Chapter 22 Lack of Trust – Retrospectives Antipatterns

Chapter 22 Lack of Trust

. . . in which the team members do not trust each other enough to share anything of importance in the retrospective, and the facilitator helps them build that trust


In the Danish team, Sarah senses a problem. Kim had been working on a task for some time, and when others asked what was happening with the task or if Kim needed any help, the answer was always, “No, I am fine. I don’t need any help.” The other team members respected this and time passed. When it was time to make use of Kim’s work, because other work was depending on it, it turned out that Kim had been stuck for a while but hadn’t wanted to admit it. Everybody got very mad, and since then, the atmosphere in the retrospectives had been uncomfortable. Sarah felt she should address the issue in the next retrospective, so she opened with an activity in the Set the Stage phase that would evaluate the level of safety felt among the team members.

As Sarah had feared, none of the team’s answers were higher than 3, which showed her there was a lack of safety among the team members: they did not trust each other enough to show vulnerability. She pointed out that this was not an ideal scenario and asked them to be nicer to each other. That did not change the situation, unfortunately, and even mentioning the Prime Directive at the beginning of retrospectives did not make much difference. See Chapter 2, Prime Directive Ignorance, for more context.

General Context

Sometimes you find yourself facilitating a retrospective where you sense something is not right. The participants are not laughing together, they avoid eye contact and touch (this can also be a sign of being an introvert, so in itself it is not enough to make any judgment), they are slow in writing things to share in the Gather Data phase of the retrospective, and the issues they do write down are either positive/neutral or very shallow (e.g., “the coffee is too strong”).

Antipattern Solution

The easiest and quickest solution is to ask the participants in the retrospective to be honest and to say whatever is on their minds. You might also try to encourage them to speak more openly by offering chocolate or by ensuring that their comments are anonymous. Some facilitators ignore the low level of trust by trying to force people to share secrets with one another.


If there is a lack of trust among the team members, then nothing of high importance is shared at the retrospective, and the team takes only superficial actions to adapt to the situation. Consequently, the retrospectives become unproductive, and they might be abandoned. The team members become less and less trusting of each other, and when mistakes are made, they are covered up instead of treated as learning opportunities.


Participants in a retrospective do not want to share anything other than positive issues or very shallow negative issues. People look away instead of looking each other in the eyes. You might also see people’s feet trying to make them walk out of the room.

Refactored Solution

The first thing to do when you suspect a lack of trust is to figure out if it is as bad as you suspect, because you might be making a false assumption. One way to get your answer is to use the safety-measuring activity that Sarah chose. You can find numerous other activities online to help measure trust, but this one is simple and easily done. With activities such as this, you naturally have to consider the Hawthorne effect,1 but doing nothing is worse, in my view. You might get a result that is not 100 percent correct, but in my experience, it will still tell you at least part of the story.

1. The alteration of behavior by the subjects of a study due to their awareness of being observed.

If the result is as you fear, your next challenge is to decide if you are willing and able to work toward increasing the trust level or whether you will work with the team given the existing low level of trust. If you choose to try and increase the trust level, the next thing you have to do is to figure out whether the team is interested in changing it. One team I visited a few times informed me that this was a workplace and any talk about feelings or private life was frowned upon. I did not have a long relationship with that company, since this was the culture encouraged by the management, and I decided that the best thing I could do was to protect myself by leaving. Naturally, I wanted to put all the team members in my pocket and take them with me and take care of them, but that was not possible.

Let’s take a step back before we go into the solutions and look at what trust is and why it is considered important among people who work together. (I know you think it is obvious, but indulge me for a moment.)

Let us look at two definitions of trust:

  1. Trust is the “confidence that [you] will find what is desired [from another] rather than what is feared” (Deutsch 1977). If you think about it, the duality of hope and fear is exactly the way you can choose to look at your future interactions with other people. If you trust people, you feel confident that you can get what you hope for, whereas if you distrust people, you fear their reaction.

  2. Trust is the intersection of a person’s hopes and fears (Simpson 2007). Here again is a definition that uses the border between hope and fear to describe trust. It is important to distinguish between these two expected types of outcome in interactions with other people. You can make your own evaluation about whom you trust and distrust by writing down how you expect them to react to different scenarios. For example, will my colleague still do what she promised me to do when she gets busy with her own tasks?

