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By: Ruchi Sinha
Trust isn’t easy to build. It develops slowly, typically after you and another person have spent some time interacting and assessing each other’s character — specifically, these three qualities (which I’ll describe in more detail later in this piece):
If all goes well and that trust builds, you start to feel psychologically safe and can form a stable belief about one another. But remote work has made all of this difficult to do.
Many of us are interacting through our screens and working on hybrid teams with people located in various areas of the world who we’re not likely to meet face-to-face anytime soon. We lack the luxury of regularly observing our peers in-person, making it harder to gauge their intentions, values, and characters (and vice versa).
This is a problem. In any kind of work environment, you need trust for all kinds of reasons. Without it, you may not feel comfortable bringing your full self to work. You and your teammates may struggle to support one another or openly share ideas and opinions, leading to damaging miscommunications, decreased productivity, and a fear of taking risks that could help you learn and grow in your career.
As an academic, I have explored trust in many different contexts, including how trust is rebuilt in the aftermath of conflict and how the emotions we express during negotiations impact trust. Through my own work and through reading various literature on trust, I’ve learned that the fundamentals of how we judge the trustworthiness of others remains the same across relationships. There are ways to build and sustain trust if you know how to send and receive the right signals.
Here are three of the most readable indicators of trust. The good news is you can display them whether you are in-person or remote, and encourage them on your team.
Competence is your ability to do something efficiently and successfully. When others perceive you as competent, they believe that you have the skills and knowledge to do what you say you will. This allows them to perceive you as dependable, reliable, and predictable — all of which are essential drivers of trust. Some things you can do to signal your competence include:
Be organized and planful:
Before team meetings, do your homework and study the agenda. To show that you are prepared, show up with a list of questions, research, or solutions that may be of interest to the stakeholders involved in the project. Your peers will see that you are a motivated and organized team player.
Show reliability and consistency:
Be consistent in the messages you give out. If you’ve said no to meeting a certain deadline to one team member, don’t switch to a yes when another member asks. If you have critical feedback on a project, don’t tell one coworker and hide your concerns from another. People inherently associate consistency and commitment with dependability. Treat everyone fairly and make sure your behaviors match your values.
Be thoughtful about what you promise :Don’t promise things that you don’t have the time or motivation to deliver on. Also, avoid over-promising and under-delivering (like saying yes to a deadline that is two days away when you know it will realistically take you a week to get things done). When talking to teammates, avoid making generic statements of support (“Yeah, good idea. We should do something about that.”). Instead, offer actionable ways in which you can support them when you like their ideas (“Hey, I love that idea. I am happy to help you write out an action plan next week.”). Likewise, if you don’t agree with an idea, be honest and don’t give inauthentic support just for the sake of it.
Be predictable and dependable: Remove mysteriousness around your actions by explaining your motives, values, and criterion. For example, when you suggest ideas to your colleagues, you can say, “Here is what I think we should do. Let us focus on doing X. The reason why I am suggesting this is because I have considered the following facts: A, B and C. Here are my assumptions and rationale for why these facts have led me to pick X over other options. I am open to feedback and would love you to weigh in on the best path forward.”
Benevolence is the quality of being well-meaning and the degree to which you have others interests at heart. Other will grow to trust you based on the extent to which they believe you care about their interests, and have the motivation to go beyond your self-needs to cater to the team’s needs. Some things you can do to signal your benevolence include:
People will be more open to your ideas if they feel your values overlap with theirs. Try to identify the topics and goals you and your teammates share by engaging them in genuine conversations. For example, when someone shares a thing or two about their life at the start of a meeting, try to relate to them in some way by sharing something from your own. When someone asks how you’re doing, take it as an opportunity to engage authentically. Be honest about the challenges and struggles you are facing — and ask questions back. Finally, when talk about your ideas, link them to your values. This will give others a chance to make deeper connections with you. The more your peers understand where you are coming from, the more likely they will be to support you.
Show kindness and compassion:
Small gestures make a big difference. During informal catch-ups or conversations on Slack or IM, take the time to ask how your teammates how they are feeling and be genuinely interested. People will likely see you as someone who cares about the needs of others, and as a result, believe you are more trustworthy. For example, you could pitch-in to help a colleague who is struggling with a family emergency or shout out your colleague’s work at the next team meeting. When others see you as someone who shows kindness and compassion, they are more likely to interpret what you say in a positive light.
Be careful about the words you choose. During meetings, make sure your comments are not dismissive. Avoid scoffing and eye-rolls no matter how disinterested you may be. Don’t dominate the conversation, instead, make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Avoid gossiping behind a colleague’s back. If a teammate has shared a personal struggle with you, it is not your place to share it with others. You need to care about privacy at work. Be mindful of managing personal and professional boundaries so that you can be trusted with sensitive information.
Integrity is how you adhere to strong moral principles and how honest you are. Integrity is hard to judge and critical for trust building. A lot of behaviors at work are seen as instrumental and strategic, leaving people ambiguous about whether actions are coming from underlying values or merely a façade. Thus, the more opportunities you have to articulate your values explicitly and to allow team members to see your values in action, the more likely they will have faith in you and invest their trust in you.
Find ways to show your support and allegiance to your team members. As a new member, you can show loyalty by endorsing the reputation of your team to external parties, defending the vision and mission of your team, and by acting in the interest of the team’s goals rather than your personal goals. If your manager praises you for a presentation you just delivered and you had three colleagues help you put it together, give credit where it’s due. Instead of saying, “Thank you, I worked hard on it,” you can say, “Thank you. I’d like to acknowledge all the help I received from X, Y, and Z.”
By listening to and considering your teammate’s perspectives before you make decisions, you show through your actions that you are reflective and deliberate, as opposed to impulsive. For example, if you find yourself in a disagreement, instead of retaliating with a counterargument, first take the time to listen to your colleague. Try and understand their side of the argument. Ask clarifying questions and then make your point. You could say, “The way I see it, you mean X.” This shows that you listened to their points and that you want to understand them before you react — and not just “win” the argument for the sake of winning.
Try to go beyond your duties to personally do better than what is expected of you, and to help others achieve excellence. For example, you could take the initiative to act in prosocial ways by offering to teach skills to colleagues that can improve their performance at work. Are you a pro at Excel? Lead a mini masterclass for your peers.
Successful teams are made of successful teamwork, and for that, trust is key. Show your coworkers that you’re worthy of their trust by displaying the traits highlighted above. Be consistent, and look for consistency in the actions of your peers. That is how they will develop stable beliefs about your character, and how you can measure whether or not it’s worth investing your time and trust in them.