How to build trust with a new team member
The four variables of trust and how to apply them during onboarding
You’ve done it. You’ve finally hired that leader you’ve been looking for — the person who can nail this job, take responsibilities off your plate, and take the team to new heights. You’ve been interviewing, perhaps for months, to find this rare human with the right mix of traits. And they just signed the offer!
A flurry of “congratulations” emails is sent, and you pop a metaphorical cork in celebration of your team’s expansion.
The person you hired starts. You’re ecstatic the first few weeks. It feels great to have a capable individual stepping in.
Then, the honeymoon phase wears off. You and this team member are now in the trenches together, working on some seriously messy priorities.
Under pressure and urgency, your relationship is put to the test. Will they give you direct, honest feedback about what’s really going on— or tip toe around the truth? When conflict arises, will it be energizing and push both of your thinking forward, or will it be frustrating and draining?
The determining factor is how much trust you’ve built into the relationship.
The truth about trust
The biggest misconception about trust is that it either exists or it doesn’t. We either click and get each other, or we don’t. The relationship has chemistry and works out, or it doesn’t and we need to find someone who’s a “better fit.”
This belief prevents us from fulfilling a key leadership responsibility— to partner effectively with many different types of people. And it sometimes causes us to hire and retain only people who think and act like us.
The truth (and good news) about trust: you can build it into the relationship early on.
How to build trust in a new work relationship
Average leaders ensure that a new team member is equipped with the right documents, resources, and coffee chats when onboarding. Relationship-building is limited to niceties and small talk. They leave trust to chance.
Great leaders recognize that trust is intentionally created. They know that trust makes or breaks a team member’s ability to be effective. And they prioritize trust-building from the very start of the relationship.
The Trusted Advisor (a classic book on trust in the client services industry) presents four variables that determine your trustworthiness:
Credibility: To what extent do you have expertise on a subject?
Reliability: To what extent can I count on you to do what you say?
Psychological Safety: To what extent do I feel psychologically safe sharing openly with you?
Self-Orientation: To what extent do you care about me and my interests vs. caring about yourself and your interests?
How do these factors apply when onboarding a new team member?
The best way to scale our impact is to hire people who have more expertise than we do and empower them to apply it.
Sometimes, when we hire strong talent, we believe we have to prove ourselves to them. We think: “I hired someone who’s more qualified than I am; I need to show them how smart and capable I am so that I can earn their respect.”
But puffing up your knowledge, especially in areas where you aren’t an expert, is counter-productive when building trust.
Instead, give your team member a platform for sharing their expertise. Doing so builds trust by showing that you appreciate their talent and the impact they can have.
It’s more important for you to be credible as their manager/advocate than to be credible as an expert in their field.
Remember why they joined your team in the first place: to allow their expertise to shine and have impact (not to stand in another expert’s shadow and be told what to do).
Tactical ideas for doing this:
Bring a problem the team is facing where their expertise would be valuable. Ask genuinely for their perspective. For example: “Our team has been struggling with scoring our leads in the highest-signal way possible. I know you have experience in this area. Could you shed any light? Might I introduce you to the Growth Marketer who’s thinking through this challenge so they can tap your knowledge?”
Learn from their past projects and experiences. “I remember you shared that story in your interview about the controversial product launch. I’d love to hear your insights from that experience. There’s a lot we can learn from it.”
Give them a platform to showcase what they know. “We have an internal Tech Talk series, and your previous experience with database design would be a perfect topic. A lot of people would benefit from it. Would you be open to signing up next month?
Reliability requires us to have a track record of following through on our commitments. Often, managers demand reliability from new team members but fail to hold the same bar for themselves.
At the start of a new relationship, it’s important to demonstrate consistent integrity to the other person. When you say you’ll follow up with a link to a document via email, do you do it within a reasonable amount of time? When you say you’ll introduce your new team member to someone important in the organization, do you follow through?
It may take a few months to build a track record of reliability on higher-stakes commitments that solidify trust (such as you committing to advocating for a project with the executive team and actually do it). In the meantime, don’t underestimate the importance of small actions.
Most new hires will spend their first few months testing the waters. How outspoken can I be in this environment? How safe is it to express strong opinions and dissent? If I try something new and innovative, will I be encouraged or punished?
Psychological safety is the ability to be vulnerable, make a mistake, and express a contrarian perspective in front of someone without fear of negative consequences. If a new team member is working closely with you— and especially if they’re reporting to you — it’s crucial for them to feel psychologically safe when communicating with you.
