Building trust in the workplace: 5 simple steps for improving virtual team trust

Emerald Nwanne
September 1, 2021
7
Minutes

Trust is what makes a team a team. Without it, managers are essentially herding cats—a group of individual employees who are in it for themselves because they see that as the only option. They may withhold key information, be suspicious of each other’s motivations, resentful of each other’s successes, uncooperative, unaccountable, and unhappy. Doesn’t sound like the most productive environment, does it? That’s why building trust in the workplace must be a manager’s top priority. Without trust, nothing is going to get done, regardless of how talented each individual is.


If you manage a remote or distributed team, trust won’t just happen. Teams sharing a physical workspace have the opportunity to bump into each other in the lunchroom or by the watercooler and strike up a natural conversation. No such luck for remote teams. Trust must be built intentionally. 


Keep reading to learn more about the importance of building trust in the workplace, common reasons why trust falters, and 5 simple steps to build trust within virtual teams. 


The importance of building trust in the workplace

The word trust is thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean? Trust is the firm belief in the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing. When you trust someone, you believe they have your back, they’ll do the right thing, and they’ll get the job done. Trust means you’re not alone—you’re more willing to take risks and put yourself out there because you know someone will catch you if you fall. 

Trust permeates through every facet of a business, and if absent, it can create a toxic work environment for virtual teams. A lack of trust paralyzes productivity, as a team must communicate and collaborate in order to be efficient and effective with their decision making. Team members won’t feel safe to voice concerns, think creatively, or spearhead innovations; instead, their focus will be on protecting themselves when it should be on helping and advancing the goals of the team. 

But when you DO have trust, the team flourishes. Team members are open with and supportive of one another, they offer constructive feedback that helps each team member reach their personal and professional goals, and they provide a safe space to explore ideas that might seem risky or zany at first. For virtual teams, trust is a must. 😉 

5 simple steps for improving virtual team trust

Talent acquisition and retention

It’s important to tailor your company culture to the employees you’re trying to attract, and considering that millennials are the largest generation in the US labor force, it’s very likely millennial talent you’ll be trying to acquire. 


Millennials are 22x more likely to work for a company with a high trust culture. No one, least of all millennials, wants to work in an environment where they don’t feel safe. It’s important to remember that employees talk, so word of your company culture will get around. If your company is known for its close and trusting teams, you’ll have a better chance of acquiring top talent and retaining it. 


📚 Understand the millennials in your workplace with these tips 

Psychological safety

Google’s study on what makes their teams successful found that the number one factor for team success is psychological safety. Psychological safety is a term coined by organizational behavioral scientist Dr. Amy Edmondson, and it refers to the “belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.” 


For a team member to speak up with an innovative idea, voice a concern, or hold themselves accountable for a mistake, they need to trust that they won’t be punished or made fun of. Building this trust and safety is therefore vital to a team’s success, as it enables team members to be vulnerable and open with their communication. Not every idea is going to work, but if all ideas are unspoken for fear of ridicule, innovation dies while the status quo thrives. 

Fewer miscommunications

Trust helps people communicate better—and clear communication is vital to a remote team. In a trusting environment, team members are more willing to ask clarifying questions if they don’t understand something, which cuts down on mistakes and workplace conflict. 


Trust also enables efficient and effective decision making, as there’s a free and open exchange of information and ideas. When team members trust each other’s abilities, judgment, and character, there’s no bickering, manipulation, or passive aggressive comments, just confident decision making. 

Innovation and questioning

If you don’t trust your team, you’ll keep all of your ideas to yourself. A team has to trust each other in order to be willing to ideate, test, and innovate. But trust doesn’t mean just blindly following team members or managers because you know they have your best interests at heart. 


Trust means knowing that your teammates will check your worst impulses or respectfully speak up when they’re not confident in your idea—just as you would do for them. A trusting environment means it’s safe for teammates to challenge each other’s assumptions without fear of inciting anger or workplace conflict. The priority of everyone on the team is producing the best possible work. 


Trust fosters a workplace where people continually question assumptions to enable continuous improvement. 


It’s important to keep asking questions and challenge your assumptions. What was once true won’t always be true, and the more you trust your team, the better you’ll be able to adapt in the face of unexpected circumstances. 


📚 Learn about the adaptability quotient (AQ) and how to improve your adaptability

Boosted morale and engagement

If an employee doesn’t feel engaged in the work or motivated to succeed, why would they put in their best effort? And if they’re not putting in their best effort, productivity and quality will certainly suffer—as will your bottom line. 


High employee motivation and employee engagement enhance team morale, efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity, and trust is the first place to start. 


📚 Learn how you can boost virtual team morale in 5 easy steps


Common reasons for declining team trust

It’s important to keep in mind that just because trust has been established before, it doesn’t mean that it will last. Without regular communication and vigilance, trust can erode over time. 

Muddled priorities

Priorities can become muddled without team alignment. When a manager doesn’t regularly connect with the team and team members don’t connect with each other, it’s very difficult to know what the priorities are. 


