Building Trust on Remote Teams

Building Trust on Remote Teams

As “working remote” became a hot topic over the past few months, most of the articles and advice understandably focused on establishing processes and setting up communications and team collaboration. Those are important but not enough. While robust technology and processes are essential, it is people’s behavior that determines the performance of a remote team. Trust is a crucial element that defines that behavior.

A Team Without Trust Isn’t a Team

We live in a world of instant communications across geographies and time zones, flatter organizations and changing expectations and attitudes toward work. Today, from multinational organizations to startups, remote work has become the norm, with more and more companies becoming ‘remote-first.’ When remote teams are working well, people draw their strength and energy from healthy, trusting team relationships. Broadly, those people share a few essential characteristics:

  • Their personalities, work style preferences, and comfort with technology make them well suited for a remote or hybrid team.
  • They’re empathetic toward their teammates no matter the distance or differences in culture, and regardless of whether they’ve ever met in person.
  • They understand the importance of trust and are comfortable with constant feedback.

What makes leading in a tech-enabled, flat, team-based world challenging is that bad behavior gets amplified, and it only takes one person to diminish trust and foster dysfunction across a team or organization.

A few years ago, a large IT company was setting up a new country sales-and-service organization for one of its product lines. One of the more experienced people with an excellent track record as an individual contributor was promoted to team leader and for the first couple of months, everything appeared to be working smoothly. Then the division leadership team started hearing rumblings from the regional HQ team and people within the country that the new leader was bullying people across both the country and regional groups. As turnover jumped and performance dropped it became clear that this promotion was a mistake.

People on highly effective remote teams excel because of their teammates. This team leader was driven to perform in his new role but didn’t understand the importance of building trust as the means of delivering that performance. His toxic behavior rapidly began to poison the organization. It took replacing him with a leader who understood the strength of individual team members lies with the team to restore balance and begin rebuilding trust.

The Three Habits

Leading a remote team is hard. Team leaders who excel consistently adopt three habits that build strong, trusting relationships that lead to their team thriving:

  1. They establish a shared understanding of the norms and ground rules by which the team will operate such as everyone has an equal voice, a zero-tolerance for bias, and ensure psychological safety. Then, they encourage shared ownership and leadership by ensuring that the team actively uses those ground rules as a guide to reinforce positive behaviors and steer people away from actions at odds with the core values agreed upon by the team.
  2. They inspire individual motivation by meeting people’s core psychological needs at work – understand the purpose they find in their role; the competencies they need to realize that purpose; and the level of freedom they need to be fully engaged and productive. Balancing those three elements should be part of every 1-1 conversation.
  3. They help people to see trust gaps by frequently gathering feedback from all team members on their expectations versus their actual experiences with teammates, the team leader, and across other teams on whom they depend. Then, they work to close those gaps together as a team.

Those three habits develop a shared understanding and team trust by addressing relationship issues early and enabling teamwork to progress with less monitoring, greater resource efficiency, and less duplication of effort. The result is better communications, greater collaboration, and higher performance.

All teams face challenges. Leading a remote team and inspiring people to do their best and be their best takes team leadership to another level. The reality for remote teams is that they face greater complexity and uncertainty as they strive to overcome the barriers of time, distance, communications, and cultures. When people work remotely, issues or toxic behaviors are amplified and trust can be easily diminished. Creating and sustaining trust and shared understanding are the essential ingredients that enable remote teams to thrive.


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is the Co-Founder of Xmetryx and Brainware Partners. Jeb works with senior leaders as a strategic advisor and changemaker to transform vision into reality. He provides the guidance, techniques, and tools to help people embrace change and create a high-trust, cohesive team of teams.

Learn More About Brainware Partners

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