Without this safety, they won’t trust you enough to be honest, and they won’t feel empowered to speak up or take risks. You’ll lose out on leveraging their best talents. Worse, they might hold back on telling you what’s going wrong until it’s too late to fix.
Here are some ways to encourage psychological safety:
Always thank them for sharing their perspective, even if you disagree with it. If you want them to continue sharing honestly with you, you need to give them positive reinforcement every time they do it. “Thank you for sharing that perspective. This is why I wanted you on the team— to push our thinking.”
Acknowledge their perspective before you disagree. Let’s say your team member shares a new idea for juicing top-of-funnel signups. Your knee-jerk reaction is, “It won’t work. We’ve tried that already, and it totally failed.” The moment you respond with that statement, you reinforce a lack of openness to new ideas and therefore signal less psychological safety. Instead, put aside your critic’s hat; you can debate the content later. Acknowledge their perspective and why it’s valuable before you share yours. “I can see where you’re coming from, and I take your opinion seriously because you bring a lot of insight to this team. Let me give you some more context from my perspective and see if this resonates.”
Encourage them to share contrarian opinions. “You’re coming in with a fresh perspective about our team. That’s infinitely valuable because I’ve been here for years and I know I have blind spots. Do you mind reflecting on a few things as you observe the team? And I’d love to get your honest feedback in a few weeks”
Ask them what they need to continue sharing honestly. “I really appreciate that you’ve shared your opinions and feedback honestly so far. How can I create a team environment to actively encourage more of that from you and other team members?”
Have you ever had a spidey sense that someone was interacting with you for no other reason than to get something out of it? Perhaps it was a former manager who mostly minded about how they appeared to the executive team. Or maybe someone emailed you out of the blue to get coffee, and you realized that they wanted you to help them get a job.
Self-orientation is the ultimate trust killer. When we perceive someone as primarily self-oriented, our guard immediately goes up. That’s why it’s most important to solve for this variable when building trust.
How might you signal the opposite of self-orientation— that you are bought into your team member’s success and have their best interests in mind?
Ask them what they care about. In order to have their best interests in mind, you first need to know their interests. Why did they join this team? What are their aspirations? What are the values that drive them? What do they want to learn? If their ideal career panned out, where would they love to be? What are they passionate about outside of their job?
Learn about their working styles. Most leaders show up as they are and expect others to meet them where they’re at. Very few leaders ask others about their preferred working and communication styles. What are the most and least energizing parts of the job? How do you like to receive feedback? What are your pet peeves? What do you need from me and the team to do your best work? By asking questions about the other person, you demonstrate that (a) you care about how they work, (b) you want to help them do their best work, (c) you’re open to adapting your working style to theirs in order to accomplish this.
Establish the feedback habit early. The beginning of a work relationship is the perfect time to make feedback a habit. Most leaders wait for “big reveal” moments to hear feedback— for example, annual performance reviews or via 360 feedback reviews done by executive coaches. But one of the best ways to show that you care about someone is to ask for their thoughts regularly. It can be as simple as asking after a meeting, “How did it go for you? What would you suggest that I change to make the meeting more useful?”
Refer back to what you’ve learned about them. Have you ever had a friend remember your favorite dessert or an obscure but important story about your family? You felt cared for in that moment. Similarly, if you remember what’s important to your team member, he/she will feel cared for. The opportunities to show you remember are endless. For example:
“I remember that you like doing focused work in the mornings. Would you prefer that we move our 1:1 so you can have more morning time?”
“I remember that you want to learn more about creating design systems. One of our senior designers is an expert in that. Would you be interested in speaking to them?”
“I remember you care a lot about speaking directly with customers and hearing their feedback. Do you have enough opportunities to do that right now? How can I support you in doing more of this?”
Your next step
Write down five specific things you can do to build trust with your new team member. Commit to when you’ll do each of these things.
If possible, share these ideas with a mentor, coach, or trusted colleague. Use them as a sounding board to get feedback.
Who writes The Intentional Leader?
Mindy Zhang is an executive coach and former product leader at Microsoft, Dropbox, and Oscar Health. She partners with founders and leaders to build winning products and teams. She believes that leadership is a craft that can be cultivated with intentional practice and feedback. Learn more about her coaching.
A huge thank you to Cameron, Beccy, Stacey, and Foster for editing this post.