How do we maintain trust in socially distanced uncertain world?

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We have been living with COVID-19 and it;s restrictions now for 3 months, and I don’t know about you but it is starting to take its toll. This is very much in evidence with teams and social networks that for 3 months now (and is a few cases longer) have been operating remotely. The strain on remote teams and networks if not addressed will cause many to break.

Most commentators and researchers on teams and leadership (Lencioni, Brown, and Sinek to name but a few) point to trust being the cornerstone to the success of any team whether they work, recreational or social teams. So how do we maintain and develop trust in our teams that are often remote from each other, and are facing challenges they have never faced before?

Now teams learn to trust each other through regular communication and social interaction. We trust each other, because we know each other, we have an understanding of other. This is developed through incidental social moments that we have throughout the day, and then having social events outside of work. Those small things that develop within the culture of a team. 

All of these small things are second nature, we rarely think about or talk about them, they are the fabric of the team, and as new people join the team they adopt and add to the culture of the team. These incidental moments are what are present in functioning teams and are often absent or dysfunctional in failing teams. 

Many teams over recent months have become remote teams, with some members working from home. Even teams that still work together, now work together in very different ways, break times that use to form the bedrock of those social interactions, are much reduced with only a small number of people allowed in break rooms. Not only is there less opportunity for individuals to interact and build trust, the opportunity for leaders to interact is drastically reduced. As good leaders set the tone for a team it is vital that leaders find the opportunity to build trust with and within their teams. 

Building this trust requires intentionality and leaders to consciously pay attention to what creates trust in teams and apply that to their circumstances. Zenger and Folkman (2019) wrote last year in The Harvard Business Review that their research showed that there were 3 elements to trust in leaders:

  • Positive relationships
  • Good judgement/expertise
  • Consistency

Their research suggested that teams trusted their leaders if all these elements were present. The research also suggested that trust could still be present with varying combinations of these elements. What was surprising though was that the most important element to create trust was positive relationships and the least impactful was consistency. 

This highlights the need for leaders to intentionally seek out social interaction with their teams to foster those positive relationships. This means scheduling regular meetings and 1 to 1s with staff but not just to talk about business but to pay attention to the lives of teams members and share experiences. This means allowing time in virtual meetings for social interactions instead of ending the meeting when all agenda items have been exhausted. It is important to create an environment that suites the team and suites the new circumstances of the team. 

It is also worth considering Brene Brown’s checklist of trust. This acronym can be used as a checklist for teams and individuals alike to establish if you are creating an environment where trust can be fostered.

  • Boundaries: Are the boundaries of acceptable conduct and behaviours, declared and understood by all? Everyone must participate in and agree with the parameters of team conduct
  • Reliability: Everyone does what they say they will do. There is a consistency in response and behaviour.
  • Accountability: When the team or members of the team exceed boundaries, behaviours fall below the acceptable standards, or a mistake is made, these shortcomings are acknowledged, the team or individual apologises and makes amends.
  • Vault: No one in the team shares what is not theirs to share. Therefore gossiping is not accepted by the team.
  • Integrity: The team and its members will do what is right, rather than what is convenient.
  • Non-Judgement: The team and its members will support and help without judgement, and will ask for help and support without judging themselves
  • Generosity: The team and its members will always take the most generous interpretation of the situation, assuming that everyone is trying their best, but sometimes people need help to improve. 

Using these checklists in an intentional way will help teams maintain and improve trust in these difficult times. We all have to establish new patterns of working. At the heart of these new patterns is people, and is vital to the success of organisations and businesses that leaders pay special attention to the people in those teams to foster trust.


Published by Matt Smith Personal and Professional Coach

Performance and Life Coach

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