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Building Better Relationships In a Virtual World

Why is trust harder to develop on-line and what can we do about it?

As we have found ourselves propelled into a virtual world, trust is more important than ever. With most people working remotely, trust is at the forefront of business leader’s minds as they consider how to get the most out of their teams, and how they support them from a distance. For most, this has been done without much planning and consideration for the impact of working in physical isolation from one another.

As we continue to evolve in this virtual world, trust has become the most important element for effective organisational dynamics and is at the forefront of business leaders’ minds as they consider how to get the most out of their employees. Critical to the health of a team and its performance, is the ability of each team member to collaborate and a vital component of effective collaboration is a foundation of trust. While we acknowledge the importance of trust, the challenge is how do we develop trust in virtual setting?
At the heart of trust is our capacity to determine if someone is being authentic. Do we get a sense of friend rather than foe? It is reliant on our ability to read the signals and body language of others – to work out whether there is consistency between words and actions. When we detect there is inconsistency, we are far less likely to trust the other person. We often work this out quickly and unconsciously.

According to Maister, Green and Galford (The Trusted Advisor), trustworthiness is more than reliability and credibility, we build it when we have a lower ‘self’-orientation (and higher ‘us’-orientation), and when it is safe to share some of our vulnerabilities. Vulnerability, or ‘vulnerability-based trust’ can be expressed in terms of our reliance on others, our need to work together or as an acknowledgement that we aren’t perfect.

(Trusted Advisor Framework, LLC)

Virtual communication, whilst a little clunky, still offers opportunities to build vulnerability-based trust. The fact that none of us has experienced the level of change, uncertainty and complexity we are dealing with now, gives us a platform to express our reliance and need for others and forgiveness for not having all the answers.

How can I build vulnerability-based trust, in a virtual setting?

  • Share your own experiences of working remotely and mistakes along the way
  • If you detect an issue with team dynamics, share your observations with the team
  • Share your problem-solving strategies with others and ask for feedback
  • Be transparent about your uncertainties, share your concerns and let your team see you as a person, not just a manager
  • Instead of having all the answers to a team member’s problem or issue, use open ended coaching questions to help them find a solution, i.e.. If I wasn’t here to help, what would you have done?’, ‘If you had one opportunity to resolve it, what would you do?’

We may need to work a little harder to maintain trust while working remotely, but sharing our vulnerabilities is one way to overcome the barriers of technology and to build productive and healthy relationships.

TMS Consulting specialises in supporting leaders and teams to develop trust and collaboration to build better, more productive relationships with colleagues and clients. We are currently working virtually with clients on programs that focus on building positive, accountable, and adaptive leaders and teams and have 14 years experience building leadership capability and improving workplace culture.

Sarah Austin
About the author

Sarah Austin

Sarah has been a qualified coach and learning and organisational development advisor to leaders and organisations for over fifteen years, bringing significant expertise to TMS clients. Her knowledge makes her a learning and development professional as well as and a trusted advisor on leadership, performance, change, talent, culture, and OD.