You can’t get away from the fact. Building trust is more difficult in a virtual environment than it is when you’re in the same place as other people. You miss out on all the ‘in between’ bits – the micro gestures, the informal chats, the side conversations after meetings. All of that information can help us to build up a picture as to whether or not we can trust someone. And in the world of the virtual workplace, a world that so many of us now live in, because of working from home, that effect is magnified.
When I blogged on how we can build trust as individuals, the world was a very different place. In some ways. But of course there’s a lot that’s just the same as it always was. So in this blog, I want to focus on how to build trust in virtual teams.
What not to do if you want to build trust in a virtual team
Before we get into how to build trust between virtual team members, let’s have a recap on what damages and undermines trust. Here is some stuff to not do if you want to build trust.
- Have a hidden agenda
- Do unpredictable things that don’t seem to make sense
- Lie, or say different things to different people, or breach confidences
- Say one thing and do another
- Hide the truth, or mistakes, hoping that it won’t be discovered.
Bear in mind that trust isn’t something you can control directly, you can’t make someone trust you, or make team members trust each other. But there are ways that you can create the conditions for trust in a virtual team and there are ways you can behave that will lead others to believe that you are trustworthy.
Here are my 11 top tips for building trust in virtual teams:
If there’s one thing that a team needs in order for team members to start to trust one another, it’s clarity. Clarity of goals. Clarity of roles. And clarity of purpose. If everyone in the team knows why the team exists, what it’s there to do and how each team member individually contributes to that purpose and to those outcomes, the team has a really good chance of creating a trusting (virtual) environment. People in teams get “jostl-y” and spikey when they feel unsafe and uncertain because they don’t know their position or how they are making a positive contribution.
So that’s the first step – Get clear on the basics.
Share strengths with other team members
When team members share their character strengths (for example, Relationship building, Empathy, Common sense, Critical thinking) and offer those up for use by other team members and when those strengths are borrowed by teammates, trust builds fast. This isn’t being trusted for particular skills or competence or experience, it’s being trusted for what you enjoy doing the most, so trust gets supercharged when strengths are shared because of the human element.
When the value of borrowing a colleague’s strengths is shared more widely within the team – by way of example, ‘I leant on Jen’s Relationship-building strength last week to move forward an account I felt really stuck with’ – that creates a whole new level of opportunity to forge strong, trusting bonds between team members.
Everyone needs to contract on what is ok and not ok to do in the team. Ask ‘What do we value?’, ‘How do we want to behave in accordance with those values?’, ‘What will happen when someone doesn’t behave in line with our values?’ Provide those boundaries and the sanctions when they are crossed and man you have the start of trust in a virtual team because you have created psychological safety.
Inconsistency and unpredictability, saying one thing and doing another – these behaviours are real trust-drainers. If I can’t be sure that you’ll do what we agreed by when you said you would do it, how can I trust that you will do what you say next time? If you have clear team roles, purpose, goals, behaviours and values, then stick to them, operate within them and call people out if they aren’t sticking to what’s been agreed.
Keep coming back to purpose, goals, roles, responsibilities, values, behaviours. Remind people of these things at each team meeting, keep repeating and overcommunicating. With a remote team, this is even more important as you won’t have as many visual cues to remind you of these important things. You can’t say this stuff enough, people will forget it over time, so keep it fresh, keep it alive and relevant for people.
When things go wrong, own it. We’re all human, we all make mistakes and that’s ok. What isn’t ok is to try and cover it up or defend it or minimise it. Also, if you do have an opinion or a position you’re taking on something, i.e. you have an agenda, say it. That’s also ok. Again, what’s worse is that you don’t open up about that but people do the maths later and conclude that you were holding onto something because you had a different agenda in mind.
The flip of sharing strengths and borrowing others’ strengths is to get open about your vulnerabilities – your strength in overdrive risks and the areas that drain you. This increases the level of humanness in the team. Feeling safe enough to share vulnerability is a great marker as to where the team is at on building trust. Asking for help in managing those vulnerabilities is another great indicator of whether the team has built trust yet.
Give the feedback
When someone doesn’t deliver or behaves in a way which doesn’t serve the team or the team’s goal, be prepared to give feedback. My blog on how to give feedback in 3 steps, gives you a literal 1-2-3 of giving good feedback, so check that out for more. And in a virtual world (as well as in the real world), preparing what you’re going to say before you say it is worthwhile. In my experience, it doesn’t take long to prep feedback but when you do, it makes a huge difference.
People don’t generally like giving or receiving feedback, but when you do it professionally and objectively, people will come to trust you as someone who will be honest with them and who will tell them what they need to hear, rather than being someone who shies away from sharing the whole truth.
Speaking of sharing, sharing information that you feel might be helpful to other team members, particularly in a virtual environment can be gold when you are seeking to build trust in a team. If you are willing to information share rather than to information hoard, people will trust that you don’t have a hidden agenda and that you have the best interests of the team and team members at heart. When you learn new information or if you think that other people in the team could benefit from knowledge that you have, share it. If you’re not sure whether to share, share.
Please know that it is more than possible to create meaningful social connections entirely in a virtual space. You don’t need a bar or a restaurant or even an office to do it (although all of these things can help). Try quizzes, after hours social chats on Zoom, team events where you have some time just to share what you’ve been doing – top Netflix suggestions, most fun thing you’ve done in the last week, best thing you’ve cooked recently, whatever. Being human and showing that human side will absolutely create the conditions for trust to form between people in the team.
My last tip is to trust others before they’ve earned your trust. If you believe in others’ skill or competence, they are more likely to demonstrate that skill or competence. If you can trust others in a measured way, while still having some checks built in, the more likely your trust will be reciprocated (the logic goes: if you’re trusting me, I must be trustworthy, which means you probably are too). So be generous with your trust, it will pay back many-fold.
Those are my top tips for building trust in virtual teams: get clear, share strengths, create boundaries, be consistent, overcommunicate, be honest, be vulnerable, give the feedback, share it, get social and trust first. Enjoy working through that list and getting your team to a place of safety and trust. It’s great when you get there and the journey is pretty fulfilling too.
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