Trust and virtual teams, why don’t we have it?
Discussions about creating high-performance teams have been with us long before the pandemic arrived. Dramatic changes in the nature of our work and the spread of virtual teams created by the pandemic have profoundly challenged leaders and organizations the world over.
While there are a host of approaches to building better teams, few would argue that trust is an essential component of teams that perform at a higher level. Truly elite teams have trust that runs through the entire team and flows not just from the team to the leader but from the leader to the team as well. Unfortunately, trust has been in decline around the world. This decline seems to be accelerating due in no small part to the significant shift in how we work.
Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable when you can’t completely predict how another will behave. This definition includes elements of uncertainty and vulnerability. Uncertainty times vulnerability leads to a level of perceived risk. We each have a threshold of risk that we are comfortable with. If we feel that the risk level goes beyond our personal risk threshold we don’t trust. If we feel the risk is below our threshold then we do trust. This means that if either uncertainty or vulnerability go up our level of perceived risk goes up and we are less likely to trust.
The interdependence of uncertainty and vulnerability usually means that if uncertainty is high, we can only tolerate small levels of vulnerability. This is often the case in shallow or new relationships. In deeper relationships our uncertainty is low so we can tolerate higher levels of vulnerability. This also means that building deeper relationships, or more trust involves taking steps to reduce the uncertainty or vulnerability of the other party.
Leaders are dependent on those they lead. The goals and objectives pursued and the successes leaders experience all depend on the actions of others. This means that leaders experience a significant level of vulnerability to the people they lead. With high vulnerability comes a low tolerance for uncertainty. Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic spike in uncertainty over the last few years. Cultural norms and values seem to be shifting, technology is changing the work landscape, the political landscape is divisive and makes conversations a challenge, and the expectations of employees are evolving. All of these changes are happening at a rapid pace and are compounded by the new reality of virtual teams.
Some leaders have attempted to take steps to manage their uncertainty by introducing surveillance measures. Software or hardware solutions that allow them to track their employee’s activities. Other leaders have attempted to reduce their uncertainty by micro managing, asking for more updates, checking in more often, and pestering their followers. As someone who’s worked on the topic of trust for nearly 30 years I can tell you that there are few things that destroy trust as effectively as telling or showing others you don’t trust them. There is a reciprocal element to trust. We are more likely to trust those who trust us.
We are all vulnerable to those we work with and those that lead us. Any time we have tasks that rely on the contributions of others we become dependent on them acting in good faith and in a timely manner. Our leaders are granted power and authority to make things happen, or not happen. They can have a profound impact on our lives both at work and in our daily lives as a result of what goes on at work.
The uncertainty for those led has also changed significantly. The context, the rules of the game, have changed for all of us. Virtual teams mean we only interact sporadically with our colleagues and our boss. We only see them at preset times and usually on video screens. There are many instances where people are working together on teams who have never met in person. There is a great deal of communication and understanding that comes from being around one another. Seeing people interact with others also tells us a great deal about them. Much of this has been lost.
When we are deciding to trust someone, we ask ourselves two fundamental questions. The first question is How likely am I to be harmed (perceived uncertainty). The second question is if I’m harmed how bad will it hurt (perceived vulnerability). To build trust we need to better understand where perceptions of uncertainty and vulnerability are coming from and take steps to reduce them.
Uncertainty comes from two places, us as individuals and the context we are embedded in. The context can be thought of as the rules of the game. The formal and informal mechanisms of social control that influences our behaviour. Formal mechanisms include laws, regulations, performance incentives, and job descriptions. Informal mechanisms include values, norms, group memberships, and relationships.
Clearly, the context has changed dramatically over the last few years. Virtual teams themselves are a relatively new concept. We can reduce uncertainty that comes from the context and build trust by letting others know how we are constrained. This will make it easier for them to predict our future behavior and reduce their uncertainty.
Tip 1: Explain your context and how you are constrained by those you work with.
We can also take steps within the context to limit our actions and make it easier to predict how we will behave. Limiting actions include making public commitments, creating incentives aligned with the actions we would like to see, and adjusting job descriptions or evaluation criteria. One example of this is a swear jar. Every time someone swears, they face a minor consequence. This trivial example illustrates one possible approach to changing the probability of behaviour because of the context.
Tip 2: Take steps to constrain your possible actions within the context to make yourself easier for others to predict.
People may not have changed a lot over the last decade but virtual teams mean that our ability to interact with them and better understand them has diminished. We learn a lot about each other just by spending time together. We see how others react, and how they interact with others around them, and we see the non-verbal cues that grant us insight. Almost all of that is diminished in virtual teams.
