by Chuck Chapman, Content Strategy Coordinator
Kevin and Wayne spend an entire chapter (chapter 11 if you want to reference) in The Long-Distance Leader talking about the importance of trust with remote teams and unpacking their model (see below). Trust is one of those “squishy” concepts, however, that can make some leaders uneasy. While it’s usually pretty apparent when it’s missing, it’s harder to quantify when you have it and even harder to pin down just what the “ROI” is so that you can justify spending time and resources developing it.
Simply put, trust must be the foundation for your team’s culture. It’s the transactional currency you’ll use for everything you do together. Without it, you’re limited to being a loosely connected bunch of individual contractors. With it, you’re united in pursuit of ever-increasing achievement of common goals.
Let’s take a look at the Trust Model and what it means in terms of your remote team culture.
This is both the pinnacle of the trust diagram and the foundation of trust itself. It holds everything together, much like a column or tower functions on a suspension bridge. Teams that work together in the same location often find it easier to tap into the strength of common purpose. There’s probably signage placed around the offices and in the break room, offering regular reminders. You chat with each other, both formally and casually, with people doing the same thing you are.
When you’re working remotely, a number of factors can negatively influence and cloud this shared sense of purpose.
- You might be part of a project team. These can include contractors who may or may not be in tune with the shared vision of the team. They may not even view the leader as their “real boss.” They just want to get the work done and get paid.
- People who work remotely have been shown to be more task-oriented than team-oriented. It’s easier to put your head down and get into your individual silo to get your work completed. Over time, without being reminded of a shared purpose, this can result in an “every man for himself” mentality, which is antithetical to building trust.
Leadership takeaway: Make reminding your team of their shared purpose a priority. Intentionally remind team members at the start of meetings. Reinforce it when other members of the team bring it up. When goals and benchmarks are reached, make sure they’re tied into how they help everyone achieve the shared goals.
We tend to view competence as something that concerns the individual, but it’s an important factor for teams as well. Quite simply, how can I trust someone if I’m not confident they can get the job done? When team members don’t trust the competence of others, they short-circuit communication, possibly leaving out the member whose skills are in doubt. That’s a major fracture in any project team, depriving them of the value of their shared resources and abilities.
For their part, leaders can drift into micro-managing when trust in competence isn’t there. Managers will also often pass over suspected “weak links” when it comes to delegating tasks.
Why does this happen? Like it or not, we believe what we see. When we all work together in the same place, I can see Bill doing his work. That means when the inevitable bump in the road comes along and threatens to sidetrack our progress, I’m less likely to blame Bill for the problem.
Leadership takeaway: First off, do your diligence when hiring and make sure you’re putting the right person in the right role. After that, over-communicate (if that’s possible with a remote team). Have regular status check-ins where team members report their progress AND their potential roadblocks. That accomplishes two things: It allows team members to “see” the hard work everyone is putting in and, perhaps more importantly, it rallies the team toward a sense of “shared competence” to lend a hand when one person might be having a problem.
This is similar to shared purpose, but not quite the same. Let’s look at our colleague, Bill again as an example. I can believer Bill is on board with the team goals and purpose. I can even believe Bill is good at what he does. But if I think Bill is a “bad actor” who has his own self-interests at heart ahead of mine or the team’s then I’m not likely to trust him.
This is more about how your team interacts as human beings. When we’re together at the same place, we have plenty of opportunities to informally gage the character and motivations of our co-workers. Even then, interpretations can be incorrect. When we work apart from each other though, all manner of negative beliefs can creep in, especially when the pressure to complete a project starts to mount.
“I emailed Bill yesterday about those specs and he still hasn’t responded. Does he even care?” “We just had an important team meeting and Bill didn’t speak a single word. Was he even paying attention?”
These situations might easily be diffused with a co-located team. A quick trip to Bill’s cube might show us he’s really busy with another aspect of the project. Or in the conference room, we might notice by Bill’s body language that he’s not feeling too well that day. Again, it might not be fair, but the lack of face to face interaction with remote teams leaves room for some of our least desirable human qualities to take over.
Leadership Takeaway: Again, creating space for communication and transparency is the key here. At The Kevin Eikenberry Group, we have a “water cooler” channel devoted to allowing the team to get to know each other as people. Kevin also insists that every new hire instigate a call with other members of the team to talk about non-business related interests. On top of that, Kevin brings us together a couple of times a year so we can meet, work and even relax with each other face to face. Never forget that your team is more than a collection of individual talents and skills. They’re people.
Building your team culture is the most important thing you’ll do as a leader. With your remote team, centering it around trust will produce results you can’t begin to quantify. It won’t come naturally. Take the time and be intentional about developing trust on your team.