Posted in The Distance Lens Blog

It’s All About Trust

3 Tips to Develop Trust in Your Virtual Team

Trust in the linchpin in our lives (personal & professional, but we’ll stick to professional here).

But let’s face it – “trust” is hard for most people to quantitatively define, and even harder to consciously improve or develop.  But there is a way.

If we are trusted and valued at work and trust and value others, then we, and our team, stand a greater chance at success.  If we are not trusted, if we are distrustful of others, productivity is derailed and the end-product, whatever it is, suffers.

Trust within a virtual team has the added hurdle of distance.

When we are physically close to others, trust — or mistrust — develops organically.  We watch, we interact, we make eye contact, we laugh, we connect.  (This is relational trust, what most of us think of when we stop to think about trust at all).

When we are separated by distance, the primary way to develop trust comes from the work we produce and the work others produce.  It comes from a harmony between the words we communicate and the actions that follow.  Trust develops as the work unfolds and others deliver to us what we need, and we deliver the same to them. (This is transactional trust – trusting someone to do something).

This transactional trust sounds pretty straight forward, but “receiving” and “sending” work products can get tricky, unless expectations have been clearly set.

Consider — you send a question to a teammate via email and you expect an answer that day.  Your teammate thinks that if you needed an answer that day, you would’ve called, so your email gets left for the next day.  Trust is breaking, not building.

Here are three proven ways to lay the groundwork for developing trust in virtual teams, and to nudge that needle toward a more trusting and productive team:

1. Establish Rules of Engagement

With your team, establish expectations and team “norms” on the how of communications — how will your team prioritize communications — are email responses expected within 24 hours?  48?  Decide as a team.  Do you prefer instant messaging or texting or phone calls?  Establishing expectations that everyone has a say in will develop trust.

2. Make Your Reward System Transparent (we’ll assume its already fair)

In virtual teams, the reward system takes on additional importance as virtual team members often feel anonymous and isolated from their virtual teammates.  These feelings of anonymity and isolation lead to demotivation and mistrust.

One clear way to counteract these feelings is to establish a transparent and fair reward system that provides open acknowledgment  for people’s time and effort (in addition to their ultimate contribution to the project).  Please note — having a fair reward system isn’t enough for a virtual team — according to a recent, large-scale study, it must be transparent to be a motivating and trust-building factor.

3.  Share Leadership

A study of virtual teams in one Fortune 500 IT organization revealed that high-trust virtual teams allow the person with the most knowledge to lead the others.  This person changes as the project goes through different development stages.  This shifting and sharing of power sends a powerful message of trust and allows each person to demonstrate and share their expertise.  Of course, there still needs to be an overall leader, but one who isn’t grounded in traditional “top down” leadership.

Establishing a successful virtual team takes deliberate action.  Giving everyone an assignment, sending them on their way, and “hoping for the best” isn’t setting yourself up for success.  Teams cannot function without trust.  We all know this.  Be proactive in your leadership.  Be deliberate, and set the proper groundwork which will enable trust to develop.

It’s all about trust.

Question for readers:  Think about virtual teams that you have been on – ones that worked and ones that didn’t.  What was the difference?


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