The first time I experienced this firsthand was actually during the very first job I ever had. Someone new joined my team, and all I remember was thinking, "What's wrong with this person? Why don't they just fit in like the rest of us?"
What I now know is that it was us, not him. As teams evolve through each of the four formation phases--first coined by famed psychologist Bruce Tuckman--the members develop trust. And every time a team adds or removes even one member, it becomes a new team that must start from the beginning.
Trust is something that all teams continuously build and improve on. Yet too often we take trust for granted when we have it, or we run for the hills and dig in our heels the second we feel we don't have it with a co-worker.
It's wise to resist the temptation to run for the hills, because it's a myth that building trust is linear with time. The truth is, trust has a premature peak early in any relationship, work or personal. It's only after two people get past the first valley that they can cross the chasm into real and lasting trust.
Trust ebbs and flows up and down, throughout the four phases of team development:
In this phase, members are positive and polite. This is the honeymoon phase. Team members are on their best behavior, and hold their tongues.
In the '90s, I worked for a tech startup that was scaling quickly. New employees were hired in droves, and we went through six-week boot camps together, learning the ins and outs of the business together.
Even though there were 50 of us, crammed into a single classroom for 10 hours per day, six weeks straight, we really felt like a team. Team members in the forming phase often believe they trust their co-workers, and believe their co-workers trust them. This is when the premature trust peak occurs.
In reality, what you have with a co-worker at this stage is respect, not trust. You respect them enough to listen, and to share your thoughts.
In this phase, team members begin to show their true colors. It's where conflict typically first arises. Working styles, beliefs, and values are different. You often look at your co-worker and think, "I thought I trusted you, but now I'm not so sure."
In that moment, the key to building lasting trust is to recognize that you don't currently have trust built up yet. What you thought you had was smoke and mirrors.
Spend time with each co-worker. Have a one-on-one meeting or grab a meal. Learn about their communication style, how they like to give and receive feedback, how they like to work within a team.
A few years back, I was in this exact scenario with a co-worker. We thought we trusted each other, but then we started disagreeing in meeting after meeting, and we'd both walk away discouraged and frustrated.
One day, she approached me and asked, "Why don't you trust me?" My honest response was "I do trust you." She replied, "It doesn't feel like it."
That's when I took a good hard look in the mirror. If we didn't explicitly talk about what was going on, we'd risk never trusting each other ever again. We decided to grab dinner and talk it through. And, boy, am I glad we did--to this day, she's one of my most trusted colleagues.
When a co-worker says or does something that's not aligned with your way of doing things, be straightforward. Ask them to help you understand their approach.
If you can make it past the storming phase, you're rewarded with a truly healthy working relationship on the other side, in the norming phase. People start to resolve their differences, appreciate colleagues' strengths, and gain true trust of one another.
Here, you're able to ask one another for help and provide constructive feedback. It's still possible to have trust backslide--if that happens, go ahead and address it head-on. I actually schedule regular meetings with many of my co-workers, once a quarter or so, to proactively build relationships outside of our day-to-day activities.
This is the Shangri-la, the place we all strive to reach, when you can predict and anticipate your co-workers' actions and reactions. It's not perfection--rather, it's when hard work results in achievement of your team's goal.
The next time you're doubting the trust between you and a co-worker, remember that it's natural. All teams go through it, and it's worth the investment to strengthen trusted relationships. You'll all benefit on the other side.