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



Leadership Barometer 32 Overload

January 7, 2020

Overload is a very common phenomenon in organizations. This article deals with the problem, the reasons it exists, and offers some solutions.

As organizations wrestle with global competition and economic cycles, the pressure on productivity is more acute each year. I do not see an end to the pressure to accomplish more work with fewer resources.

There comes a point when leaders overload workers beyond their elastic limit, and they become dysfunctional or simply burn out. As the constant requests for more work with fewer resources starts to take a physical toll on the health of workers at all levels, people become justifiably angry.

I see evidence of what I call “load rage” in nearly every organization in which I work.

Glass half full

An interesting flip side of this problem is the observation made by many researchers, and also myself, that working human beings habitually operate at only a fraction of their true capability.

I have read estimates of organizations extracting on average something like 30-50% of the inherent capability in the workforce; some estimates are even lower.

It would be impossible for anyone to continually operate at 100% of capacity, because that would require the adrenal glands to secrete a constant stream or adrenaline that would kill the person. However, if the estimates of typical capacity used are accurate, there is still a lot of upside in people, so why the “load rage”?

The Leader’s role

Leaders can help reduce the problem by reminding people that they really do have a lot more control over how loaded they feel by taking some pragmatic actions. Here are a few ideas:

Sliding scale
We tend to feel overloaded because we base our perception of how hard we are working at any moment on a sliding scale. We base our feelings of load on how busy we are, not on what percentage of our capacity is being consumed.

Many of our activities are simply traps that we invent because of habitual patterns in our daily work. We tolerate a multitude of inhibiting actions that steal seconds from our minutes and minutes from our hours.

We tend to excuse these diversions as not being very important, but in reality they are exceedingly relevant to our output and to our stress level. Let me cite a few examples:

The dreaded inbox

Look at the inbox of your e-mail account. If you are like most people, there are more than a few notes waiting for your attention. We have all kinds of reasons (really rationalizations) for not keeping our inbox cleaned out each day.

I will share that at this moment I have 4 “read” notes and no “unread” notes in my inbox, and it is stressing me out. I need to get that down to zero, but right now I am consumed writing this article.

If we are honest, it is inescapable that having more than 2-3 notes waiting attention will cause a few milliseconds of search time when we want to do anything on e-mail. That time is lost forever, and it cannot be replaced.

We all know people who have maxed out the inbox capability and have literally thousands of e-mails to chew through. These people are drowning in a sea of time wasters just like a young adult with 20 credit cards is drowning in a sea of debt. It is inevitable.

Complaining takes time

You know at least a few people in your circle of friends or working comrades who spend a hefty chunk of their day going around lamenting how there is not enough time to do the work. Admit it – we all do this to some extent.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Looks like I have plenty of time and not much to do?” OK, old geezers in the home have this problem and so do young children who are dependent on mommy to think up things to keep them occupied.

For most of us in the adult or working world, our time is the most scarce and precious commodity we have, yet we habitually squander it in tiny ways that add up to major stress for us. I suspect that even the most proficient time-management guru finds it possible to waste over 30% of his or her time on things that could be avoided.

Stop Doing List

One healthy antidote, especially at work, is to have a “stop doing” list. Most people have a “to do” list, but you rarely see someone adding things to a “don’t do” list.
Think how liberating and refreshing it would be if each of us found an extra hour or two each day by just consciously deciding to stop doing things that do not matter.

Whole groups can do this exercise and gain incredible productivity. The technique is called “work out,” where groups consciously redesign processes to take work out of the system. If you examine how you use your time today, I guarantee that if you are brutally honest you can find at least 2 hours of time you are wasting on busy work with no real purpose. Wow, two hours would be a gift for anyone.

Shift your mindset

Another technique is to really load up your schedule. You think that you are overworked now, but just imagine if you added 5 major new activities that had to be done on top of your present activities. That would feel insane, but you would find ways to cope. Then if you cut back to your current load next week, what seemed like an untenable burden a few weeks ago would feel like a cake walk.

I can recall a time in the Fall of 2004 when I was teaching 11 different collegiate courses at the same time. That was in addition to writing a book, chairing a volunteer Board, and managing a leadership consulting practice. I will admit that was a little over the top, but I sure enjoyed the load when I intentionally cut it back to only three courses at a time.

Conflict eats time

Another huge time burner is conflict. We spend more time than we realize trying to manage others, so our world is as close to what we want as possible. When things are out of kilter, we can spend hours of time on the phone or e-mail negotiating with others in a political struggle to get them to think more like us.

The typical thought pattern going through the mind during these times is “why can’t you be more like me.” The energy and time to have these discussions can really eat up the clock time during the day.

Dithering

Dither is another issue for many of us. I already shared that while I am writing this paper, I am really procrastinating from opening up and dealing with the 4 notes in my inbox (oops – now 5). I typically get around 100 e-mails a day.

There are other things I must do today, but I am having fun writing this paper, so the “work” is getting pushed back. I will pay for this indulgence later, but at least I do recognize what I am doing here.

The point is that most of the time we lose is unconscious. We have all figured out how to justify the time wasters in our lives, and we still complain that there are not enough hours in the day.

The cure for this malaise lies in having a different mindset. The time challenge is really part of the human condition. I think it helps to remind ourselves that when we feel overloaded, particularly with work, it is really just a priority issue, and we honestly do have time to do everything with still some slack time to take a breath. If you do not agree, then I suspect you are in denial.

Now, I need to be excused to go clean out my inbox!

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.


Leadership Barometer 22 Be an Enabler

October 29, 2019

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. There are a few leading indicators that can be used to give a pretty good picture of the overall quality of your leadership. Here is one of my favorite measures.

Strong leaders are enablers

On this dimension there is a stark contrast between great leaders and poor ones. In organizations with great leaders, people view their leaders as enablers. They provide a clear and believable vision of the future that is truly compelling to the workers.

They provide the resources and support required to reach that vision. They engage and empower people to put their best efforts into the journey toward success.

They celebrate the small wins along the way. If there is a problem, the leaders work to reduce or eliminate it.

Strong leaders also enable trust by creating a SAFE environment where people are not afraid to express their true thoughts.

Weak leaders are the opposite

When leaders are weak, you see the exact opposite. Leaders are viewed by the employees as barriers. They get in the way of progress by invoking bureaucratic hurdles that make extra work.

They use a command and control philosophy that stifles empowerment. There is a foggy vision or the vision is not that exciting to employees. Like if they struggle to make it happen, the result will not be so great.

Weak leaders destroy trust by creating fear within their organization.

A real example

I felt that kind of leadership in my final years with a company I once worked for. The vision was very clear; they had to shrink their way to success. That meant huge stress and more workers who would be let go year after year.

What an awful vision! I left and never looked back. In organizations with that kind of vision, people feel they are operating with both hands tied behind their backs. Fear lurks around every corner.

This condition leads to poor performance, and so the leaders pour on more and more pressure to compensate. It is a viscous circle that reminds me of the water funnel in a toilet. In fact, it is very much like that.

If you want to measure the caliber of a leader, just start asking the people in the organization if that leader is an enabler or a barrier to progress. Their answer will tell you quickly how talented that leader is.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. He speaks and conducts seminars on building trust in organizations. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com or 585-392-7763.