Building Trust Within a Project Team

Legal project management often requires lawyers to change how they work with each other. Given the personalities and cultural dynamics within firms, persuading some people to even consider collaborating can be quite a challenge – even if it’s in the best interest of the client. What’s a project leader to do?

Why teams need trust

Assuming that the group you’re leading really is a project team (assembled to focus on a specific, sanctioned objective), focus on building trusting relationships from the outset.

Teammates who trust each other spend less time worrying, gossiping, avoiding conflict and hoarding vital information as though their very futures depend on it. All of which enables efficiencies and profitability, not to mention a happier firm environment.

In January 2013, Harvard Business Review published the results of a long-term study of people on the receiving end of incivility in the workplace – a blatant signal of mistrust. As a result of the behaviour:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined

And yes, lawyers and law firms were included in the research.

What leads us to trust?

Fordham University professor and leader of the Consortium for Trustworthy Organizations, Robert Hurley has identified a “Decision to Trust Model”. The model is recognized as one of the foremost tools for determining trustworthiness in teams as well as institutions, industries and stakeholder systems.

Some illustrations of how Hurley’s model can be applied to project teams:


* Multitasking and multiple commitments are some of the biggest threats to a team’s ability to meet project objectives. Ask how people would like to deal with these threats, rather than demand loyalty at all costs. This is also where you may be drawn into deeper issues of compensation, culture and the real sources of power and influence in the firm.

Ideas to build trust within your team

You now know the risks of assuming that people within your team trust each other to work together efficiently. And you know the factors that promote a trustworthy team environment. Incorporate the information into your project by trying a few of these ideas:

Be loyal. At the Summit on Building Trustworthy Organizations in October 2013, panelist Tom McCoy was asked how to lead and engage an ethical and trustworthy culture. His response, in reference to his tenure as VP and Chief Legal Officer at AMD: “If someone wanted to unfairly criticize one of my team members, they had to go through me first. And I wished them luck doing that.” My jaw dropped.

McCoy is now a senior partner at O’Melveny and Myers in Washington DC. He’s an accomplished lawyer with a lot of experience leading legal projects.

There were more than a few audience members who said “Can you imagine how inspiring it would be to work with him?  No one in my firm would say that.” That’s both a compliment to McCoy and a sad statement about the dearth of perceived loyalty in contemporary practice.

Choose trustworthy team members.  There’s a caveat: check your assumptions about an individual’s past behaviour and the motivations of those whose opinions you seek when recruiting your team. Make your decisions based on facts and project objectives.

Identify project boundaries and roles together. This has the dual benefit of giving people autonomy and establishing expectations of “who needs to do what by when” in order to meet objectives.

Establish a clear project goal. Refer to it at every project meeting and, of course, put it at the top of the project charter. This is your team’s licence to operate; it sanctions work habits and decision-making that may stray from business as usual.

Identify threats to project success early on, and as a group. How will they be managed? Set clear rules so everyone knows the implications and options available.

Determine accepted communication channels to encourage constructive, honest team dialogue (not limit it). The more direct the communication within the team, the more efficiently it will operate.

Trust the subject matter experts involved in the project. You included them for a reason.

Curb tendencies to micromanage. Real quality control does not involve constantly second-guessing or double-checking your team’s work. Micromanaging prompts people to focus on what it will take to please you, not what needs to be done to complete the project. It inevitably causes delays.

Respectfully challenge people when they don’t meet commitments. This might be a new concept in law firm culture, but it’s much more constructive than drama, subterfuge or avoidance.  Explain the consequences to the project, the client and the team in a one-on-one conversation.

Remove toxic individuals from the project. Tell them why, so that they can learn (“you haven’t met your deadlines and it’s caused associates to invest time that we’ll never recoup”). The project charter is the best tool to use when doing this, because the toxic behaviour is usually a violation of group norms.

Recognize good behaviour. These are the people who make others feel welcome. In a project, they’ll quietly encourage others to take calculated risks in the name of efficiency, quality and good communication. They also protect the project from scope-creep, which promotes profitability.

Measure trust. When the project concludes, ask team members to anonymously rate their trust in the team. Ask how confident people are in each other and how well commitments were met, then use the information to enhance future projects. Gather trust perceptions from clients, too. Use this as a benchmark for constant improvement.


I’m convinced that law firms are capable of building more trustworthy cultures, and that project teams are a good conduit to getting there. Projects usually require a different combination of experience and talent than the usual hierarchical work models.  They also give people an opportunity to forge better ways of working together. In many cases, the project management process sparks creative approaches, producing a better result for the client and the firm.

But without trustworthy, cooperative and reliable working relationships, legal projects will fall apart . The residual effects last long after, influencing the folklore of firm culture and the ripple effects of related strategic decisions.

The final word on team trust goes to Roger Bolton, the President of the Arthur W. Page Society who spoke on the aforementioned panel discussion with Tom McCoy. When asked how organizations can create high performance driven cultures with less fear, he responded

In many cases, we say we care about trust, but we don’t make it a priority or a part of the every day conversation. [We need to pay attention to the] fundamentals of building trustworthy relationships: cooperation, mutual reciprocity and progress.

Learn more: