Insights & Ideas

Trust is a three-way street: Cultivating trust in dispersed teams

How can you trust people you don’t see in person? Think less about “seeing is believing” and more about “seeing eye-to-eye.”

Trust in the workplace has always been a hot topic. After all, trust has myriad advantages for teams—such as increasing collaboration, efficiency, good decision making, and innovation.

But ever since remote work went (unexpectedly) mainstream in 2020, trust has gone from a hot topic to a boiling point. The most heated part of the discussion has been about how managers can “trust” employees in a dispersed team to be productive. But managers aren’t the only ones with “trust issues.” Remote employees worry about missing out on opportunities for advancement and building a work community.

As a result, many leaders cite trust as a reason to return to the office. But the truth is: building a culture of trust isn’t really about proximity. Proximity provides familiarity and a sense of control, but those factors alone don’t lead to trust. With the right guidelines, trust can grow in any team—in person, hybrid, or 100% remote.

So, what is trust?

Before we can talk about how to build trust, let’s take a minute to define what trust is: Trust is believing that someone is safe, reliable, credible, and helpful. 

Experts break trust into two areas:

  • Practical trust is the easy part. It’s earned by being dependable, being competent, living up to your promises, and taking accountability for your actions. If you do your job well, practical trust comes fairly quickly.
  • Emotional trust takes longer, but it’s where the magic happens. You earn emotional trust by creating meaningful bonds with your coworkers, treating people with respect, sharing thoughts/feelings, and going the extra mile for your colleagues.

It’s also important to note that trust takes time to build. It’s accumulated through regular, positive interactions with others. There’s no insta-trust easy button.

Trust is a three-way street

Workplace trust isn’t a top-down mandate or about employees pledging fealty to their managers. It requires three kinds of relationships: Leaders trusting employees, employees trusting leaders, and colleagues trusting each other. Trust is everyone’s responsibility.

Here are a few ways to create a culture of trusting relationships throughout your remote or hybrid workplace. (Psst, they actually work in any environment.)

  • Set clear expectations. Start by getting everyone aligned behind the same purpose and goals. Then, managers can provide clear work expectations and performance metrics that make sense to employees. Employees can provide clear information about the help they need from managers to achieve common goals. Finally, colleagues can work together to figure out how to divide the workload and succeed together.
  • Trust others (and they’ll trust you). When you put your trust in people, they feel great. And it makes them want to trust you back. So, model the behavior you’d like to receive. If you’re a manager, trust your employees to make key decisions in their area of expertise. If you’re an employee, trust your manager by candidly discussing your career goals. Working with a colleague? Trust that they’re doing their job to the best of their ability.
  • Treat people like humans. Go beyond job interactions and take an interest in other peoples’ wellbeing. When you make a human connection, you learn what motivates people, why people act the way they do, and what you have in common. It leads to better working relationships, friendship, workplace satisfaction, and compassion. For example, once you know a colleague cares for an elderly parent, you’ll cut them some slack if they miss a meeting to take Mom to the doctor. (And, don’t forget to let others get to know you, too!)
  • Create community. People want fellowship and camaraderie—even if they prefer to work at home. So be intentional about community building. Make time for scheduled digital team lunches, create a book club, play online games together, or have lunch-n-learn sessions about work stuff (or random fun topics.) And, if possible, try to get remote and hybrid teams to meet in person every six months or so.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Transparent, clear, and inclusive communication empowers a team to do their best work. It creates an environment where everyone is comfortable sharing their ideas. Whether you’re sending an email to a single colleague or presenting to the whole team, focus on clarity. Don’t be afraid to be detailed. And, finally, remember to choose the right medium for each message (Is it ok to email this information or would a quick call be better?).
  • Assume good intent. Most people want to do a good job, and they want to be good colleagues—so when a problem comes up, give people the benefit of the doubt. (As they said in the 80s “trust but verify.”) Especially on dispersed teams, things can be easily misconstrued over email or Slack. If something is worrying you, assume it’s a misunderstanding, and get clarification. If it’s really an issue, you can discuss how to resolve it.

This part’s just for the managers and leaders

As leaders, you set the pace for trust in your organization. Here are a few hints to accelerate trust-building and avoid trust-busting mistakes:

  • Celebrate autonomy. Today’s talent is looking for organizations that provide flexibility and autonomy to do their jobs effectively. There’s no one-size-fits-all best work style. So, let people structure their job in a way that makes them most successful at work and in life. Maybe that means starting work at 9:00 instead of 8:00 or working at home on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or maybe it means trying a new process for an established task. As long as they (and their team) get good results, it’s a win for everyone.
  • Do check-ins, not check-ups. Checking up on employees to see if they’re doing their work or doing it right, is a surefire way to erode trust. Instead, check in with employees—ask them how they’re doing, if they’re having any challenges, and how you can help them achieve their goals.
  • Ban bossware. Want to kill trust faster than it takes to say “micromanager”? Using bossware (a.k.a. “productivity tracking software”) allows organizations to spy on employee computers to see if people are working. It’s pretty much the anthesis of trust-building. It feels like an invasion of privacy and a breach of trust. And employees usually know how to game the system anyway. Just don’t do it.
  • Avoid surprises. Unless it’s a $1 million bonus for every employee, surprises erode trust. An unexpected change of plans or a new employee can make people defensive. Instead, make sure everyone knows about what’s happening well in the future, so they can get questions answered prepared for what’s next.
  • Act on feedback. If your employees provide constructive feedback, don’t brush it off. Even if it’s negative feedback, you have an opportunity to turn it into a trust-building opportunity by taking visible action. Acting on feedback is one of the best ways to increase loyalty and trust.

We’re all still learning

When the world went remote, most people were caught with no training or preparation for being part of a remote team. It wasn’t easy, and we’re still learning. No matter what kind of team you’re working with, building trust will set the foundation for good work and happy workers.

About Salo 

At Salo, we’re building a world that works better together. We match expert finance, accounting, HR, and c-level consultants with organizations that need their expertise. If you’re looking to build trust in your organization, we have senior-level HR consultants who can help. Contact us today.