One of the great paradoxes of remote work is that it requires a lot of trust, yet that trust is hard to build at a distance and easily damaged. Most of us start out assuming positive intent, and that we trust in people until they show us they’re more deserving of mistrust. At worst, we take a wait-and-see attitude.

As we point out in both The Long-Distance Leader and Long-Distance Teammate, trust depends on both parties having a common purpose, and believing in the competence and positive motivation of the other person.

There are any number of reasons mistrust rears its ugly head. What matters most is what we do about it. So why does mistrust bubble to the surface?

We can’t read people’s minds.

We never really know what’s in another person’s heart or mind, but the more we interact with people the more we create a mental picture of the other person and decide whether we trust them or not. We can build a more-or-less accurate picture of their work. When something negative does happen, we rely on that database to determine if this is a one-time problem or if we can no longer trust them. When we work apart from each other and don’t have the same frequency of communication, each transaction gets  judged individually, and a negative experience can feel like a much bigger deal. Plus when we are by ourselves, our imaginations can run wild, and in the absence of proof we often imagine scenarios that may or may not be true.

We don’t have the same expectations in mind as the other party.

When people let us down it’s usually not (automatically) because they are incompetent or evil. If Alice disappoints you with the quality of her work and you decide she can’t be trusted with a similar task in the future, it could be because she had a different understanding of how to do the job or what the quality of the outcome should look like. If she thinks finishing the task on time is more important than doing it to your personal standards, maybe she didn’t make quality the priority that you did. When there’s conflict, try to get to the source of the problem. It could be that you both didn’t have the same understanding of one of the trust factors (purpose, competence, or motives).

We have been disappointed and let down.

There is an old saying that a cynic is just a romantic who’s been disappointed. We had all the positive feelings and good intentions in the world when we started working with this person, and despite all the discussion and pre-work, they still let us down. Depending on what that negative behavior was and how seriously it impacts us, we may not be willing to just forgive and forget. It is fine to respond negatively when bad things happen. Do we let that poison the relationship? I can’t tell you how to feel, but it is worth asking if one incident means there can never be trust again. When in doubt, think like James Bond: “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.”

Once trust has been broken, we don’t work with the other party to re-establish it.

Maybe you no longer have complete faith in Janice and don’t trust her as much as you did. Does she know that? Have you discussed what caused the tension? First of all, you can’t repair trust if you don’t know the other person has a problem. Secondly, you might want to repair the relationship but don’t know how. These are hard conversations to have, but they’re necessary if you’re going to have to work on the same team.

To repair trust, both parties must understand what happened to break the original good will. Then  you must both agree on how it can be reestablished. Do you need to improve the quality on your next project? Do you need to communicate more frequently so there’s less room for suspicion and worry to take root? Most important, if there are clear expectations, are you willing to re-invest positive energy into that person and the relationship again if circumstances improve.

With all the time left to stew about things and the lack of visual cues and input, it is easy to shake trust in your long-distance colleagues. Rebuilding it is possible, but it’s going to take some work from both parties.

If you want to work on being a better, more trustworthy long-distance teammate, take a look at our 12 Weeks to Being a Great Remote Teammate learning program.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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  1. Repairing trust when working on distributed teams is entirely possible. Each setback is an opportunity to re-engage with empathy. In the long term this can do wonders for the team’s psychological safety.

    Thank you for the insightful post.

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