In this communication vacuum, team members may develop their own priorities and thoughts on what should happen when. The team member going their own way won’t trust that the manager will get back to them in time and may grow to distrust them in general, and the manager may feel like they can’t trust the team member to do the work they assigned them. 


These miscommunications erode trust in one another’s judgment and can lead to a toxic, unproductive work environment. 

Unfair treatment or compensation

When people are treated unfairly, their backs go up. If a team member doesn’t feel their work is being valued or appreciated as much as another coworker despite putting in as much or more effort, they’ll be less likely to engage with the work as fully. They will grow to resent the employee being favored more heavily, and they’ll distrust their manager’s judgment. 


If they continue to observe this trend and feel they aren’t fairly compensated, they’ll feel less welcome, and they’ll be far less likely to invest in or care about the business beyond the next paycheck.

Lack of personal connection

It’s difficult to get to know your coworkers when you work on a remote or distributed team. When is a good time to contact them? What are their work habits like? How do they prefer to communicate? What’s their sense of humor like?


This disconnect can leave people to fill in the blanks themselves, and it’s very easy to get a wrong or negative impression of your teammates if you don’t communicate on a regular basis or if they have different communication styles than your own. 


Extroverts can seem pushy and over-the-top to introverts, and introverts can seem meek, standoffish, or rude to extroverts. Without consistent personal interactions, team members may get stuck focusing on the surface-level qualities of their coworkers as opposed to getting to know who they are deep down. And if you don’t know who someone is underneath the surface, how can you trust them?


5 simple steps to build trust within virtual teams

The TRUST model is designed to facilitate effective communication by sending out trust signals to the people we’re communicating with. When they pick up these signals, they’re more willing to openly engage with us in return. 


Taking the following steps activates the trust networks in our brains and strengthens our capacity to connect with others in healthier and more supportive ways. Listening for connection and learning to step inside the shoes of our coworkers to see the world from their perspective allows us to form healthy and effective relationships with others. 


The Trust Model: 

T – Transparency


R – Respect


U – Understanding


S – Shared Success


T – Test Assumptions and Tell the Truth

Transparency

Transparency is about openly sharing our intentions so that people don’t read into them. Freely expressing what’s on our minds, such as our doubts, fears, hopes, and dreams, sends messages of trust to our coworkers. It lets them know that we’re honest and we don’t have any ulterior motives. This, in turn, inspires the same feelings in them. 

Respect

Respect is about extending an olive branch to our coworkers, even those we’ve disagreed with them in the past. When you focus positive energy on someone, they feel it, allowing the relationship to shift from judgment to respect. Feeling like those around us appreciate and respect us allows us to better identify and empathize with people. 

Understanding

Actively trying to see the world from our coworker’s perspective allows us to understand where they’re coming from. When you engage them in conversation, listen without judgment. Create a safe space for them to truly express themselves, actively listen to their words, and pay attention to their body language. Mirroring a colleague’s body language makes them positively predisposed to you, allowing them to open up and let their guard down. 

Shared Success

When we share the same view of success as our team members, we more easily trust that they’ll make decisions similar to our own. Only prioritizing or celebrating our own success makes people think we’ve got our own agenda contrary to the team’s. Your teammate’s success is your own success, so celebrate with them! 


📚 Learn how to do employee recognition right.

Test Assumptions and Tell the Truth 

Step inside a coworker’s shoes to close the gap between what you expect and what you get from them. Testing assumptions and telling the truth allows us to see the bigger picture and keeps us from being attached to finding fault or being right. Seeing things or people in a new way opens up our minds to new insights and awareness.


Applying the TRUST model to building trust in teams

Team building activities

Trust doesn’t happen automatically—especially for remote teams. In order to build trust with your virtual team, managers must be intentional about it. Team building activities provide an opportunity for teams to get to know each other outside of work. There are a number of fun activities the entire team can participate in online that will boost morale and build workplace trust. 


Here are the best virtual team building activities to engage your team

Building trust in 1:1 meetings

Trust won’t happen without first building rapport. Rapport is a friendly connection with another person that can be easily cultivated by discovering shared interests or simply inquiring after a coworker’s interests. 


For a manager, the best place to do this is in a one on one meeting. One on ones are the foundation of the employee-manager relationship, as they provide a safe space for employees and managers to openly communicate about personal and professional goals, track projects, give or receive feedback, and hold each other accountable. 


Utilize the 1:1 meeting to build trust and strengthen relationships with each of the individuals that make up your team. 


📚 Learn how to effectively build rapport in one on one meetings


Build virtual team trust with WorkPatterns

WorkPatterns provides One on Ones, Team Collaboration, Feedback, Recognition & Goals — all in one place. With WorkPatterns, you can build trust and team morale with kudos, continuous feedback, clear goal management, and more.


Follow our Blog, which is dedicated to improving workplace relationships, and if you have any questions, please reach out to our team at any time. 


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