Richie. Thinking about how we introduce ourselves – and others – is really important in this respect.

The demonstration of competence should come before the delivery of any advice, recommendation, or proposal. If you’re asking people to take a leap of faith and do something differently, explain why, help them to help you.

Hold ‘post-game’ debriefings to let everyone build their competence too: Learn from victories and analyse setbacks, just like sports teams after a game. Encourage open communication and honest feedback to identify areas for improvement and celebrate successes together. Do this on repeat to create sustainable growth.

How to build integrity-based trust

Create a ‘game plan’: Just like a great coach rallies a team with a shared vision, articulate a clear company vision that excites your employees. Co-create a pathway for delivering.

Don’t be a stranger: Make sure your team knows what you stand for and behave in line with that consistently. Long-term trust is especially likely to be forged when early and successful exchanges are undertaken during particularly stressful times and situations.

Show you care: take the time to understand others’ perspectives and value opportunities for them to develop. Create a ‘safe playing field’ – foster a psychologically safe environment where your ‘players’ feel comfortable taking calculated risks in pursuit of good outcomes for that shared purpose.

To hear more from our behavioural scientists, take a look at Inside the mind of a fraudster.

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