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10 Rules for Building Trust and Developing Accountability on Your Virtual Team

Executive Summary

How do you ensure that your virtual team members are getting their jobs done? Well, it requires a little bit of faith and a lot of trust building on your end.

  • It’s harder to trust in something you don’t see, so oftentimes, trust on virtual teams boils down to work getting done when someone says they’ll have it done.
  • The challenge for any virtual team leader is to build trust among employees by communicating your leadership, project expectations, and the individual’s goals in relation to the team.
  • Use the following rules as a guide to exhibiting behaviors that build trust rather than break trust.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of trust and accountability in business (as with all human) relationships. Accountability and trust are spoken of in the same breath because they are interrelated.

Accountability provides the energy for the virtual team’s day-to-day activities, but trust is the larger concept and at the very core of human interactions. And trust develops over time.

In the virtual environment, trust develops once team members realize that their teammates are reliable. When team members complete an activity they have committed to, trust is built.

Acting responsibly is important for all teams, but it is even more critical within virtual teams because they are working across distance, time, and space.

The Most Sought-After Executive Role: Chief Trust Leader

Trust is extremely important because it creates a place for people to interact and connect with each other. Those connections—similar to the axles on the wheels of a car—enable teams to function efficiently and develop long-term relationships.

Trust is necessary for the team dynamics to function properly. Of course, having a competent leader who picks reliable people and provides critical resources is important as well. When trust is broken, then colleagues no longer turn to each other for assistance or work closely; ultimately, the unit breaks down and individuals go off on their own. This situation occurs more readily in the virtual environment where the majority of tasks are worked on individually.

Your most important task is to build trust. Therefore, your key role as a chief trust leader (CTL) is to build trust in you, in the project, and in a unified team, despite the challenges of distance, time, and space. Make sure that communication is strong enough to defeat the obstacles of geography, isolation, and history. It is communication that enables us to build the trust we need for success. Only when trust flourishes do people do magically wonderful things together!

The Role of Behaviors in Trust Building and Breaking

Think about your own experiences on virtual teams. A natural part of any relationship is the building or the breaking of trust.

During the early stages of a team’s development it is helpful to do the following exercise: Ask everyone to list the behaviors they associate with building trust and ones they associate with breaking trust. Then conduct a discussion about what are the most important goals for them to achieve on this team, and what trust behaviors they agree to hold each other accountable for.

This is an exercise I often do in my training workshops, but you can also present it during a conference call and engage in a productive dialogue.

Here is a list of behaviors that build trust and those that break trust within organizations.

Virtual Team Behaviors That . . .

Build Trust

  • Keep Agreements
  • Share Information
  • Acknowledge Others
  • Act Consistently
  • Display Integrity
  • Help Others
  • Encourage People
  • Cooperate
  • Listen
  • Act as an Equal
  • Accentuate Positives

Break Trust

  • Miss Deadlines
  • Cover Up Mistakes
  • Micromanage People
  • Act Erratically
  • Be Dishonorabe
  • Remain Aloof
  • Discourage People
  • Compete
  • Ignore
  • Act Superior
  • Stress Negatives

10 Rules for Building Trust in Your Virtual Team

Trust in virtual teams tends to be established—or not—right at the onset. It is during those first interactions, first stages, and first promises that Instant Trust occurs. After that, it evolves slowly through performance and consistency over time to become Lasting Trust.

Rule 1: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

Don’t make remote teammates guess what you are thinking. Tell them. Unfortunately, remote teams and virtual teammates tend to believe that no news is bad news. A lack of interaction across distance erodes trust. Make sure to use communication methods that simulate a face-to-face or one-on-one interaction as much as possible. Use pictures and voice along with data. Use Internet phone with video, or use computer technology to embed pictures on the intranet so that members can “see” each other online to help create social bonding and build trust.

Rule 2: Give Trust to Get Trust

The best way to create an environment of trust is to begin by trusting others. As a leader, you must set the example. Waiting to give trust to employees until they earn it is never as effective as assuming they are trustworthy unless they prove otherwise. As team members come to feel that you trust them, they will find it easier to trust you.

Rule 3: Be Open and Honest

Honesty is the most important element of human trust. People respond to sincerity, self-disclosure, and openness. Share the good and bad news openly and provide information about your vision and actions. Hold honest conversations about what is going on, what you know, and what is on the horizon. Include your team members in these conversations and ask for their input. When you make a mistake, admit it and move on. Don’t cover it up and ignore the consequences. Great leaders know that creating a climate that encourages open, honest conversation reduces politics, eliminates mistakes, and improves morale.

