As we adapt to new ways of working, how do we build an effective virtual team? Dina Smith considers how we can develop and maintain trust from afar
This article was first published in the July/August 2020 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Trust is a crucial enabler of high performance and global business. In companies where there is high trust, employees report 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, 74% less stress, 40% less burnout and 29% more life satisfaction, according to the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. Trust is also a key determinant of whether others will positively or negatively evaluate you and your effectiveness as a leader.
Now, more than ever, building trusting relationships with our teams is essential. Job-related stress is high and navigating the uncertainty of the current pandemic adds to the emotional load. Trusting relationships with co-workers provide a welcome salve to these stressors.
Working virtually, however, brings additional challenges to building trust. First, we do not have spontaneous interactions and casual office banter to develop trusting relationships with our colleagues over time. Additionally, with in-person communications supplanted by email, messaging and video conference, there is greater opportunity for miscommunication and misunderstandings to develop and remain. Lastly, in the virtual workplace, there is less context to make sense of others’ behaviour. We’re deprived of many non-verbal cues that are critical to communication, can’t see what other people are doing and may be working at different times.
Most business leaders tend to build trust by intuition, which can sometimes work for more experienced professionals. However, there are distinct advantages to understanding how others will assess your trustworthiness and taking a more systematic approach to building trust.
So, what exactly is trust and how is it assessed? A long history of research shows that trust can be broken down into three components: benevolence, competence and honesty. By first understanding each of these elements, you can more intentionally speak and act to foster trust from a distance.
Benevolence is the assessment that you consider people’s interests when you make decisions and take action. Showing that you care is fundamental to establishing positive relationships and the most critical factor in determining the level of trust you will engender in others. When people believe that you hold their interests in mind, they will extend their trust more broadly to you.
Dedicate time every week to connect more deeply with team members, especially those who are working remotely. Take time to focus on the person. Listen to what is on their minds, what’s important to them and what is concerning them. While the Covid-19 pandemic continues and the stress of uncertainty remains high, it’s imperative to show concern for others rather than just push for results.
Take five minutes at the start of every meeting for people to talk about what’s happening in your team’s professional and personal lives. Prepare a check-in question in advance of your meetings as a way to stimulate conversation. Questions can vary from ‘What is one interesting thing you have learned recently?’ to ‘What is one thing that you love about social distancing?’ to ‘Where do you want to go most after quarantine ends?’. This will help to replace the casual in-person conversations that contribute to trusting relationships and enhance collaboration on a team.
Trust each other
Share context for your decisions and actions. Go out of your way to share with your team that you understand how your choice affects them, even when the effect is unfavourable.
Competence is the appraisal that you have the expertise and ability to be in your role or do what you propose to do. Assessing competence in the virtual workplace is often tricky as it takes extra effort to see what other people are working on and achieving. Unsurprisingly, the solution for enhancing this aspect of trust is to increase visibility and communication.
It can sometimes feel challenging to decide what to communicate or withhold from your team but if you don’t communicate frequently and clearly, you risk your team filling in the blanks with their own, typically worst-case, assumptions. This is even more likely to occur in virtual teams and where stress and job security fears are higher. Provide as much transparency as you can and deliver ongoing updates rather than wait until you have all the answers.
Communicate what you don’t know, too. No one can have all the answers and pretending that you do will ultimately degrade confidence in your capabilities. It may seem counter-intuitive but leaders who request help from others garner trust and followers through displaying their humanness and making others feel needed and valuable.
In addition to your team members having trust in you, it’s also essential to your team’s performance for members to trust one another. In your team meetings, be sure to create time for each member to provide an update on their work and results. Tout the accomplishments and wins of different team members to build their trust in one another’s competence.
Finally, honesty is the assessment that you are both sincere and reliable. In other words, you say what you mean, do what you say and keep your commitments. Most of us think of ourselves as honest, but others won’t see it that way if they question your sincerity and observe that you don’t follow through on commitments you have made.
Be intentional about your communications and strive to be accurate. Others will come to doubt your sincerity if they discover omissions or factual inconsistencies. Also, be mindful of maintaining congruency in what you say over time. Plans and priorities naturally change, but if you say something that is not consistent with something you have said before, explain what has led you to change your mind.
Be rigorous about keeping your commitments. Small breaches – such as saying ‘I’ll follow up with you’ and then not doing so – will lead others to question your reliability and chip away at their trust in you. Be realistic and specific about what you will do and when. Of course, sometimes things can happen that are out of your control; when this happens, acknowledge that you can’t meet your original commitment. This follow-up takes extra effort on your part but if you don’t circle back you risk eroding trust.
Trust is essential to effective leadership, team performance and business. In a virtual workplace, leaders need to go above and beyond usual measures to foster trust. Deliberate relationship building, proactive and honest communications, and being both sincere and reliable will help you build trust more effectively, even from a distance, and reap many benefits.
Dina Smith is an executive coach and owner of Cognitas, a boutique leadership development firm.
"Communicate what you don’t know, too. Pretending that you have all the answers will ultimately degrade confidence in your capabilities"