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Building Trust...Virtually

change leadership virtual teams Mar 30, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

With the coronavirus raging across the world and organizations asking people to stay home, we will all need to learn how to work better virtually. There are certainly practical tips for conducting a meeting virtually that you can review here.  Also important in a virtual work environment is building trust.

“One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life.” -- E.M. Forster

But what is trust? And, why do we want to build it? These may not have easy answers to the simplicity the questions suggest.  Let’s start with trust. We place our trust “in” things and people, as in, “I’ll put my trust in this old car,” or “I’ll put my trust in Angela,” or even “I’ll put my trust in God.”  We talk about “my trusty pen,” or “umbrella,” or “screwdriver.” But how do we know we have trust?  The one key characteristic of trust is that it is something given, as in, “I give my trust to you.”  It cannot be taken or really even earned.  The origin of the word itself is from Old Norse and means strength. In giving trust, you are giving your strength to another. A powerful gift.

Why Trust
As to why we want to build trust, especially in a team situation, the value is clear.  The team is stronger.  This may make more sense if the team is thought of as the collection of connections between the members of the team. The collective strength of those connections is the strength of the team.  Building trust is team-building.

There are many activities undertaken by managers in the hope of team-building.  Outings to group activities like bowling or golf, group experiences like ropes-courses or retreats, even lunches and happy hours are often undertaken in the name of team-building.  The problem is that team-building activities cannot be merely episodes in the life of a team.  Although ropes courses and team outings and, yes, even trust falls can create comfort between team members, they cannot create trust. These efforts are more of a quick, sugar high. Tasty but it doesn’t nourish. This is particularly true when the team is working mostly through virtual means.

The Steps to Trust
This caution provides a guide to the activities that will truly build the team.  One of the ways to build trust is for each of the team members to express to all of the others the unique value they bring to the team.  Then the other members of the team tell that person what they appreciate about them. This Appreciation Exercise is something we have done with many teams and the results continue to surprise us.  In a simple exercise like this, people who are normally emotional rocks will tear-up as they hear what others appreciate about them.  In many cases, they did not realize the value that others held for them.  Trust was implied but not expressly given.  A video meeting is a perfectly good way to do this for a team that must work virtually.

This brings up the second way to build trust: Use video. Effective human communication relies strongly on audio and visual information not just the conceptual content of the message.  So a phone call is better than an email, and a video conference is better than a phone call.  Making sure that the message is fully received is certainly important in the giving of trust.  How sad it is to mean to convey your trust only to have the receiver miss the message because of the limits of the medium.

The third way to build trust is the most obvious and most difficult.  It must be given. Since Trust is a gift, it cannot be earned by the team member on the other end of the video chat.  It must be given. In that gift, you are strengthening the team and increasing the chances of your own success.  This is the key to strengthening a me.