Rule 4: Keep Your Commitments

Again, this sounds like a cliché, and it is, but an important one at that. It’s one of the golden rules and will go a long way toward building a productive relationship: Do what you say and say what you will do—and make your actions noticeable. Keep your promises and help people see the bigger picture. When leaders don’t make their actions visible, it creates the perception that they don’t follow through. This perception only increases when you factor in the physical distance between coworkers.

Rule 5: Be Consistent

Trust results from consistent and predictable interaction over time. The process of building trust is not an event—it is a process. People tend to trust those who behave in a consistent manner, even if they do not like the actions. It provides a measure of comfort to know that we can count on someone to act in predictable ways. As is commonly said, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”

Rule 6: Be Accessible and Responsive

Find ways to be regularly available to the team, even when involved in projects that take up your time and energy. Be sure to set regular virtual meeting times (via teleconference or videoconference), even when your team members work across multiple time zones. Let team members know that they will have an opportunity to address their questions or problems without a long waiting period. Make sure to provide opportunities for interaction (planned or unplanned) because when the leader doesn’t respond, or appears unresponsive, distrust is not far behind. Be action oriented. Avoid saying, “Let’s think about it.” Instead, say, “Let’s do this or that.” And then do it! Say what you mean, mean what you say, and follow through with actions. That will build your reputation for trustworthiness.

Rule 7: Establish Agreements Up Front

Let your team know how and when you will respond to them. Then, honor those agreements throughout the life of the project or relationship. For example, a helpful protocol is to tell your virtual members that when they contact you, you pledge to respond within twenty-four hours—unless it is an emergency, in which case you’ll respond immediately. In general, establish timelines and deadlines, and provide answers, information, and the necessary data to move on. Lack of timely response can look like a lack of concern or incompetence to someone, thousands of miles away, who’s staring at a deadline.

Rule 8: Maintain Confidences

Team members need to be able to express concerns, identify problems, share sensitive information, and surface relevant issues. Getting agreements early on as to how confidential or sensitive data will be handled is important. Remember, different cultures handle privacy issues differently.

Rule 9: Watch Your Language

A leader can unintentionally erode trust in subtle ways. Be careful not to use words that someone could construe as insulting. Don’t refer to team members in remote locations as “them” or “those people.” Don’t use home office or cultural slang that may not transfer beyond your own country. Doing so will only widen the gap and increase someone’s sense of isolation. It’s a good idea to often check for understanding during a video or teleconference, and ask the speaker to clarify the meaning for others, if necessary. Or when emails contain jargon or acronyms that are unique to a function, location, or culture, follow up with clarification and then coach team members to avoid using such terms in future communications. In addition, avoid what could be perceived as vulgarity or profanity. It is best to stick with common professional business language, especially when working across organizational or ethnic cultures.

Rule 10: Create Social Time for the Team

With on-site teams, much of the trust and confidence that team members have in one another and in the leader comes from informal social interaction. For virtual teams to have this experience requires a little more thought and creativity. It’s a good idea to build informal socializing time into video or telephone conferences. At either the beginning or the end of a call, lead the way with informal conversation, such as asking about team members’ outside interests or families. Begin by sharing something of your own, to break the ice.

Above all, trust comes from what you do over a period of time—the actions you take—and not from just saying the right words. Lasting Trust takes a long time to develop and can be lost in a moment. Do not take trust for granted.

Bring It Home

When our team was encouraged to begin working remotely, my boss immediately laid out a course of action. The Sunday before our work from home journey was set to start, I received a detailed email with the communication touch points we’d be having in place of regular face-to-face meetings. Every day, we have a quick 15-30 minute team meeting where we activate our laptop video and discuss priorities, progress, and plans. I believe my boss organized these meetings to facilitate trust between us and him. We can count on the fact that every morning, we’ll receive updates from him and guidance on how we should proceed on our tasks. At the conclusion of our work day, we’re granted an opportunity to celebrate successes, unpack failures, and engage in a brief moment of water cooler talk before receding to our workspaces at home.

In what ways does your virtual team develop trust? We want to learn from your strategies! ~ HarperCollins Leadership

Yael Zofi

YAEL ZOFI is the founder and CEO of AIM Strategies(R), a human capital consulting firm. With over 20 years of global consulting experience, she has worked with clients such as AT&T, Chase, CIGNA, General Electric, MetLife, Pfizer, Philips, Viacom, and Nokia.

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