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 20 Lower Credibility Gap

October 16, 2019

There are hundreds of assessments for leaders. The content and quality of these assessments vary greatly. You can spend a lot of time and money taking surveys to tell you the quality of your leadership.

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.

Lowers Credibility Gap

In any organization there exist credibility gaps between layers. These gaps lower the trust within the organization and make good communication more difficult. Great leaders have a knack for lowering these gaps by filling in believable information in both directions: up and down.

When there is tension between one layer and another, great leaders work to find out the root cause of the disconnect.

It could be a nasty rumor, it could be based on a prior breach of trust, it might be an impending reorganization or merger, it could be due to an outside force like a new government restriction. Whatever the root cause will determine the key to elimination of the gap.

Use your nose

Excellent leaders have a nose for these problems and head them off while the gap is a small crack and before it becomes like the Grand Canyon. They help people breach the divide by getting the two levels to communicate and really negotiate a better position.

Weak leaders are more like victims who wait till the battle is raging and the chasm is too broad to cross without a major investment in a bridge.

Silo thinking vs. Team mates

The insight that usually helps is to remind the differing camps that they are really on the same team.  Silo thinking leads to animosity between groups.  Great leaders remind people that they share common goals at a higher level. There is no need for warfare.

A leader who has this skill is easy to spot because there are few paralyzing situations that have to be resolved. If you are one of those leaders, it will be evident. If you are not, it will also be evident. Seek to knit the organization together at every opportunity.

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.


Successful Supervisor 63 Reduce Silo Thinking

February 3, 2018

The term “silo thinking” refers to a situation when members of a team put up barriers of communication and interaction with other teams in order to protect their turf. Information and resources become trapped within the silo walls like grain is trapped inside a farm silo.

The silo problem is frequently a major issue in production departments when different supervisors have control of resources within an operation or shift. Resources are squandered when intergroup friction erupts into conflict or even sabotage.

Smart supervisors take preventive actions to reduce the tendency toward silo thinking, but often they are so close to the problem, they do not recognize when it is happening right in front of them.

Reducing Silo Thinking

The first step toward eliminating the problem is to realize it is a human tendency to feel allegiance to one’s home team. In most aspects of life this bonding is a good thing because it helps teams perform at sustained peak levels.

However, like most good things, too much team spirit can lead to insulation and dysfunctional competition with other groups.

Team spirit should not be wiped out, but rather expanded to include outside individuals or parallel groups. The supervisor needs to recognize this dynamic and take steps to keep team spirit at a healthy level while mitigating any negative side effects.

Here are five suggestions I have found to be effective at controlling silo thinking:

1. Reinforce the Common Goal at the Next Higher Level

Two groups at odds due to silo thinking always share common goals at the next higher level. For example, on a football team, it is common for the offensive unit to become a silo separate from the defense, so the coach has to remind everybody that they are on the same team, and the enemy is external.

Once people are reminded of their common allegiance to the larger effort, the parochial thinking process within the sub units is weakened.

2. Do Teambuilding for the Combined Group

Mixing two feuding groups together for a teambuilding activity allows the members to see and appreciate the resources in the other group.

It is important to have a good facilitator provide excellent teambuilding activities, and the points made during the exercise debriefs are particularly important. There are several excellent teambuilding exercise that stress working across boundaries for a common goal.

One of my favorite team building activities to illustrate working together is to mix people together in random order and have them form into small groups with some members from each team in each group.

Then ask them to brainstorm all the ways that performing as a high performance team is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. If you allow them to brainstorm for 15-20 minutes they will come up with all kinds of helpful concepts.

For example, even though there are different parts of the scene, the whole puzzle must be completed in order to succeed, so each part of the puzzle is equally important.

3. Reinforce Behavior of the Combined Group Rather Than the Silos

The trick here is for the supervisor of Group 1 to “team up” with the supervisor of Group 2 when reinforcing good work by both groups. If the supervisors model a kind of family spirit, then people will quickly get the message and begin to think like a single unit. When trying to accomplish this larger team spirit, it is important to eliminate language that focuses on “we” and “they.”

4. Eliminate We/They Thinking and Language

A Litmus test for the elimination of silo thinking is the absence of the language that uses we and they in conversation. This problem is often evident in email exchanges.

For example, note the flavor in this email, “Your group needs to realize that if you want a neat environment, you need to pick up after yourselves. We cannot be responsible for always picking up your messes. It is a sign of laziness to not pick up your own trash and we should not have to deal with it.” Note the very strong we versus you emphasis in this note.

A softer and more constructive note might be as follows, “The audit inspection turned up some trash left in the break room over the weekend. Let’s all work together to make sure our environment is neat and healthy.”

It is up to the supervisor to 1) model proper team language, and 2) insist that all people in her group refrain from using inflammatory language such as the first note above.

5. Cross Fertilization

This process involves swapping one key resource from Team 1 with another resource from Team 2. For a while the swapped resources remain emotionally linked to their former group, but eventually they become more aligned with their current group.

