For some time, we have been observing a general tendency within society to seek simple and clear-cut solutions to complex questions. And, when you think of trust in distributed teams, there seems to be a similar approach. The work situation in those teams is usually quite complex: Team members work in several locations and different times zones. Teams consist of members with different national and corporate backgrounds. The channels of (mostly virtual) communication are thin. When team leaders have questions about building trust in their distributed teams, they usually opt for fast and preferably simple solutions, such as tools and checklists. This is understandable, considering the pressure they feel. They quickly have to deliver ambitious results in their projects or in matrix organizations.
Is there a blue print to build trust?
When I am asked to give a quick version of trust building in distributed teams, I usually state it like this: Since trust is built between humans, it is up to the individual’s behavior and especially the attitude towards the fellow human whether trust develops or not. First, acknowledge that trust is something that you have to actively address as an issue; do not take it for granted and do not ignore it. Second, be mindful of the other person and their context. If you observe these two factors, there is a fair chance that trust will develop over time. Trust me on this!
So much for the elevator pitch on trust building. Now let’s dig a little deeper into the matter.
In all of our team coaching sessions for distributed teams, in every webinar we give on intercultural virtual collaboration, the magic word „trust” comes up in the first minutes. When we ask team leaders to further specify what trust means to them, very different perspectives, understandings, and needs come up in individual responses: „Reliable“, „predictable“, „trustworthy“, “real trust“ are some of the words used. When teams do not achieve their goals, run behind schedule, when the atmosphere in the team is not good, lack of trust is the term for everything missing and also the label for team conflicts. And, this is true and false at the same time. True in the sense that without trust there cannot be any collaboration or real achievement. False in the sense, that, even if you are mindful of trust as an issue and invest time and energy in trust building, not every team problem in the distributed work situation can be solved, simply because there is still some other factors that play a role.
Under which conditions can trust develop?
Let’s start with some prerequisites for trust. The first factor is the competence to be able to speak the team language. When language skills are a genuine problem within a team, authentic trust will not develop. You need to be able to communicate and express yourself in the team’s language. Most of the time this means: in English. Second point: When organizational and job requirements of team members stand in the way of participating in a team, the same problem occurs. One example that comes up often is, that a remote team member can only dedicate a small percentage of his time to the global project, because local issues always have proirity. Trust building has little chance under such circumstances. And third: If team members are not capable to fulfill their role requirements, the team performance will always be lower than expected. Without performance, there is no trust. The point is that trust building is also about content, not only about soft facts. And a final point on the preconditions for trust building: Distributed work relies on committed people. It’s not about cheerleading or superficial enthusiasm. It is the commitment to contribute to the common goal, though you might feel separate and sometimes alone out there.
If any of these criteria are not met amongst any of your team members, then trust building measures may prove futile, and you should consider a change in your team setup. I know, easier said and done, but it is better to be open upfront when considering these circumstantial issues than live with the consequences of a sub-optimal team constellation.
What can you do to develop trust in your team?
The main task of a team leader is to address the trust issue within the team. We cannot emphasize enough that it takes time to build deep trust. The good news is, if you will, that not every team situation requires high performance, i.e. high trust all the time. Let’s be realistic. So, first find out what your team’s objectives are and get a realistic estimate of the kind and level of trust you need. Furthermore you can count on “upfront trust”. We can assume that every team wants to be successful. Usually, teams start their work with a positive attitude towards team success. You can trust(!), that everybody is willing to contribute, each person in their own way. But, as soon as you notice first signs of unease, address the issue of trust in your team. Once you have taken the topic out of the taboo zone, keep trust building as a constant element in your teamwork.
To make this complex trust topic addressable, it is helpful to have a framework which allows to break down the different aspects of trust. Here are three different methods.
1. Trust Equation
We like to use the so called “Trust Equation”, originally outlined by David Maister, Charles Green and Robert Galford in their book: The trusted advisor. It is a descriptive model of how trust works that we value because it resonates well with the distributed work situation and allows to address the important dimensions of trust building one by one, making the big hurdle of trust more manageable. The dimensions are „credibility”, „reliability”, „intimacy” and “self interest”. The first three build up trust (and are placed in the numerator of the equation) and the final one, self-interest, lowers the trust level (and is placed in the denominator). For a quick explanation, have a look at the 2-minute video on YouTube. The dimensions cover the main challenges of trust in distributed teams: Distance prevents intimacy; cultural differences are the reason for a different understanding of reliability. And the fact, that team members of distributed teams are usually located in different units of the organization, belonging to different professional groups, have little history of joint collaboration, all this increases the self interest factor. The outcome after doing the math with the formula is a simple figure that equates the trustworthiness of your relationship. And, this quite simple reduction of complexity is also a good way to start the discussion about new rules for trust building behavior.
2. Trust Team Canvas
The second concept with far more trust dimensions is Alexey Pikulev’s Trust Team Canvas. Refer to this model if you want to dig even deeper especially for projects that are larger and more complicated. As a result of this exercise, the canvas will give you behavioral examples for 8 trust dimensions. This approach requires a workshop setting with the objective of developing new rules.
3. Iceberg Model
A third and simple approach is using the ”Iceberg“ metaphor for your team trust diagnosis. The trust situation is comparable to an iceberg, where 90% of the volume is under the surface. The 10% represent the symptoms of team member opposition such as not showing up in meetings, of not speaking up, blaming, and micromanaging. But there are the invisible parts as well, norms and values that make up the remaining 90% and might cause such behaviors or their interpretation. Encourage your team members to highlight visible examples of such behavior in your team. After collecting some incidents, discuss possible explanations why such behavior occurs and try to link it to norms and values. To have a fruitful discussion, avoid finger pointing. Most trust issues are not caused by bad intentions. Rather, try to attribute different behavior to differences in norms and values in the team as they are upheld by different nationalities or interest groups.
As said in the beginning, trust is build over time. Certainly, an intercultural training that will teach you how to better interpret behaviors can certainly help. There are also some team exercises to foster deeper understanding, which eventually can result in deeper trust. But keep in mind: Trust is a very basic human concept. Everybody has quite a good understanding what promotes or prevents trust development. I still appreciate what I learned years ago in a psychology class: Trust is a verb; it is an action you take! And you don’t get trust, because you earn it, but because you give it. It is a decision at start and a path to take. And that is a very simple advice to help you to deal with a complex situation.