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.