Improving innovation through trust

March 8, 2023

Oliver Lillie. Senior Developer and Designer @ New Things Co.

Oliver Lillie

A topic that Issac Gray (of Witted Norway) posted about the other day got me thinking. The post is more about how Norwegian companies can balance soft skills vs technological expertise to remain innovative and get the most from their employees. For me, innovation always has been a by-product of the company culture. If you have a risk-averse company, you seldom see them be highly innovative and fast-moving. That is, not to say that to be innovative, you have to be risk-friendly and fast-paced, but it serves as a good example of how company culture can affect the outcomes of its product.

A large portion of my response to Issac's post was about improving the culture of the environment you are working in to facilitate the change to a way of working that encourages innovation.

Coincidentally, I just had a phone call with a colleague from a previous job, and he was having issues with how things were working on a project. He asked for my advice because there were specific issues with the codebase, and people didn't actively participate in meetings, nor were people trying to improve things. He can foresee potential issues and asked me to spar on improving the situation with him.

In my opinion, both of these things boil down to trust. FYI, this is a long article, there is a tl;dr available at the bottom of the page.

People problems

From 20 years in the industry, I've observed that most company problems I've experienced come from relationship and interpersonal issues rather than technologically related ones. The tech can often appear to be the root cause of an issue, i.e. wrong tech selection, buggy code, etc. - but if you carefully think about the origin of the decisions that made the choices that enabled the tech problems, they can often be from people-related issues that have been the trigger stemming from bad or confusing communication.

The top 7 things to build trust

When working in a group or team, as a regular team member or even lead role, I try my best to adhere to the following principles and ways of working.

1. Trust should be given automatically

  • From day 1 Trust should always be given automatically when someone joins a team. However, whilst giving trust automatically can be a good starting point, it is important to remember that trust is earned over time through consistent behaviour and actions.

  • Trust until proven otherwise Giving trust automatically doesn't mean blindly trusting someone without evidence of their trustworthiness. It means assuming that someone is trustworthy until proven otherwise while being aware of any potential red flags or warning signs.

2. Take responsibility for your mistakes

  • Demonstrating accountability When someone takes responsibility for their mistakes, it shows that they are accountable for their actions. This can help build trust because team members know they can rely on that person to take ownership of their work and rectify any issues.

  • Building credibility Admitting mistakes and taking responsibility for them can counterintuitively increase credibility because it shows that the person is honest and transparent. This can help build trust with team members and stakeholders because they know the person is not trying to hide anything or shift blame onto others.

  • Encouraging a culture of learning When mistakes are acknowledged and addressed, it creates an opportunity for learning and improvement. By taking responsibility for mistakes, team members can work together to identify the root causes of the mistake and come up with solutions to prevent it from happening again. This can help build a continuous learning and improvement culture, strengthening the team and preventing future mistrust.

3. Make yourself available

  • Fostering trust Being available to help others shows that you are invested in the team's success and willing to support your colleagues. This can help foster trust and strengthen working relationships within the team.

  • Encouraging collaboration You promote a collaborative work environment by making yourself available to help others. This can lead to increased productivity and better outcomes for the team overall.

  • Building a positive team culture When team members help each other, it creates a positive team culture where everyone feels supported and valued. This can improve morale and motivation, leading to better performance and outcomes.

  • Developing your own skills Helping others can also be a learning opportunity for you. By working with other team members and helping them with their tasks, you can develop new skills and gain a deeper understanding of the team's work.

4. Create a safe space

  • Encourage creativity It can encourage creativity and innovation when team members feel safe to share their ideas without fear of being judged or criticized. This can lead to new and improved ideas that benefit the team and organization.

  • Promote problem-solving Creating a safe space where team members can ask questions and get help can promote problem-solving and collaboration. This can lead to more efficient and effective solutions to challenges and obstacles that the team may face.

  • Improve morale, motivation, trust & respect When team members feel safe and supported, it can improve morale and motivation. This can lead to better performance and outcomes for the team overall. If team members feel safe to share their ideas and ask for help, it can foster a sense of trust and respect within the team. This can improve working relationships and lead to better communication and collaboration.

