Building Trust When Operating from Home

April 2, 2020

In the current environment, many teams are forced to operate remotely. This article is based on one that I wrote with Nancy Settle Murphy in 2013 and recently modified to apply in today’s pandemic conditions.

I think Nancy is one of the most effective consultants to help build more cohesive remote groups. Her blog “Communique by Guided Insights” is normally centered on how to operate effectively with a virtual team.

Today’s astonishing economic and social distancing situation affects virtually every working individual around the globe. As organizations are forced to make drastic cuts and other difficult changes to remain viable, the need for competent, credible, trustworthy leaders has never been greater.

At the same time, the very nature of our global pandemic and economic collapse has bred deep distrust for many business leaders, money managers, politicians and others who contributed or are reacting to the current morass.

Leading an organization through turbulent times requires an uncommon ability to inspire trust. But when people are geographically dispersed, especially in scary times, they are far more likely to be fearful, suspicious and immobilized in the absence of trust.

Industry studies show that in the best of times high-trust teams are between 200-300% more productive than low-trust teams. In tough times, that delta is likely to be even greater. That’s why organizations that operate virtual teams need leaders who know how to earn and cultivate trust among teams that feel increasing pressure to perform.

Here are nine practical tips for leaders who struggle to maintain trust in these troubled times.

1. Verify a vision and goals eye-to-eye.

Without a shared vision and focus, conflict and distrust become frequent and harder to resolve. Virtual teams have few opportunities to test for shared meaning, validate assumptions, and spot disconnects before they become problems.

Arguably, this alignment might be achieved through a series of superbly-executed team calls and online conferences; but in reality, the surest and easiest way to galvanize a team is to bring people together face-to-face, if not in person, then virtually live.

Once coalesced, the team can then modify goals and verify buy-in from afar on a regular basis. All team members need a palpable connection with the root vision. Without it, the best intentions of team leaders are likely to fall short.

2. Agree on a shared set of team principles, behaviors and norms.

To build trust, all team members need to hold each other accountable to some standards of behavior. If these principles are nothing more than vague intentions or fuzzy “feel good” rules, they won’t provide the specificity members need to call each other out in case of a transgression.

When leaders permit some members to violate agreed-upon norms, they risk their credibility with team members who expect them to enforce the rules.

An example of team behavior that can help enforce desired behavior: “We will eliminate ‘silent no’s’ from our conference calls.” (A “silent no” is when a member of the call does not agree with the conclusions but does not voice objections and instead works to undermine the decision, destroying solidarity and trust in the process.)

3. Reinforce candor.

To foster a culture of trust, the leader needs to ensure people are not worried about being punished for voicing their reservations or concerns. The ability of a leader to encourage and reinforce candor lies at the heart of the trust-building process.

When people are naturally paranoid about their longevity in an organization, they will stifle any misgivings unless the leader is explicit about the safety of voicing concerns. Trust cannot grow in an environment where people are scared to speak their truth.

4. Anticipate and address stress points.

When people feel pressured to perform, unattractive behaviors such as finger-pointing and defensiveness can emerge. When team members can’t have face-to-face conversations to smooth ruffled feathers, such behavior can quickly derail even the most well-aligned team.

By creating a culture of mutual support and respect, team members can minimize the fall-out after a misstep. Establishing ground rules related to giving and taking responsibility, solving problems and escalating issues can help.

Creating norms around communications during times of conflict or dissension are essential. The leader’s behavior sets the stage for all members. If lapses should occur, the leader needs to acknowledge them as such, lest team members assume they can follow suit and violate other norms.

5. When in doubt, reveal more rather than less.

Team leaders are often privy to inside information to which others don’t have access. Err on the side of being more transparent rather than less, providing you don’t violate any policies.

Even in the best of times, remote team members may feel left out of the communication loop. But when futures seem uncertain, remote team members may feel even more discomfited and disconnected.

Team leaders might open each Zoom by asking members what rumors they’ve been hearing, and then address each point with the latest, most accurate information they have.

If team members seem reticent, open an anonymous virtual conference area where team members can pose questions or express concerns, to which team leaders can respond to the team as a whole.

6. Celebrate the small wins.

Especially in these difficult times, it’s important to highlight the good things that happen in small ways on a daily basis. In addition to recognizing achievements and milestones, team leaders might also acknowledge instances of collaboration or creative use of resources.

Leaders might establish a program where members can recommend other team members for a reward based on behaviors or actions that contribute to the success of the whole team.

For example, members might earn rewards doing more than their share to keep the project on track or finding “free” resources. Rewards can include a gift certificate for an online store or a personal note sent to the person’s home.

When setting formal team goals, make sure that the team has many opportunities to celebrate milestones and that the goals always have the appropriate amount of reach.

7. Encourage creativity and reasonable risk taking.

Surviving in today’s tough climate requires courage, creativity and a certain amount of fearlessness. This is particularly true for health workers or other vital service providers.

Team leaders need to be clear about the type of risks that are allowed, versus those the organization cannot afford to take. Once ground rules are in place, team leaders can find ways to move creative ideas into action.