If the supervisor encourages a few of these swaps over time, soon it will be hard to tell which team is which, and the silo barriers will have been lowered.

This technique is often unpopular with the people being moved, so it is important to select the swapped people carefully. One legitimate way to explain the move is to let the people know they are highly valued, and the additional cross training on different functions will make their background even more valuable to the organization.

The primary action for any supervisor is to be alert to the problem of silo thinking subtly creeping into the thinking process and conversations of her team. Stay close to other supervisors and be vigilant on this issue, and you can reduce a lot of organizational acrimony.

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


Merging Cultures

March 14, 2015

Hand Mixer with Eggs in a Glass Bowl on a Reflective White Background.When there is a merger, acquisition or other major organizational change, the different cultures must be blended into a coherent new culture. Managers often assume this will happen naturally over time, so they do not focus on this aspect when planning the merger.

WRONG! Achieving a stable culture where people are at least supportive if not enthusiastically driving a singular mindset is the most significant challenge for most change efforts. Do not assume things will work out; instead, take a highly proactive approach to defining a new culture.

In every case, even when the action is described as a merger of equals, one group will feel they have been “taken over” by the other. Curiously, in many instances, both groups feel they have been taken over because employees in each former group will need to modify procedures to accomplish the union.

Usually, one of the parties is assumed to be in the driver’s seat, so it is the other party that needs to endure the bulk of changing systems. Lack of trust and genuine animosity lead to resistance when it comes to blending the two groups into one.

It is common to have the conflict occur as passive resistive behavior. People will have the appearance of agreeing, but subversively undermine the other group however possible. This kind of “we – they” thinking can go on for years if allowed. So what actions can management take to mitigate the schism and promote unity? Here are a dozen ideas that can help.

1. Start early – Do not let the inevitable seeds of doubt and suspicion grow in the dark. Work quickly after the merger is announced to have teambuilding activities.

Openly promote good team spirit and put some money into developing a mutually supportive culture. Good teamwork is not rocket science, but it does not occur naturally. There must be investments to accomplish unity.

2. Have zero tolerance for silo thinking – This is hard to accomplish because human beings will polarize if given the opportunity. Set the expectation that people will at least try at all times to get along.

Monitor the wording in notes and conversations carefully and call people out when they put down the other group. This monitoring needs to include body language. Often rolling eyes or other expressions give away underlying mistrust.

3. Blend the populations as much as possible – Transplant key individuals from Group A with counterparts from Group B. If this is done with care, it will not take long for the individual cultures to be hard to tell apart. Sometimes the transplanting process is unpopular, but it is an important part of the integration process.

4. Use the Strategic Process – It is important to have a common set of goals and a common vision. If the former groups have goals that are not perfectly aligned, then behaviors are going to support parochial thinking. When conflicts arise, check to see if the goals are really common or if there is just lip service on this point.

5. Reward good teamwork – Seek out examples of selfless behavior from one group toward the other and promote these as bellwether activities. Verbal and written reinforcement from the top will help a lot. You might consider some kind of  award for outstanding integration behavior.

6. Model integrated behavior at the top – Often we see animosity and lack of trust at the highest levels, so it is only natural for the lower echelon to be bickering. People have the ability to pick up on the tiny clues in wording and body language. The leaders need to walk the talk on mutual respect.

7. Co-locate groups where possible – Remote geography always tends to build polarization in any organization. If merged groups can be at least partially located under one roof, it will help to reduce suspicion by lack of contact. If cohabitation is cost prohibitive, it is helpful to have frequent joint meetings, especially at the start of the integration process.

8. Benchmark other organizations – Select one or two companies who have done a great job of blending cultures and send a fact finding team made up of representatives from each group to identify best practices. This team can be the nucleus of cooperation attitudes that can allow unity to spread through the entire population.

9. Make celebrations include both groups – Avoid letting one group celebrate milestones along the way while the other group is struggling. Make sure the celebrations are for progress toward the ultimate culture instead of sub-unit performance.

10. Align measures with joint behavior – Make sure the measures are not contributing to silo thinking. If the goals are aligned for joint performance, have the measures reinforce behaviors toward those goals. Often, well intentioned measures actually drive activity that is directly opposite to the intended result.

One way to test for this potential is to ask, “what if someone pushes this measure to the extreme – will that still produce the result we want”?

11. Weed out people who cannot adjust – A certain percentage of the population in either group are going to find it difficult to get over the grieving process. Identify these individuals and help them find roles in some other organization. It will help both the merger process and the individual.

On the flip side, identify the champions of integration early and reward them with more exposure and more span of control.

12. Create incentives for the desired behavior – People should be encouraged in every way to act and think in an integrated way. This can be encouraged by having the incentive plans pay out only if the joined entity performs seamlessly.

The road to a fully functioning integrated culture can be long and frustrating. By following the ideas given above, an organization can hasten the day when there are few vestiges of the old cultures, and people feel a sense of belonging to a single new order.