Trust Culture: Can We Level with Each Other Here?
No, just no: virtual collaboration is not the same as doing so in-person; it’s not even a close approximation. The idea that online tools can replace authentic interpersonal communication is a delusion. I teach trust, and I must level with you about this. Don’t get fooled or over-reliant on Zoom.
Now, I’m tremendously grateful for Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and their kind. Online communication tools are indispensable for overcoming physical distance, given the speed of life and business. And they provide a visual connectivity lifeline that phone calls don’t.
But there’s a big difference between coping and thriving. If we’re not careful, we may lose our way. We’ve adjusted to today’s realities because we’ve had to, the way anyone copes with crises that are not of our choosing. We’ve recently hopped online to perform so many things that maybe we think this is universal now. I’ve heard many influential leaders suggest that we’ve turned the virtual corner for good. This would be short-sighted and foolish, and we do so at significant risk to ourselves, our people, and our company cultures.
I’m not talking about working from home vs. the office, as we know that various people can be productive or unproductive in either setting. I’m talking here about our human connections themselves.
The Root of Trust
Real, deep trust is built interpersonally and in no other way. It’s formed with repeated subtle interactions that transcend language, mood, and situation. A trusting relationship is earned and cultivated and sustained only through repeated behaviors over time. To trust someone, we need to witness their reactions first-hand, in real-time, and learn that our thoughts, emotions, victories, and insecurities are safe in this person’s hands. We must see and experience the person to know that they understand and value us. Unless this trust foundation is built, we don’t feel genuinely safe. Alas, there are no shortcuts.
Online tools can augment a trusting relationship with our teammate or boss, but they can’t replace the power of physical presence.
As the World Turns
Ventilators can be lifesaving, but they’re no substitute for lungs. We will eventually move beyond the present crisis. High performing people and companies recognize that the online tools we leaned on during this period may, if taken too far, become unhelpful crutches.
Today, many great company cultures, like ours, have transitioned to WFH and functioning seamlessly online. That’s because trust was built while teams were physically together. Having that foundation gave us momentum going into the pandemic battle.
It would be unwise to assume that an environment long stewed in the weak sauce of mere virtual relationships offers the same level of resilience for the future. Likewise, even if you enjoy excellent mojo today, the longer this crisis wears on, the greater the risk of its erosion – those daily nonverbal and subconscious trust deposits just aren’t being made, virtual happy hours or not.
Leaders, remember the influence of physical presence. That voice in our head that says “virtual connections just aren’t the same” is so right. It’s on us to rebuild human-centered, high-value relationships at work as soon as safely possible. Our competitors, who choose to be satisfied with trendy but weak trust cultures – and who crumble in the next crisis – may live to regret it.
There is a lot of advice out there for making the best of the virtual environment. It’s vital to do so because we’ve all been dealt these cards. Get good at it! It’s an important skill that won’t go away. Just don’t lose sight of what really fuels your culture over the long term, and it isn’t going to be online. Trust me.
For many simple, specific things you can do to improve interpersonal trust at any time, read Bruce’s latest book, The 60-Day Building Trust Workout.