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Building Trust in a Project-Based Environment

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Every team needs to develop the foundation of trust to support a successful endeavor

As more work is done on a project basis where teams come together to create or develop something and then move on, it is increasingly important to have the team members work together quickly.  “Working together” involves having team members operate from a common frame of reference

that includes everything from ensuring  individuals understand their roles and responsibilities to understanding how decisions will be made and acted on.  While it may sound easy, more projects fail because of a lack of understanding between team members than a lack of talent of the team members.

Communications and Organizational Challenges in Projects

Often, communication is cited as the main challenge in getting people to work together.  The person giving direction usually has a clear understanding in his or her mind what they want, but often the person receiving the information, for a number of reasons, may not understand what is expected of them.  The individual receiving the communication will not ask for clarification, for fear of appearing foolish.  An important aspect is an individual’s dignity (how they feel about themselves and what they think others will think of them).  They feel if they ask questions or say they do not know it will reflect poorly on them.

These perceptions exist due of a number of organizational cultural issues as well as a lack of trust.  Trust can be defined as “a firm belief in the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing; confidence or reliance.”  Individuals want to be seen as competent and having the ability to do a good job; they do not want that image challenged.  Those who risk asking questions and requesting clarification or help may be seen as weak.  Even worse, they may be humiliated for showing they do not know something.  In one case where the author was present, an individual went to his manager and asked for clarification on how to create data to input for a new process.  The manager’s initial response was, “The information is on the Intranet. Find it.”  Depending on the company, the Intranet can be a big place with information that is not always easy to find.  To further compound the issue in this case, the individual came back a short time later and told the manager he could not find the information on the Intranet.  To which the manager’s response was, “Any idiot should be able to find it.” 

This may be an extreme case, but it is one that happens, more often than most people recognize.  The issue is that the individual may never receive the information they need to do their job which can result in a cost in time, morale, and perhaps quality.  An even greater problem is that in this type of environment individuals having questions and needing help will not look to others.  They will go along and “hope” for the best.  Survival is the goal.  These organizational cultures are based on “not making a mistake” vs. those of more progressive enterprises that want to “do the best job possible.”

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Trust, Confidence, Projects

In organizations where individuals have relationships based on “trust” and can ask questions openly, collaboration and effectiveness are increased significantly.  Trust can increase productivity and morale for each project team member, because of greater sense of belonging in the organization.

Examine this viewpoint: when someone has confidence that the person / people he or she works with has a team member’s best interests in mind, then a team member will have less fear of negative consequences.  They will be open to being more honest in the relationship and trying more on the job.

Building trust starts with individuals having a common understanding of what the organization wishes to accomplish and their role in the efforts.  Understanding what motivates others sets the stage for mutually beneficial relationships.  Next time a project starts, take time to:

  • Clarify the goal of the project so everyone knows what it is.
  • Specify how success will be measured (e.g., deadlines, contributions, etc.) and the measures of success for each activity and the overall project.
  • Identify everyone’s strengths and define everyone’s role in the project.
  • With the group, determine how to communicate information to the team effectively.
  • Specify how decisions will be made, and by whom.


Everyone wants to start work on a project as soon as the project is launched, to show what he or she can do as individuals.  However, it helps to take some time at the beginning to build relationships and set the tone for not only what, but how things will be done.


George Vukotich, Ph.D.

George Vukotich, Ph.D. is a consultant on issues related to Organizational Development. His work has been for organizations that include; Motorola, Amoco, Booz, Allen & Hamilton, IBM, Andersen Consulting, and Computer Sciences Corporation. His research efforts focus on organizational culture and its relationship to leadership and strategy in a changing environment.

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