Trust is a two-way street. You may wonder what your team is doing all day, but your employees may question the same thing of you.

Early tomorrow morning your team will present a big proposal to the company CEO. As the leader, you’ve overseen every bit of this presentation, but the design of the slides is in the hands of a junior colleague, Tara. Late in the work day, you send notes for the final edits then text Tara to check in.

“Got everything you need?” you write. 

She replies: “Sure.”

Does Tara’s one word reply make you nervous too?


Why trust is tough in virtual teams

Research shows that it’s hard to read the tone of email and text messages. Comments that are meant to be positive can be perceived as neutral; neutral comments can be perceived as negative. If your team is entirely virtual, the emails, text messages, and Slack comments can leave a lot of room for interpretation, making it harder to know how someone is really feeling or what they really mean. 

Trust is the magic that makes all things possible in virtual teams, but developing it virtually isn’t easy. If you trust Tara, in our example above, you’ll probably close your computer and end your day with confidence. If you don’t, you may have a sleepless night ahead, waiting for the finished slides to arrive. 

In virtual teams, we often lack the vocal and visual cues of face-to-face communication. We also lack the familiarity built by spending unscheduled time together. In these contexts, you may begin to question the intentions, use of time, competence, or loyalty of your team. Trust is a two-way street: your employees may question the same things of you, as their leader. How do we overcome those challenges on virtual teams? It starts by understanding trust and how it is built.


Two types of trust at work

There are two types of trust to consider for your virtual team. The first is task trust. You have task trust for a colleague or team when you are certain they are capable of and responsible for completing a specific task. Whether that task is updating the slides for tomorrow’s presentation or overseeing a merger and acquisition—if you believe your colleague can and will get the job done, you have task trust. 

Relationship trust is different from task trust. We have relationship trust for someone when we feel safe sharing our ideas or concerns with them. Let’s say you have concerns about the upcoming merger or acquisition: if you can tell your colleague your concerns, you have relationship trust. Relationship trust can also involve your personal circumstances: you have relational trust if you can talk with a colleague about your teenager’s behavior, or ask a colleague for advice about whether you should consider applying for a promotion. 

In virtual teams, researchers have found that new teams need relational trust first. Once that is established, task trust becomes more important.

Here’s what busy leaders often get wrong: we make the mistake of believing that relational trust will develop through working on tasks together. If that were the case, we could stay fully focused on business and let relationships develop naturally. But it doesn’t work that way. High performing virtual teams invest first in relationships, knowing that relational trust can be leveraged to produce great task results.


Building relational trust on virtual teams

New and struggling teams need to put an intentional focus on building relational trust. We offer three tips for doing this well below. If your team is already high performing, chances are you’ve naturally created an environment of high relational trust. But there is no ceiling on trust: even strong teams can benefit from considering these ideas. Here are three ways to get started. 

1. Do a psych safety audit.

Harvard scholar Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. You can see why this is important to relational trust: if we feel we’re safe, we’re more likely to develop authentic relationships.

To conduct your psych safety audit, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can people on your team bring you bad news and trust you’ll respond with an even temper?
  • Can you think of times when each junior member of your team has contradicted your opinion or politely offered critical feedback?
  • Do team members feel recognized for their hard work and original ideas?

If you answered yes to all three of those—and if you feel the team would answer the same—you probably have a solid existing level of psych safety. Now think about who might not answer yes to these questions: why might they feel this way? What can you do to ensure they feel safe as well?

2. Practice empathy

It’s impossible to check our emotions at the door when we go to work, even if “going” to work just means logging into a Zoom meeting. Research shows that virtual team leaders can create more relational trust by thinking about how others might be feeling. That big announcement you’re about to make? What will it mean for Sharon’s job? Tim is trying to manage his responsibilities as a marketing director while also helping his son with virtual schooling. Do you know how he’s feeling?

Leaders can build trust by creating an empathic environment. Do this by:

  • Considering how decisions will be received by those who are most impacted by the work.
  • Acknowledging the personal experiences of others and showing thoughtfulness to their situations. 
  • Being willing to share your own feelings and emotions. Doing so makes it safer for team members to show up authentically. 

3. Encourage non-work talk.

All work and no play makes for a low performing team. Create space for your virtual team to have non-work conversations and even to play together. Devote the first 10 minutes of your executive team meeting to catching up on each other’s lives; begin monthly staff meetings with ice breaker questions; and schedule agenda-free lunches (virtually) with colleagues.

One executive organization I’m part of holds 2-day retreats each spring and fall. Though our time together is short, we spend at least an hour of this time on an exercise we call “I recommend.” The exercise is simple—just create a shared virtual doc (in Mural, Miro, or even a Google Sheet). Write each team member’s name on one line. Then share the link and ask them to write, beside their name, a few things they recommend to others. It might be a new book, a favorite TV show or band, or a product they can’t live without. Then we give each team member time to briefly share their reasons for their recommendations. 

“I recommend” is always one of the favorite sessions of the retreat because you learn so much about your colleagues in an engaging way. (Some top recommendations from a past exchange: the TV show Ted Lasso, the band The Black Pumas, the game Ticket to Ride, and Spindrift, a sparkling water that makes great cocktails.)


When more help is needed to build trust

Some teams have underlying relational challenges that can’t be fixed with these three simple ideas. That doesn’t mean your team can’t build relational trust. Ad Lucem Group’s advisors bring expert insight to your organization, helping you find paths forward that will build relational trust and lead your team toward peak performance. Learn more here.

For more on the research mentioned in this article, check out this free resource co-authored by Amber.

Amber Johnson

Amber Johnson

Senior Culture & Strategy Advisor

As a facilitator and consultant, Amber helps companies connect their purpose to their core strategies and behaviors in order to shape culture and drive business results. Amber has global leadership experience with World Vision and the US Peace Corps and has served as a leadership development, organization change, and strategy consultant to organizations including digital marketing agencies, software firms, universities, manufacturing companies, utilities, and non-profit organizations. As the Chief Communications Officer for Benedictine University’s Center for Values-Driven Leadership, Amber oversaw thought leadership, including publishing four eBooks.

Learn more about Amber here.

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