Someone once described trust as a sum of relationship and reliability, and that equation has been my companion for years. It made a lot of sense to me, and in all cases where I wanted to build trust, I used it. I could see how a relationship between people could enhance the level of trust and also how people who could rely on others to do what they had promised or to let them know if they were no longer able to do it could equally enhance trust. Another thing I learned, or became aware of, is that trust is hard to build but easy to destroy.

I used my simple worldview and it was useful to me, but recently I have been made aware of research in trust and better definitions of trust. In McKnight and Chervany (2001), you find the definition of the topology of trust as follows:

  • Benevolence means caring and being motivated to act in one’s interest rather than acting opportunistically.

  • Integrity means making good faith agreements, telling the truth, and fulfilling promises.

  • Competence means having the ability or power to do for one what one needs done.

  • Predictability means trustee actions (good or bad) that are consistent enough to be forecasted in a given situation. Predictability is a characteristic of the trustee that may positively affect willingness to depend on the trustee regardless of other trustee attributes.

In other words, a trustee who is predictable in being benevolent and has the competence to live up to the trustor’s interests with integrity is a person worthy of trust. As you can see, my initial equation of reliability and relationship fits well into this topology but is a little coarse.

We can also talk about a trusting stance, whereby some people believe they can achieve better outcomes with other people if they assume that those other people are well meaning and reliable. This is likely a personal choice or a strategy people use that colors the way they work with other people. Personally, I had this trusting stance to a degree that made me an easy target for people who wanted to abuse it. Because people have taken advantage of that stance, I have, over the years, developed a less trusting stance, which makes me sad because I would prefer to expect the best from people. In conclusion, if people erode your trust, it can erode your trusting stance. It is a difficult goal to maintain a trusting stance.

And what happens when you have little trust in the people around you? It can trigger the amygdalae,2 a part of the brain responsible for detecting danger and triggering a very primitive reaction, the fight or flight response, to an interaction or a person. Overactive amygdalae can interpret or categorize even seemingly insignificant events and interactions as dangerous. In the daily life of the office, this results in people who are unwilling to ask each other for help or to share problems and challenges and who start overinterpreting what everybody else says as provocations or criticism. See Chapter 2, Prime Directive Ignorance.

2. Two almond-shaped clusters of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans. They perform a primary role in the processing of memory, decision making, and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression). The amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system.

In contrast, in a team with high trust among people, team members are more likely to help each other and to ask for help, thereby utilizing everybody’s strengths and skill sets. The result, not surprisingly, is higher-quality work and a more harmonious team.

It is no surprise, then, that a study made by Google found that trust, in the form of psychological safety, is the greatest indicator of team performance. As Paul Santanga, head of industry at Google, said after a 2-year study on team performance, “There’s no team without trust.”

And how do you build trust in a team with retrospectives? My first step is to talk about what trust is, now using the more detailed definition than the equation I used to pull up. The next step is to describe how important trust is and what the consequences of lack of trust can be.

Then I try different activities and techniques. Most are focused on team building, but some also focus on work and interaction ethics. I try to make them laugh together, because laughing together is a very strong way of team building. You can find funny cartoons or quotes, and if you dare, you can make fun of yourself. Self-deprecation can be very efficient to make people trust you and like you, because you show that you are human and not without flaws. You can make the team answer nonthreatening questions about themselves as human beings. An activity such as Two Truths and a Lie is always fun, and you can use QuizBreaker3 in the time between retrospectives.

3. QuizBreaker is a fun weekly quiz delivered by email that helps teams get to know one another better in just 2 minutes per week.

Help the team learn enough about each other to be able to show integrity and benevolence, but do not forget to make them work on predictability and competence as well. For example, make them aware of their expectations of each other or even devise rules for interacting with and helping each other—for peer review, for when they can interrupt with questions, for how they want to be invited to discussions, and so on. This code of conduct could be recorded in a team charter and define behavior not just for retrospectives but for all interactions.

Sometimes, though, the culture in the entire organization4 needs to be changed in order for the culture in the team to change, so it can be a bigger issue than the retrospective can offer help with. The managers can start by appreciating failures and mistakes and showing how we all can learn from them. They can follow up by celebrating the learning instead of threatening with ridicule or even firing employees. They can promote or otherwise appreciate the people who are trustworthy and good to work with as much as they appreciate the high-performing people. Unfortunately, an organization’s culture is usually out of the hands of the retrospective facilitator.

