How To Build Trust When Your Team Doesn't Know Each Other

Last Updated May 5, 2011 4:47 PM EDT

We know that trust is absolutely critical to team and project success. It's always been hard to build and maintain, but when you don't work in the same physical location it can feel even more difficult. The good news is that we know the three components of trusting teams. The trick is to make them work remotely.

What are the three components of trust? Well there are several models but the one I use most frequently in my work with remote teams labels them as 1) Common goals, 2) Competence and 3) Motives. Why does each matter, and how can we build them when we're not around each other all the time?

Common Goals- is everyone pulling together for the same reasons to reach the same end result? This might seem obvious but the matrix structure of most project teams (there is a project leader but most people have other, "real", bosses) makes things awfully complicated. Even if you do a great job at the outset in agreeing to goals, over time priorities and focus shifts. Also, what was clear at the beginning of a project might get fuzzy as people leave and join your team.

Ensure that you kick off the project with clear, documented goals and refer to them constantly. Some companies actually use the project charter to kick off every status meeting. It might feel like overkill but at least no one can claim they don't know what they're supposed to be doing.

Evidence of competence- You can have everyone attempting to achieve the same goal, but are they competent to get the job done? If you work together all the time, you know each other's strengths and weaknesses (you know Bob's not a detail guy, so we'll give that to Sharon). With teams that have been put together quickly or people who don't know each other you don't have those opportunities and it only takes one missed deadline or one piece of work that isn't up to snuff to start people muttering about whether someone's pulling their weight.

There are many ways to show off the competence of team members. When you have message boards and social network tools, there are opportunities to answer questions, refer other team members and generally offer individuals a chance to shine they might not otherwise get. As the manager, take the chance to commend workers in ways that let the entire team know who did such great work. Finally, take the opportunity to delegate tasks. Not only will that allow the team member to see individuals as more than just the role they're known for,but might actually stop you from doing a lot of the grunt work yourself.

Proof of motives- one of the most insidious challenges to teams is the sneaking suspicion that so-and-so is capable of doing that work but they missed the deadline out of spite, or because they don't care, or because their "real" boss is taking up too much of their time. Why people do what they do (or not) is hard to prove but easy to speculate on...and few of us create best-case scenarios.

Not answering our IMs? Obviously they don't consider us important. We don't know if that's true or they were home sick that day but we're happy to act as if we know. Managers should work with the team to create communication charters and standards, then monitor and coach the team to ensure those standards are met. When problems arise, make sure that they are discussed openly (where it's applicable) and that all parties are fine with the solution. Letting things fester is a great way to save time now, and spend a lot of precious hours dealing with the fallout later.

People who are working towards a common goal, who appear to be good at what they do and have the team's best interest at heart are easy to trust, whether they're on the other side of the globe or slaving away at the next cubicle.

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picture by flickr user Aidan Jones CC 2.0