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 13 Negotiate Well

August 27, 2019

I’m sure you realize that we all negotiate every day of our lives.  From the moment the Doctor slapped you on the bottom and you started to cry, you started to negotiate.

Some people envision that to negotiate means to sit across a small table at a car dealer.  Of course, that is, but the principles of negotiation are in play in pretty much everything you do.

This is especially true for leaders. The most important test of a leader is how well he or she does at influencing other people to do what needs to be done. In this brief article I will describe my fix on how you can tell the level of your negotiating skill. It is one of my favorite measures for the quality of leadership.

Negotiate Well

Most leaders exist in a kind of sandwich. They report to someone at a higher level and also supervise other people at lower levels in the organization. Great leaders are experts at negotiating the needs of both groups.

They interpret the needs of the organization from above to the people below in a way that makes most of them understand and appreciate the policies of the larger group.

Simultaneously great leaders advocate well for the needs of individuals reporting to them to levels above in the organization. It is this give and take role that requires constant attention and skill at negotiating well.

Effective negotiating is a science. You can take graduate level courses on this topic or there are numerous books and seminars outlining the various stratagems. You can study the tactics and countermeasures for months and still not be very skilled at negotiating well.

A key attitude for successful negotiations is to recognize that the best ones are where the parties seek out solutions that work for both of them.  Too many leaders seek ways to win in negotiations at the expense of the other party.  That implies that the other party loses.

The best negotiators keep working to find solutions that work to the advantage of both sides.  It is always possible to find ways to have both parties better off.

The most important ingredient for effective negotiating within an organization is credibility. Leaders who are believable to their people and to upper management have more success at negotiating needs in both directions effectively.

So, how does a leader become credible? Here are some tips that can help. (I apologize in advance for the clichés in this list. I decided that using the vernacular is the best way to convey this information succinctly.)

1. Be consistent – people need to know what you stand for, and you need to communicate your own values clearly.
2. Show respect for opinions contrary to yours – other opinions are as valid as yours, and you can frequently find a common middle ground for win-win solutions. This avoids unnecessary acrimony.
3. Shoot straight –speak your truth plainly and without a lot of spin. Get a reputation for telling the unvarnished truth, but do it with compassion. Do not try to snow people – people at all levels have the ability to smell BS very quickly.
4. Listen more than you talk – keep that ratio as much as possible because you are not the fountain of all knowledge. You just might learn something important.
5. Be open and transparent – share as much information as you can as early as possible.
6. Get your facts right – don’t get emotional and bring in a lot of half truths to the argument.
7. Don’t be fooled by the vocal minority – make sure you test to find out if what you are hearing is really shared broadly. Often there are one or two individuals who like to speak for the whole group, and yet they do not share the sentiments of everyone.
8. Don’t panic – there are “Chicken Littles” who go around shouting “The sky is falling” every day. It gets tiresome, and people tune you out eventually.
9. Ask a lot of questions – Socratic and hypothetical questions are more effective methods of negotiating points than making absolute statements of your position.
10. Build Trust: Admit when you are wrong – sometimes you will be.
11. Know when to back off –pressing a losing point to the point of exhaustion is not a good strategy.
12. Give other people the most credit – often the smart thing to do is not claim victory, even if you are victorious.
13. Keep your powder dry for future encounters – there is rarely a final battle in organizations, so don’t burn bridges behind you.
14. Smile – be gracious and courteous always. If you act like a friend, it is hard for people to view you as an enemy.

These are some of the rules to build credibility. If you are familiar with these and practice them regularly, you are probably very effective at negotiating within your organization.

Once you are highly credible, the tactics and countermeasures of conventional negotiating are much more effective.

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.


Don’t be Opaque

July 24, 2011

I was giving my talk on Trust and Transparency for a group recently, and the host had an interesting twist on transparency. He said that he knew certain members of management who were expert at being “opaque.” I really liked the use of the word opaque, which is the opposite of transparent. For this article, I wanted to explore the different forces operating on a manager which may lead to higher opacity and how being opaque destroys trust.

Fear that people will become enraged

If there is bad news in the offing, the managers might be concerned about letting the information out early because of fear of retribution or sabotage. If it becomes known that people will be losing jobs, then some people might (wrongly) feel there is not much to lose. Of course, there is a lot to lose any time we burn bridges with people: especially former employers.

