Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Trial By Trust

Kevan Hall, CEO of Global Integration,  discusses why trust is a good barometer of a healthy, well managed team

Organizations with high levels of trust innovate faster and find it easier to attract and retain top talent. Job satisfaction, commitment and loyalty are closely aligned to perceptions of trust. Trust is a critical element in an organization’s culture. Trust is vital to management credibility, workforce loyalty, creativity, challenge and open communication. So why do we pay so little attention to it?

When trust is lacking, employees’ performance are affected, loyalty is compromised and a culture of low morale results, significantly reducing the overall success and prospects of an organization. Yet the many specific benefits achieved by high levels of trust include lower transaction costs (the costs of checking and monitoring relationships); increased willingness to share information and knowledge; greater willingness and confidence to take risks when dealing with ambiguity and to come up with creative solutions; and faster responses through empowered, decentralized decision making.

Ironically in a more networked, social world, building trust is becoming more challenging. Trust has been reducing consistently since the 1950s and well-publicized international business scandals in recent years, including Enron and WorldCom, have led to an overall reduction in trust in business.

With yet more stories of large-scale fraud emerging, the challenge is set to become bigger still.

At the same time, employees working in large, international or virtual organizations rarely meet colleagues face to face. Their objectives often compete, and sometimes even conflict with each other. All of these factors can subtly undermine trust.

Defining trust

Many academics have attempted to define trust. Whilst it’s far from easy, and may mean different things to different people, there are some common threads. Trust is about a confident expectation of behaviour, confidence that people will co-operate and not take advantage; and it is set in a context where individuals are vulnerable in some ways.

Managers initiate trust, so it is their actions that determine whether or not employees feel their company is acting with integrity and in their best interests.

Barriers are inevitable. When managers evaluate the trustworthiness, they tend to focus on the competence and reliability of subordinates. Individuals themselves pay more attention to relationship and benevolence issues.

Managers are subject to huge trust dilemmas. To a certain extent, management in itself is about control. Sometimes managers are put into positions where their obligations to the organization – perhaps cost-cutting directives or even something as prosaic as project deadlines – conflict with their obligations to their people.

Developing and maintaining trust

In developing trust in teams and organizations, there are three key themes: formation, maintenance and recovery (in the event of a trust breach).
Trust formation is a critical stage because very important interactions happen  early on, and the behavioral patterns that a team or organization exhibit are established very early in the process.

In virtual teams in particular, these patterns tend to persist. Virtual teams are often poor at re-establishing relationship norms once established, so getting this right at the beginning can be a pivotal point. Perceptions set at the early stage become a filter through which subsequent interactions are evaluated. If there is initial distrust, future action will be seen through that lens – and it is incredibly hard to change.

At the outset, a virtual team of people is keen to get on with the work. They often have little experience of each other, but are normally willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. If teams start fast and start to deliver quick wins then trust grows as a result of performance. But if there is lack of clarity regarding the purpose of the virtual team, this can cause problems.

Managers need to create an environment where people can succeed, and provide social opportunities for people to begin to get to know each other.

There are many ways in which a manager can help to develop fairly quickly, including: developing a good reputation themselves; using mutually trusted third parties to create an initial good impression; providing an opportunity for a face to face meeting as quickly as possible (or using videoconference); and allowing team members to add value to each other by bringing new skills or perspectives.

Ongoing interactions are critical to maintaining and continuing to build long-term trust. Once initial trust has been established, individual experiences become more important in maintaining it than managers’ behaviour.

Multiple points of connection need to be created – both social and business relationships – and technology can be used for ongoing, regular small-scale communication (Instant Messenger or text chat, for example, can be used to replace those ‘water cooler moments’ that help to cement trust).

At this ‘maintenance’ stage, it is also important to establish an equitable share of communication. Teams that have trust problems tend to be characterised by only one or two people dominating the communication.

When trust is breached

Building trust takes time and effort, yet just one untrustworthy incident can destroy it. If trust is breached, people are hypersensitive to future actions. They become even more critical of potential trust problems. Most trust breaches are minor but if they are not dealt with the perception can become bigger than the reality.

The first step is to acknowledge the problem and the feelings around it. If it’s a ‘competence breach’ (I made a mistake) then an apology helps, but in the case of a ‘character breach’ (I showed lack of integrity), apologizing merely admits and reinforces a lack of integrity. It’s also helpful, initially, to involve a trusted advisor to help the injured party get some perspective.

Once the breach is put into perspective, the person at fault should accept responsibility and either offer to make amends or show a desire to have reconciliation. Then you need to let go and move on. Trust is never completely destroyed if both parties want to continue the relationship. I would strongly recommend that efforts to repair trust happen face to face.

Building and maintaining trust is neither simple nor rapid, but it’s always worth the investment. Due to time constraints and other responsibilities, it’s not always high on our management agenda. The greater the pace of change and environmental uncertainty, the more we need trust but the harder it will be to build, maintain and repair.

All managers should be aware of the value of trust and how to nurture it. Period.

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