by Wayne Turmel and Kevin Eikenberry

Man crossing fingers behind his back

In our survey of long-distance leaders, one of the words that comes up frequently is “trust.” People worry about whether they can trust their teammates, or are trusted in return. It’s an important question, and it can’t be answered unless you understand, while being trusted is nice, it really doesn’t matter except that trust (or the lack of it) impacts behavior. Does your remote team act like they trust each other?

How do you know that trust may be an issue on your remote team? Obviously, the clearest message would be if someone says, “I don’t trust you.” Ironically, they’d have to trust you enough to tell you that, so let’s assume that’s a non-starter.

Here are some of the most common behaviors that trust may be an issue:

You are suddenly copied on every email (or on email between certain people).

When the leader gets copied on every email someone sends, or on communication between an employee and another person on a regular basis, it may be a sign that there’s a trust issue. Bear in mind, this can mean that trust between the two parties is damaged (e.g. “If I don’t copy my boss on this email, Alice won’t respond to me in time”). It can also be a sign that they don’t trust the leader (e.g. “If I don’t let them know everything I’m doing they won’t believe I’m working}. The important indicator is that there is a sudden, unexplained change in existing behavior.

The leader constantly has to suggest resources on the remote team.

When teammates don’t trust each other, it’s tempting to rely more on the manager. They’ll come to you and ask something like, “Who do you think I should ask about this?” A part of you might be thinking, “You jolly-well know to go to Jane. Why don’t you just do that?” There may be a reason that’s not happening: that person doesn’t trust Jane.

Normally engaged people go radio silent.

If Bob has always been an active member of the team, but suddenly isn’t contributing on conference calls or volunteering his opinion, there may be an underlying trust issue. Maybe he doesn’t believe that he’ll be heard out, or that people are waiting for him to say something stupid so they can criticize him. The point is to notice that his behavior has changed, and if it’s happening over time.

You’re asked to run interference.

One clear sign that there’s a trust issue is unwillingness to go directly to other people with information. If you’re asked “Will you ask Jane to do this?” or “Can you please tell Alice we’ll be late with those numbers?”  it is likely that the other person doesn’t trust that they’ll be listened to or believed.

Three Responses for Leaders

There are three important caveats to before responding. The first, is to notice that it’s happening at all. Very seldom does trust break in a single moment. It’s often the result of behaviors over time. As the leader, are you paying attention to the communication behaviors on your team? You can’t respond to a problem you’re oblivious to.

The second is to avoid making assumptions about what’s causing the behavior. Sometimes people do things without thinking, or out of habit. When you see one of these behaviors, it’s important to take the time to uncover why it’s occurring. For example, copying you on everything may be the honest result of taking your “keep me in the loop” comment too literally. Don’t automatically assume it’s a trust issue. Dig a little deeper.

The third point, and the one that’s trickiest for many of us, is to take action if we notice the behavior taking place. It’s easier to roll our eyes and complain about people being childish AND forward that email, than it is to have a rich conversation with one or both of those parties and ask what’s going on. Your initial response might not be anything dramatic or authoritative. It may just be a question. The important thing is to not let it fester.

In The Long-Distance Leader, we talk about the Trust Model—the notion that any trusting relationship is built on these three pillars: common purpose, competence and motivation. When you see non-trusting behaviors taking place, it’s important to ask yourself, “Could this behavior reflect at least one of these factors being out of whack?”

As leaders, we need not only to ensure that we  are trusted, but are acting in a way that makes us trust-worthy.

For more valuable resources on leading remote teams, order your copy of The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.


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