For example, brainstorming sessions can be set up via phone or virtual conference area where all team members can easily contribute a volley of ideas, which can then be vetted and acted upon.

Even when new ideas don’t pan out as planned, team leaders should congratulate team members for their creativity, helping to cultivate an innovative, energized, and supportive environment that is so important in difficult times.

8. Keep an eye out for the small problems.

In some remote teams, members may have never even met each other or may have only a superficial relationship. As a result, it can take a long time to cultivate trust, especially when in-person interactions are limited.

When team members don’t feel entirely comfortable having candid conversations, little annoyances can lead to big problems. Since people may be feeling near their endurance limit with personal issues, they may be more short-tempered than normal.

Team leaders need to be vigilant about addressing small rifts and immediately bring team members back to the sense of purpose. In some cases, this requires an open conversation with the whole team, and in others, a private phone conversation may be more appropriate.

If turf battles become too much of a distraction, it may be time to bring all or some team members together on one Zoom to settle differences and repair relationships. The way leaders can prevent silos from forming is to continually remind the groups that they share a common goal at the next higher level.

9. When draconian actions are required, let people grieve.

Nearly all businesses will need to make increasingly difficult decisions to remain viable. Layoffs, salary freezes, pay cuts, forced furloughs, divestitures, and mergers all take a huge emotional toll on the workers who remain.

Leaders should encourage team members to discuss their sense of loss and talk about their grief rather than giving members a cheerful pep talk or ignoring the pervasive sense of loss.

In the wake of each such change, leaders can start team calls by asking people how they are feeling. Remember that individuals need to go through the stages of the grieving process (anticipation, ending, transition, and beginning) in their own way and time.

Having time to grieve allows people to become fully functioning players in the new order rather than continually mourning for what was lost. When individuals are part of the rebuilding process, they’ll be more emotionally committed to the success of the team.

Keeping a team motivated, energized and productive during times like these will test the mettle of even the most accomplished leader. But when team members work remotely, team leaders must take extraordinary measures to cultivate mutual trust and a truly level playing field among everyone on the team.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations



Successful Supervisor Part 4 – The Role of Trust

December 11, 2016

The topic of trust in organizations has been my life’s work over the past 45 years, and it will be until I am no longer able to communicate. I have written four books and produced hundreds of articles and videos on various aspects of trust.

For this article, I will confine my comments to the role trust plays for supervisors. Obviously, the points made here extrapolate to leadership in general.

Since the supervisor is the link between upper management and the first line employees, she needs to consider the impact of trust and how to achieve it in both venues, and they are substantially different.

First I will cover the bond of trust with her direct reports, then I will reverse the logic and discuss trust with peers and upper management.

Trust with Subordinates

My observation is that without trust between workers and the supervisor, people spend a lot of energy playing games with each other. You can observe all types of childish behaviors on the part of people who want all the goodies they can get with the least amount of effort.

They form cliques in order to protect themselves and work to undermine other people as they jockey for favor with the supervisor.

The majority of people in production jobs have been abused by at least one tyrant manager in their career, so it is easy to mistrust anyone who is perceived as “management.” The suspicions are easily confirmed, as some heavy handed managers in the hierarchy shoot themselves in the foot with respect to trust on a regular basis.

This situation creates numerous headaches for the supervisor, because to the front line employees, she represents “management” and is painted with the same brush as all managers.

If some manager up the chain commits a bonehead move, the credibility of the supervisor will go down, even if she did not agree with what the upper level manager did.

It is critical that the supervisor establish relationships of trust with people in her group. This is often accomplished one person at a time or perhaps with small groups. Since people are predisposed to be suspicious, any misstep or perceived false statement (even if it has been misinterpreted) only makes the problem worse.

There are literally hundreds of behaviors the supervisor needs to exemplify if trust is to be achieved, maintained, or in some cases, repaired. It is not in the scope of this article to list all of the necessary behaviors, as I have written about these in my books. For this article I will mention the most powerful way a supervisor can build trust and apply it in her daily work.

Best Way to Build Trust

The supervisor needs to build a safe environment where people recognize they will not be punished when they bring up perceived problems or things that appear to be inconsistent.

She needs to work tirelessly to instill a fair workplace where people see her as impartial and approachable. It is a tall order to create such an environment, since some individuals will try various tactics to advantage themselves in comparison to their peers.

The Role of Alignment

The best approach for the supervisor is to create full alignment within the group. Everyone needs to know the values of the organization and also the vision: what the group is trying to accomplish.

Each person must buy into the mission and recognize that by accomplishing the mission he or she will be better off. The role of the supervisor is to create this alignment by constantly reminding people that what they are working for is a better future for themselves.

Operating under Different Conditions

The supervisor needs to be the “head cheerleader” when things are going in the right direction and the “coach” when things get off track. She needs to insist that everyone on the team pulls his or her share of the load and not tolerate selfish behaviors. Basically, the supervisor needs to constantly build the team.

Building Trust Upward

At the same time, the supervisor needs to support high trust with her peers and upper management. The origin of trust in any organization starts at the top and flows down throughout the whole organization.

