If the pandemic has not challenged anything, it has challenged the level of trust between business leaders & managers and the rest of team members and even amongst employees. It’s critical that company leaders work to rebuild and maintain trusting relationships — with and among their employees. Those that don’t trust, risk far more than lower morale but also all that comes when trust plummets i.e. lower productivity and stalled innovation. Research allover the globe is showing that as the working-from-home is prolonging, the level of trust from business leaders and managers is waning down drastically – with many even reverting to electronic monitoring solutions. Companies like Hubstaff who provide time-tracking tools for remote work and Sneek who provide a technology that takes webcam pictures of employees on a regular intervals, have reported four to five fold increase in turnover in the past few months.

An increasingly common approach to dealing with decreased trust is to counter it with increased monitoring. Whether done through technology (for example, keystroke capture) or process (for example, daily check-ins), monitoring is usually counterproductive. First, it never works. Any manager who thinks they can know everything their remote employees are doing is fooling themselves; there will always be gaps in any monitoring process. Second, people perform to the measure, not to the objective. It doesn’t take much to figure out how to get around the measures themselves, and employees often put more effort into working around them than into just doing the work. So monitoring can increase burnout and employee dissatisfaction and undermine firm morale.Monitoring fails because it tries to solve the wrong part of the trust equation — it’s about managers trying to eliminate the space for vulnerability.

However, let us take a step back for a moment and see how we ended here in the first place.

Companies have experimented with work-from-home policies for years, so what’s new now? First, remote work is now widespread. Companies previously allowed select employees to work from home, either because those specific employees were highly trusted or because their work allowed managers to measure their output and hold them accountable. Now everyone is at home, regardless of past performance level or job. Secondly a year ago, people were involuntarily thrust into remote work — often without the equipment, training or desire to do it. Whereas before, employees may have opted to work remotely, many are now struggling to focus at home thanks to increased familial responsibilities or because other members of their household are also working from home. Third, uncertainty about the economy and job stability breeds anxiety. When you put all this together, the likelihood that employees will fail to deliver on perceived obligations has increased – which in turn leads to a further erosion of trust.

So how can we solve this?

Research indicates that the factors reducing this ability to trust are not limited to the effects of Covid-19, but are tied to the way we are used to design our work and manage our organisations. So business leaders need to address these underlying issues in order to build a sustainable model of trust.

To start to get to the bottom of this, we need to understand what trust is based upon. What makes us trust a person and not the other? The answer is Predictability. Predictability is the foundation of trust. We’re willing to be vulnerable — to expose ourselves to potential risk — when we have reason to believe that someone will not take advantage of us or disappoint us. Trust is built on the belief that others will deliver and that work done will be of a high quality (competence trust) and that others have good intentions and high integrity (interpersonal trust). Moreover, to trust, people need clear and easily discernible signals about what they’re doing (actions), why they’re doing it (motivations), and whether they’ll continue to do it (reliability).

With the forced move to work from home we lost the opportunity of have informal office conversations at the office that build rapport and interpersonal trust. This makes it even more difficult to establish trust in others because we don’t have the data we need to know what they’ll do. It also eliminates the steady stream of reinforcing information that helps us maintain existing trust. The isolation of remote working may be tied to lower trust for another reason:  we unconsciously interpret a lack of physical contact as a signal of untrustworthiness. So it is almost natural and expected that in a virtual working environment misunderstandings and miscommunications abound. We therefore face a perfect storm of less information on which to establish trust and less reinforcing information to maintain it, and once trust is lost, it’s very hard to regain.

There are a few steps business leaders should take to bring trust back to their relationship with employees and to foster a trust relationship amongst employees themselves.

  • Recognise and leverage reciprocal trust. So often, when we talk about trust, we focus on how we develop it in other people. This misses the fact that trust is bi-directional and reciprocal — research shows that the more you trust someone and act accordingly, the more likely they are to trust you in return. Importantly, these do not operate independently. This means that in order to increase trust within your network, you need to shift your focus to signaling your own trustworthiness. Increasing others’ trust in you reduces uncertainty by creating a more stable and certain environment. Thinking in more Machiavellian terms, it also provides reciprocal leverage — the more trust they place in you, the less likely they will be to betray your trust. This is not setting yourself up to be taken advantage of; this is a strategic move that de-risks trust-building….. and remember that which signals you send is one of the few things you do have control over.
  • Build a trust staircase. Across substantial research on change (behaviour change, culture change, you name it), one message comes through clearly: The best way to create lasting change is through repeated, small, reinforcing steps. Building trust is no exception — it requires evidence and reinforcement. So as a business leader, look for situations that require minimal investments and for which the opportunity and failure costs are low and allow your employees to first demonstrate their trustworthiness within that context and then, over time, build up to larger and more significant demonstrations to reinforce the trust you’re establishing.
  • Engage in status-quo communication. Leaders know how important it is to communicate when things change. However, now, as things are in a constant state of flux, leaders also need to communicate about things that are not changing. Given that trust depends so heavily on predictability, leaders must recognize the critical importance of helping employees understand what they can count on. Doing so reduces uncertainty and creates a needed sense of stability.
  • A one-size-fits-all trusting method is doomed to fail. Trust building, maintenance and recovery, work differently for different types of people, who fall into two broad categories: automatic trusters and evidence-based trusters. Automatic trusters approach a new relationship with at least some level of trust as the default, initially trusting the other party unless something happens to break that trust. This isn’t blind trust, but rather an inclination to give the benefit of the doubt. Evidence-based trusters approach a new relationship with distrust as the default, not exposing themselves to risk until the other party has proven their trustworthiness. A critical first step is to not assume that others build trust as you do. With that in mind, you must do the homework required to know both your own and your counterpart’s approaches to trusting and put in the effort to adapt accordingly. If you’re an automatic truster and your counterpart is more evidence-based, you need to slow down your expectations and focus on providing that person with ongoing, repeated evidence of your predictability and trustworthiness. If you’re building the evidence for your trust case and your counterpart is trusting you on arrival, it’s critical that you keep an eye out for your own behaviours that may signal an infraction for them.

Widespread remote work is likely to stick around for a while yet, if not become a permanent working method for the foreseeable future. Business leaders who want to maintain morale and avoid negative outcomes mentioned above must take steps to establish (or reestablish) trust with and among their employees.

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