5. Explaining the reasoning

  • Promoting understanding When team members understand the reasoning behind a decision, it can help them better understand the overall goal and vision for the project. This can improve their ability to perform their work and make informed decisions.

  • Encouraging buy-in Understanding the reasoning behind a decision can help team members feel more invested in the project and its success. This can lead to greater buy-in and motivation from the team.

  • Facilitating feedback If team members understand the reasoning behind a decision, it can help improve and facilitate feedback and constructive criticism. Understanding the rationale behind decisions will make people more confident and outspoken in discussions. This can help identify potential issues and lead to better decision-making overall.

  • Encouraging innovation Knowing the reasoning behind a decision, people are often more encouraged to think creatively and develop new and innovative ideas. This can lead to improved outcomes and better solutions for the project.

6. Publicly showing appreciation

  • Boosting morale Publicly praising team members can boost their morale and motivation. When team members feel appreciated and valued, they are more likely to feel motivated to continue working hard and contributing to the team's success.

  • Encouraging collaboration It can encourage collaboration and teamwork. If team members see their colleagues being praised, it can inspire them to work together and support each other to achieve shared goals.

  • Building trust and respect The praise helps build trust and respect within the team. When team members see their colleagues being recognized for their hard work and achievements, it can foster a sense of mutual respect and trust among team members.

  • Improving performance When team members know that their hard work and achievements will be recognized, it can motivate them to work harder and strive for excellence.

7. Share your knowledge

  • Encouraging collaboration Sharing knowledge among team members can encourage collaboration and teamwork. When team members share their expertise and knowledge, it can help others learn and develop new skills, benefiting the team and the organization.

  • Fostering innovation It can help foster a culture of innovation. Sharing their ideas and insights can lead to new and creative solutions to problems that can improve the team's performance and outcomes.

  • Enhancing decision-making It can also enhance decision-making. When team members have access to various perspectives and expertise, they can make better-informed decisions, leading to better outcomes for the team and the organization.

  • Building trust and respect As with everything I have discussed, sharing knowledge can also build trust and respect among team members. When team members are willing to share their expertise and knowledge, it can foster a sense of mutual respect and trust, improving the team's cohesion and performance.

Something else to consider is how the leadership leads

Workplace innovation and motivation depend so much on a culture that is often predicated on the way the management of the team or company acts. So it's vital as a leader that if you want people in your group to act in a certain way, a leader must start leading by showing the right way.

If your leader is risk-averse to their approach, most team members take that as a clue and then become risk-averse in their actions. So the same is also true if you want them to act in a more positive approach.

Or a more developer-orientated example, if your team leader does not have good processes to ensure a good codebase, other team members will likely not bother to improve it either, nor even try to establish good ways of working.

A good leader must set the framework for ways of working, open up to new ideas, and ways of working and expose their vulnerability to encourage others to do the same thing.

And finally...

A lot of what I have covered sounds like it is about leadership, but I don't think this is the case. Building trust, whilst often a leader's responsibility, does not require a leader to implement but requires someone to steward and guard the process.

And if you manage to build that trust, it leads to a good workplace culture, which leads to innovation, and the rest often takes care of itself.


Trust plays a critical role in building a positive company culture that encourages innovation and how interpersonal issues are often the root cause of problems in the workplace. There are several principles for building trust in a team environment, including:

  • Giving trust automatically.

  • Taking responsibility for mistakes.

  • Making oneself available to help others.

  • Explaining the reasoning behind decisions.

  • Publicly showing appreciation.

  • Creating a safe space for sharing ideas.

These principles can foster collaboration, improve morale and motivation, and ultimately lead to better performance and outcomes for the team.

About the author

Oliver Lillie

Senior Developer and Designer of Shiny New Things

I have two young boys, and since they were born, most of my hobbies went out the window. But if you can’t find me on my computer, you can either find me eating an insane amount of chilli, on my bike or in my canoe.