It is the behaviors of the senior-most leaders that normally determine the level of trust in an organization.

It is the role of the supervisor to support the vision of the entire organization through the efforts and activities of her group.

The most difficult conundrum for a supervisor is if she is asked to implement a policy that she personally believes is a mistake. To prevent this, the supervisor must have built up enough trust and stake with upper management to have a seat at the decision table and be listened to as a respected member of the management team.

Sometimes you can find a brilliant supervisor who has the “Midas Touch” for creating a great culture within her group, but that group is placed in a toxic environment from above.

When this occurs, the supervisor ends up trying to translate the needs of her team upward and the demands of the larger organization downward. It is a delicate balancing act, and those supervisors who can perform well in that dichotomy are scarce and precious.

Usually the supervisor ends up trying to influence the organization in both directions. She constantly works to build the culture of the group reporting to her while simultaneously trying to advocate upward for the needs of the group.

This is the reason that I believe the role of the first line supervisor is one of the most important and most difficult in all of management.

The role of the first line supervisor in maintaining trust within the organization cannot be overstated. If she loses the culture of trust, then the struggle will be one of various degrees of warfare, and productivity will be severely impacted.

I think the best approach is to have a solid training program for supervisors that continually builds the skills to manage in a complex world. If the supervisor is not provided with the training program at work, then she should start reading books and watching videos on the topic and gain skills that way.

This is a part in a series of articles on “Successful Supervision.” The entire series can be viewed on http://www.leadergrow.com/articles/supervision or on this blog.

Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of four books: 1.The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals (2003), 2. Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online (2006), 3. Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind (2009), and 4. Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change (2014). In addition, he has authored over 500 articles and videos on various topics in leadership and trust. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations. For more information, or to bring Bob in to speak at your next event, contact him at http://www.Leadergrow.com, bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585.392.7763


The Case for Better Alignment

February 16, 2014

single hand of drowning man in sea asking for helpIn my work, I have seen the impact of poor alignment. If the people in a business are not aligned with the values and vision of the organization, you often see the majority of people actually pulling in a direction different from the vision, or not pulling at all.

Organizations with high engagement and trust have nearly all people pulling in the direction set by the collaborative efforts of the group’s key people, but how can you tell if your organization is truly in alignment?

I read a great blog article today on Triple Crown Leadership.com, the site for my friends Bob and Gregg Vanourek. It contained two checklists for whether your organization is in or out of alignment .

The assessment that Bob and Greg share below is a wonderful way to get a quick gut check on the health of your organization. Try their test and see how you come out.

Here is their article (reprinted with permission):

Are you working more but enjoying it less? Stressed out? Overloaded? Does it feel like things are slipping out of control?

These conditions are becoming “the new normal” for leaders today; they also indicate that your organization is out of alignment:

• People are working at cross-purposes
• Turf wars break out between departments
• Everyone is criticizing or blaming everyone else
• People seem resigned to the chaos
• Many check out mentally

How can you tell if your organization is out of alignment? Here are two checklists with the key indicators.

Answer Yes or No to the questions on the checklist that best describes the circumstances of your organization.

Checklist 1: Organizations in a Downward Spiral

1. Your profitability is lagging your peers and prior years.
2. Your revenue growth is lagging your peers and goals.
3. You are losing critical, long-term customers.
4. You new product innovation is behind the curve.
5. Your cost structure is creeping out of control.
6. Your employees are not engaged.
7. You keep hearing complaints of too many top priorities.
8. You are losing key talent.
9. Your suppliers and business partners are not helping you resolve your challenges.
10. Your workload and stress are at all-time highs.

If you answered “yes” to four or more of these questions, your organization is out of alignment.

Checklist 2: Organizations in Upward Chaos

1. You are growing so rapidly that you can’t keep up with the demand.
2. The quality and customer service you deliver are being heavily criticized.
3. Key customers who tried your products or services have now ordered elsewhere.
4. Product development is caught between fixing bugs and releasing new models.
5. Your costs of fixing problems are outstripping your base cost structure.
6. You are losing critical executive talent.
7. Your employee attrition rate is high.
8. You are hiring and promoting in shotgun fashion or breakneck pace and paying the price with lots of painful mistakes.
9. You keep hearing complaints of too many top priorities.
10. Your workload and stress are at all-time highs.

If you answered “yes” to four or more of these questions, your organization is out of alignment.

Most executives know one of the keys to sustained high performance is having an aligned team. Unfortunately, too few leaders know the steps to take to get there.

Triple Crown Leadership reveals a proven 10-step process for alignment. If you want practical steps for aligning your team, request our free white paper, “Collaborative Alignment: A Transformational Leadership Process,” through an email to info@triplecrownleadership.com, and sign up on our website to receive our blog and monthly newsletter.

Core Concept: Effective executives proactively monitor early warning signals to make sure their organization isn’t out of alignment.

Offer: If you want a free, no-obligation consultation on addressing your alignment challenges, contact us at info@triplecrownleadership.com. We’ll set up a half-hour call with the first few to request it.

Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, winner of the 2013 International Book Awards (Business: General). Twitter: @TripleCrownLead