Trust is critical to the efficient and effective operation of any team. Research suggests that trust enhances productivity, proactivity, and optimism.
But is that equally true for virtual teams? It is!
Recent findings point to an even stronger relationship between trust and performance when teams are comprised of members who don’t work physically side-by-side.
The challenge is that thousands of years of evolution only required us to build trust with those in physical proximity to us (especially anyone within a sword’s length 🤺). Building trust with small, two-dimensional, digital representations of humans is new for us. The notion of trust parlayed over phones and screens doesn’t come as naturally.
Therein lies the challenge. Trust is more important in virtual teams and yet harder to build. So we had better figure out how to overcome this challenge if we want to have happy, healthy, and productive virtual and hybrid teams.
Let’s dig in.
What is Trust?
Trust is your willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the expectation they will perform a particular action that is important to you, regardless of your ability to monitor or control them¹.
We use the word “trust” frequently, but I’m not sure that we make that connection to vulnerability as clearly as we should. Trust is difficult and important because it’s all about when we’re vulnerable. And even though vulnerability in a remote team is not about life and death, it’s vulnerability, nonetheless. Trust is high stakes.
- Will you tell me what I need to know OR leave me in the dark?
- Will you think of me for an opportunity, OR if I’m out of sight, will I be out of mind?
- Will you represent my interests if I’m not in a conversation, OR will I get sold up the creek?
- Will you prioritize my needs OR put others ahead of me?
- Will you stick up for me if someone bad mouths me OR will you throw me under the bus?
See what I mean? There’s plenty of vulnerability on virtual teams. Imagine how different your behavior would be depending on whether you believe the first half or the second half of each of these quandaries.
The Relationship Between Trust and Performance
On one level, it seems intuitive that teams with more trusting relationships perform better, but it’s worth considering why that is. What do people do differently when they trust versus when they don’t? The answer is that they take more risks.
No, not like going ax-throwing with teammates (although on some teams, that would seem like a mighty big risk, indeed).
Trust, which is a form of psychological safety, leads to taking interpersonal risks such as:
- sharing information (including information that could be misinterpreted or used against you)
- asking for help (including admitting weakness or lack of competence)
- engaging in conflict (including risking being ostracized or triggering retaliation)
- abandoning control (including leaving yourself open to things going off the rails)
- adding discretionary effort (including doing favors not knowing if they’ll be returned)
Teams that don’t have strong trust will suffer through the repercussions of reduced risk-taking, including functioning with less timely information, less capable and confident contributors, more resentment and unresolved conflict, more micromanagement, and fewer examples of going above and beyond.
It certainly seems worth investing some time and energy to build trust in your team.
Establishing Trust in Remote Teams
I advise teams to look at trust at four levels:
This model is based on research showing that team trust² has three components: ability, benevolence, and integrity. I took a couple of liberties with this academic model.
First, I added connection to reflect a more primal aspect of trust based on how our brains work. At the most fundamental level, trust is about predictability, and predictability is about your connection and comfort with the other person. I think excluding this is a big miss, so I added connection at the base of my trust pyramid.
The second modification I made was to relabel “benevolence” to reliability. First, because the only places I’ve seen the word “benevolent” are in the “Benevolent Order of Water Buffalos,” which was a glorified drinking club at my university and as the first half of “benevolent dictator.” Neither is what I’m going for when getting you to envisage the face of trustworthiness. So I swapped in the word “reliability” to describe the idea that someone will not let you down.
With those caveats, here is my best advice on building trust with your virtual team colleagues.
Do I know you? Can I understand you? Are you predictable?
Connection is about increasing your comfort with one another. So in the earliest stages of strengthening your connection with your teammates, you want to familiarize them with how you operate in the world. I like to think of this as providing your Owner’s Manual as if you were a refrigerator and they were trying to figure out where to put the milk, so it doesn’t get too warm and spoil but also doesn’t get too cold and freeze (just my fridge?!?). So I created a simple version of an Owner’s Manual that you and your teammates can share.
Another way to increase your colleagues’ comfort with you is to share information that helps them understand and interpret your behavior without jumping to judgments that might be unflattering. For example, if your team is willing, you can use a personality or style assessment to gain insight into one another. Alternatively, you can share information about your backgrounds, perspectives, or hobbies that will give you context for how and why you and your colleagues show up the way you do.