4. Watch the video by Simon Sinek on Performance versus Trust (

Online Aspect

For an online retrospective, it is easier to make data gathering and voting anonymous, which is the default setting in some online tools. So, the quick fix is easier in an online retrospective, but the long-term goal of building trust among the team members demands a more focused effort when people are distributed.

Personal Anecdote

It is not a bad idea to ask a team what their level of trust is, but be aware that if you ask them, you should be prepared for the answer. Any answer. This is rather like asking your small child, “Do you want to go to sleep now?” or “Can you stop kicking the lady?” If there is only one acceptable answer, you should not ask the question. So, if you ask them, you need to consider in advance what your action will be if the trust is very low.

I will share two anecdotes in which there turned out to be a lack of trust.

At one company, I was hired as a consultant to facilitate a retrospective. I had asked the sponsor if there was anything I should know about the team. He said that people were a bit afraid of sharing problems with one another. This was great information to get from him, because even if I had been able to detect the low trust level myself at the retrospective, it was more useful to know about it ahead of time. I was now able to plan with it in mind.

I decided to start the retrospective with an intensive presentation of the Prime Directive and a safety measurement activity, as described previously. The team members were very quiet when I talked about the Prime Directive. They did not even move a single facial muscle. This was a bad sign. Also, the results of the trust activity were nonoptimal. One person had complete distrust; the rest had little or barely enough trust. So, the sponsor was right but probably not aware of how big the challenge was with the team. I seriously considered ending the retrospective right there and then.

There is not much value in a session where you are supposed to share information, experiences, and feelings if no one feels safe enough to share anything of importance. I decided to label the feelings instead, as described in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It (Voss & Raz 2017), by putting a name to the feelings I believed existed in the room. I said something along the lines of “It seems you are afraid to share information, particularly negative information, with each other. I suppose you are afraid that you will face anger, ridicule, or laughter. I sense that you have some experiences and feelings you need to share, though.”

I could see from their body language that I had hit a nerve. They offered me eye contact, more and more as I spoke, perhaps because they felt seen by me. I explained that in this retrospective, it was my responsibility to ensure that everyone could say anything without worry, and I would do my utmost to live up to that responsibility. I paused to give the team time to think about what I had said. Then I asked them if they wanted the retrospective to go on and if they would try to share as much information as they could. There was a murmur, some nodding, and they started gathering data on Post-it Notes.

Had this been an online retrospective, we would have had the luxury of anonymity. That can still be done in real life, but it takes more preparation, since you have to ask the questions beforehand. Had I known that the situation was as dire as it was, I might have done that. Throughout the retrospective, I talked a lot about learning from mistakes, getting to know each other, and asking for and offering help, and I tried my best to make them laugh together. I talked to the sponsor afterwards and said that this team needed some help. He wanted me to go into specifics about who had said what, but I would not break that confidence. Instead, I made him understand that this team could run into some serious issues if they did not start communicating more freely and sharing failures.

Another company was one I actually worked for, so I knew everyone, and I had been able to follow them closely. I knew trust was low, and I had an idea of how to work with it. There were some rumors and misunderstandings in and around the team. I started a retrospective in exactly the same way as in the previous anecdote: with the Prime Directive and a safety evaluation. As expected, trust levels were low, and not many team members felt safe enough to speak up.

In this team, the distribution was a bit different, though, since two of the team members felt completely safe to share everything with the team, and even if the vote was done anonymously, it was not difficult to guess who these two were. Unfortunately, these people were also extroverted bullies, whereas the rest of the team were introverts. Not a good combination.

I tried working on ground rules with the team during this and the following two retrospectives, asking how they wanted to work together and how they preferred to communicate. I tried asking them how previous great teams had been for them and what ways of working had characterized those teams. I made them think back to failures that turned out to be good lessons. I made them think of success stories in the team. I did a futurespective with them to help them share what they feared and what they hoped for. Following my own advice about working with Loudmouths and Negative Ones, I talked with the bullies outside the retrospectives about their behavior and the consequences of it. But all was in vain.

I was unable to change the dynamics of the team or the way the bullies behaved, and people became unwilling to work in the team. When the first person fled the team, I decided to speak to management about it. I had to name names, I had to point out the bullies, and I had to propose an action.

My proposal was to remove at least one person from this team, either to another team or completely out of the organization. Not everything can be solved in a retrospective setting, and one of the bullies was removed from the team under a lot of protest, but it enabled the remaining bully to change his ways, and slowly the team regained the trust they needed to work together in a fulfilling way.