A great deal has been written about the things that get others to trust us as individuals. Much of it is derived from the work of Roger Mayer and his colleagues (AMR 1995, vol 20, #3). Mayer et al proposed three elements that promoted perceptions of trustworthiness. They were benevolence, integrity, and ability.
Benevolence is the belief that you have my best interests at heart. That you will act in my best interest even if it’s not in your own short-term interests to do so. When we are evaluating leaders, benevolence may well be the strongest indicator we get. Unfortunately, perceptions of benevolence have been the greatest casualty of virtual teams. Our virtual meetings tend to be extremely task-focused and offer little opportunity to get to know one another. Without knowledge of another’s best interest, how are we supposed to act in ways that suggest we care?
Often leaders will argue that they have the best interest of the organization and the people they lead foremost in their minds. As a leader it doesn’t really matter if you think you are benevolent, those you lead need to believe that you are. It is unlikely that they will see you as benevolent unless you’ve had clear conversations with them about what matters most to them. Asking them what success looks like for them and how you can help them get there is a great way to start the process of showing benevolence.
Tip 3: Start a conversation with those you lead about what success looks like for them. Be transparent and refer back to this conversation when you are making decisions that impact them. Let them know you haven’t forgotten what matters to them by referring to it in future conversations.
According to Tony Simons (The Integrity Dividend: Leading by the power of your word 2008) Integrity is following through on your promises and having your actions align with the values you express. With the pace that things are moving it can be hard to keep up with all of the explicit and implied promises we make every day. People also sometimes don’t hear what we say in the same way we intend it. There can be a misalignment between what we think we’ve promised and what the other party actually expects.
Tip 4: Be clear about what you are promising. When you believe you have followed through on a promise be transparent about it so any misunderstandings can be dealt with immediately. One approach is to say “remember when I promised I would do this? This is me doing it”
People interpret the world through stories. We can have exactly the same experience as someone else and have a dramatically different perception of what just happened. This can also make demonstrating integrity extremely challenging. Particularly in a virtual team where we often have less time together to ask questions or explain decisions. To build trust we need to create a shared narrative. We need to take the time to include people in our decision-making process and explain how the actions are taken to align with our goals and values so there aren’t misunderstandings.
Tip 5: Share your story and explicitly link your decisions and actions back to the values you believe in.
Ability is having the competence to do what you say you will do. This tends to be people’s favourite lever to pull. Examples of pulling the ability lever include comments about our credentials, experience, or role within the organization. Despite its popularity, the ability is often not clearly defined or understood within an organization. I was working with a financial services organization and I had senior executives, middle managers, and front-line sales staff in the audience. I asked them the following question “if I divided you up into three groups based on your roles and asked you what an excellent middle manager was, would I get the same response from all three groups?” The response was that I likely wouldn’t get the same response within the three groups.
If we haven’t clearly defined excellence, how do we evaluate it? How do we recruit for, train, or reward excellence if we don’t have a shared understanding of what it is? We can’t define excellence on our own without input from our stakeholders. A leader can have input into what excellence looks like in their role but will need input from those they lead, those they report to, and other key stakeholders. This has become increasingly important given the pace of change. Excellence as a leader 10 years ago is not excellence in the new environment we are seeing today.
Tip 6: Ask your stakeholders what excellence looks like in your role. Once you’ve received input from others create a list and share it with those stakeholders so everyone is on the same page.
Trust is a combination of uncertainty and vulnerability so the decline of trust isn’t all that surprising given the massive spikes in uncertainty we’ve seen. While the decline in trust is predictable it isn’t inevitable or unfixable. I’ve given some concrete suggestions here for taking steps to reduce uncertainty and promote trust. Essentially, we need to be more aware and intentional in our actions. The suggestions here aren’t silver bullets but they are derived from a theoretical framework that has worked across a broad range of organizations and cultures. There are many ways we can reduce uncertainty or manage levels of vulnerability for others. I’ve simply offered a few suggestions here I think will be helpful.
Virtual teams carry with them their own host of uncertainties that leaders need to understand and navigate. While the task is challenging it’s not impossible. I’ve worked with virtual teams who manage this brilliantly. They are consistent and intentional in their communications and create space for one another. They manage to show benevolence and integrity while being remarkably good at what they do.
Darryl is one of the world’s leading experts on Trust. He teaches leaders how to find and use their most powerful tool. A tool that is always in a leader’s control, how to effectively build Trust in their relationships.