Other tips would be to invest off-task time together. That can be as simple as jumping on a Zoom call while you all eat lunch or as organized as doing a virtual escape room together.
And if you want one of the easiest hacks around, wear your company gear. Subtle visual cues that you all belong to the same club will help strengthen your connection.
Are you capable? Can I be confident? Will you succeed?
Competence is about increasing your confidence in one another. Research suggests that competence is the first dimension of trust to develop in virtual teams (whereas connection comes first when you’re physically together). Unfortunately, developing competence and getting credit for it can be difficult in virtual teams.
One way to boost confidence is to spend more time upfront talking about how you will approach tasks. Sharing your thinking and asking for input from others will reduce their apprehension and increase their confidence. And when you do run into a challenge, be quick to raise it so that your teammates learn to trust that if there’s an issue, you’ll be transparent about it.
Another approach for building competence and increasing confidence is a technique called virtual knowledge sharing, where pairs of teammates interview one another to share one thing they’ve “cracked” and one thing with which they’re struggling. The approach has a few benefits:
Each person must reflect on their competence as they complete the form in preparation for the session.
The embarrassment of sharing something you’re struggling with is reduced because everyone has to share a struggle.
Effective approaches spread from one person to another.
It’s a technique that I recommend that you try on your team.
Will you deliver? Can I count on you? Do we share priorities?
Reliability is about people’s sense that you’re dependable and will deliver for them when it counts. This form of trust is often eroded in teams because leaders fail to align on priorities or fail to prioritize at all. When you’re overworked and overwhelmed, it’s easy to let a ball drop, not because you weren’t capable or didn’t have integrity, but because you couldn’t cope with all the demands on your time. Regardless of why you drop the ball, it will still put a dent in your colleague’s trust.
There are fewer clues to help your colleagues feel that you’re on the right track in a virtual team. The secret is to be much more explicit about your priorities, efforts, and progress than you would be if your colleague were sitting right beside you.
First, invest in making sure you share expectations from the outset. Use open-ended questions to confirm that you’re thinking about the task the same way—document commitments. Define any terms that leave room for interpretation. Have these commitments in a shared file so everyone can access them as a touchstone.
And I know it sounds paradoxical, but the best thing you can do if you’re going to miss a commitment is to say so and say so early. I see so many people waiting until the last minute, hoping they’ll magically find the time or that they’ll be able to cobble something together that will work. If you wait until the deadline to show your hand, your colleague has few options. If you let them know with lots of notice that you’re not going to deliver (or you might not), you leave them with options. That’s much better in the long run for your reputation as someone reliable than hoping for the eleventh-hour miracle.
Are you transparent? Do you have my back? Will you protect me?
Integrity is all about whether your teammates can be comfortable being vulnerable. And the thing to remember is that vulnerability begets vulnerability. So the first thing you should focus on is modeling and encouraging candor. You want to make a safe place for sharing bad news and uncomfortable messages.
To further demonstrate your integrity, ask for feedback from your colleagues. Tell them what you’re working on, or admit your shortcomings and ask for their help. The more you do this, the more likely it will be that you’ll have an open channel of communication when something about them is worrying you.
Another important part of integrity is addressing conflicts before they have time to grow into issues that could erode trust. Raise issues proactively, especially when you can talk about them in a problem-solving tone, rather than once you’re upset or frustrated and no longer thinking like allies.
Trust is Situational
Which of these four different components of trust will count most will depend on the situation, with some aspects of trustworthiness weighing more heavily in some cases than others. For example, imagine that you’re on a project team and your teammate has been assigned to present your work to the executive team. You might be focused primarily on their competence. On the other hand, if you’re trying to decide who to room with on a business trip, connection might count for a lot more than competence.
Trust is critical to the success of virtual teams. Unfortunately, it can be harder to build trust when you don’t have the shared context, rich body language, and casual interactions you would have if you worked side-by-side. That makes it all the more essential to invest in increasing your comfort with one another, enhancing your confidence, demonstrating your reliability, and earning your vulnerability.
¹Mayer, R.C., J.H. Davis and F.D. Schoorman (1995), “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 20, 3, pp. 709-734.
² Clark, W.R., Clark, L.A. and Crossley, K., Developing Multidimensional Trust Without Touch in Virtual Teams. The Marketing Management Journal, 20 (1), 177-193.