My experience is that if people are treated with respect and dignity, even if the news is draconian, the vast majority of them will act like adults and actually be appreciative of the transparent information far in advance so preparations for a logical transition can be made. I have witnessed workers keeping a good attitude and being productive during a layoff process right up to the final hour at work and leaving with sadness coupled with dignity.

What really infuriates workers is to find out about a discontinuity on the day of the announcement, when they realize it has been in the planning stages for months. In that case, you might expect someone to throw a monkey wrench in the gears on his way out the door.

Using lack of perfect plans as an excuse

Managers often do not want to divulge information because the plans are not 100% set in stone. They reason that some information will lead to questions that cannot be answered, so they wait until all the details are known? One could always make that excuse, and yet people tolerate lack of specific details better than being kept in the dark wondering about the big picture.

Plans are always subject to revision, so it is far better to involve employees when the plans are not yet firm, because they would have the opportunity to help shape the future, even if only slightly. That involvement in the process normally leads to a higher level of acceptance in the end than if employees are kept in the dark then mouse-trapped with the bad news at the final moment.

Financial Embarrassment

Often in a transition, it becomes obvious that the people making the plans are the “haves” and the people impacted in the organization are the “have-nots.” Total transparency would mean that workers become painfully aware that they are being abused financially while the bosses are taking down huge stock options or other seemingly lavish benefits. Managers would rather not have everyone in the organization know their incentive packages or the size of their golden parachutes. It is just too embarrassing. While this reason to be opaque is actually reasonable, it does raise a huge caution flag. If management is hiding things they would be embarrassed about, isn’t there an ethical breach that needs to be addressed?

Another form of embarrassment that leads to opacity is that people may find out that the managers they work for are actually clueless. They do not know what they are doing, and are “winging it” on a daily basis. If everyone was aware of the stupidity of some corporate decisions, the managers might be subject to a lynch mob mentality among the troops. Since it is pretty difficult to “cure stupidity,” the only recourse is to figuratively hang the bastards out to dry once their lack of IQ or EQ becomes known.

Wanting to retain the best people

When there is bad news to share, it impacts everyone in the organization. The best people will have the greatest opportunity to pick up a job elsewhere for similar or even better pay and benefits. The dregs of the organization have less opportunity to go elsewhere, so if management lets out too much information too early, they are likely to end up keeping the people they want to lose and losing the people they wish to keep. Opacity seems like a strategy to forestall the exodus of needed top talent. Of course, this logic ignores the fact that the best people will be even more likely to leave once it is revealed they have been duped all along. Trust is built when information is shared freely and openly.

Needing time for cross training

Some managers will keep mum on an upcoming reorganization to allow a kind of preparation phase where people are cross trained on other jobs ostensibly for the purpose of building bench strength. Workers see through this ploy rather quickly, so the opacity cover is blown, and it becomes a kind of game environment for several months. The antidote here is to be transparent about cross training and have a continual process to keep skills broad and well sharpened. With that strategy, the need to be opaque about why training is being done vanishes, and people appreciate the variety as well as the opportunity to learn additional skill sets.

The other side of the coin

I do not claim that it is always bad strategy to be opaque in the face of changes. Usually there are legal restrictions on what information can be shared. Managers can go to jail if they divulge information about an impending move that will have a material impact on stock valuation. Also, it may be a disaster to have suppliers or the competition find out about a future move. Managers need to use good judgment as to when and how to divulge information. They also need to be aware that the rumor mill picks up on minute radar signals throughout the organization. It is not possible to truly hide the fact that “something is going on.”

When people are intentionally kept in the dark, they tend to make up stories of what is going on to fill the vacuum. The rumors are normally far worse than the action contemplated, so the beleaguered managers must do damage control on things that are not going to happen while trying to tiptoe around the truth. Trust is lost in such times because people feel managers are “playing games” with them.

My point is that it is far too easy to fall victim to some of the excuses or subterfuges mentioned above. It is usually wise to put a skeptical stance on any gag rule. Reason: Eventually the truth will come out, so any perceived advantage of not telling people is eventually lost along with the long-term damage to trust that comes with being opaque.