Building Trust Virtually: How to Get it Done

by Dec 22, 2020Business

We can’t rely on traditional approaches

Research into the science behind human communication tells us that up to 90 percent of what we tell one another is nonverbal. In other words, the majority of our communication isn’t with words. It’s the innumerable eye, facial, and body movements we flash one another that help us understand someone’s intent–and if we should trust them.

Building trust in business is obviously a critical element in everything from making deals to creating effective teams. If people don’t trust one another, things can fall apart very quickly. It is well-documented that trust correlates to performance in virtual teams.

The challenge we all face is figuring out ways to build trust now that we’re increasingly working in virtual environments. Sure, we have some interactions on videoconferences to work with. But the physical cues we’ve become accustomed to reacting to are muted and masked. It’s just not the same as catching up after a weekend at the water cooler with someone face-to-face. This is forcing us to develop new ways to trust one another.

That means, absent those face-to-face opportunities, there are other tools we can turn to instead. Good leaders are working to engineer those opportunities to build trust in their now virtual teams.

1. Deliver on Promises

Now that we can’t develop trust through our face-to-face interactions, we need to adapt to the mindset that former president Ronald Reagan called “trust but verify.” In this case, that means we can develop trust in one another through our actions rather than just through our eyes.

There are lessons we can learn from global multinational companies that have figured out how to make virtual relationships work over the past few decades. If you have vital business partners, or even employees, working overseas, you have, at best, limited opportunities to meet with them in person. What these companies have learned is that actions speak louder than words, and people base a simple analysis of trustworthiness on delivering on commitments. People that do are trustworthy; people that don’t, aren’t.

You can build a lot of trust with a team by always doing exactly what you say you’re going to do. That’s how you can prove that you’re trustworthy over time, even in a virtual environment. It’s remarkable how committing to a goal and then delivering on it can build enormous goodwill in a team.

2. Share Credentials

When you hire virtual workers and get a new virtual team member, there is the question of whether someone has the background and experience they claim to have. Someone might be far less likely to lie about having a Ph.D. in a very specialized area if they have to see you in the break room every day than if
you only hear from them via email.

That means we all need to lean on tools and techniques to help verify someone’s background. One example could be conducting a thorough search of an employee’s background on LinkedIn–a place where people might be unlikely to stretch the truth. Some companies have built talent databases in which people can search for their teammates and verify their impressive backgrounds. Knowing that you are working with a certified superstar builds trust.

3. This Matters Going Forward

I can already hear those who might argue against my points, especially in companies with established teams. If you’ve already established a trusting relationship with someone face-to-face in the pre-Covid era, for instance, it might not be a big deal to shift to working together virtually.

But the key is to imagine what things will be like moving forward. Our virtual workplace is here to stay, in one form or another. That means it’s imperative to evolve your thinking when it comes to adapting to a virtual workforce. At some point, you will have the opportunity to work with someone who will not be located in the
same physical location that you are. It’s at that point that you’ll need to answer the question: Do I trust this person? It’s central to team performance, and you will need to have a good answer.

That’s why finding ways to employ a trust-but-verify strategy–finding ways to get someone to prove their trustworthiness by their accountability to doing what they say they will and backing up their claims of experience–will go a long way in helping you adapt to the new reality that we work in.