But it is possible to build trust across distances.
Our Tendency To Trust
We are wired to trust others. Despite those who say they only trust people who have proven themselves, our human instinct is to trust and take others at their word. This is the reason we are so easily duped. But the high-profile Ponzi scheme or the criminal who gets away with cheating people for years make the news because they aren’t the norm. Our automatic response is to trust, and we usually can.
Reciprocity is also part of the human condition. When someone does something for us, we tend to reciprocate. This happens in small ways—you get great service and you leave a bigger tip. It also happens in big ways—your company offers flexibility and autonomy, so you give discretionary effort. Reciprocity is a significant part of how trust is built. Investing in relationships tends, in turn, to lead to more investments over time. This is the reason those who are trustworthy have the easiest time building trusting relationships.
So what are the ingredients of trust and how do we build trust with others? There are a few key things to keep in mind.
Share openly. You don’t need to divulge your deepest, darkest secrets. But in general, the more you share about yourself, the more others will as well, and this will deepen trust. Stay attuned in the conversations you have with others, and you’ll hear people testing the waters—sharing a bit and waiting for you to reciprocate. When you do, they will share some more. This is a virtuous loop of trust. In the spy movies this is called “mutually assured destruction,” but the positive alternative is better—a trusting relationship based on plenty of openness.
Assume goodwill. One of the keys to great relationships is to assume good intentions. Of course, you may be proven wrong sometimes, but when you believe someone’s heart is in the right place, you’ll act more positively toward them. Positivity tends to beget positivity, and the relationship benefits.
Stay in close proximity. When you see people more frequently, you tend to have greater acceptance of them. It’s said that the funky, once-unfamiliar song Hey Ya by Outkast became popular because it was played frequently immediately following songs people already liked and were familiar with. This familiarity tended to spill over to Hey Ya and it became a hit. Psychologically speaking, familiarity breeds acceptance. When you’re able to reduce the sensation of something seeming strange or different, you’re more likely to feel positively toward it. In addition, when you see people more frequently, you tend to understand them more. You have more on which to base your relationship. You know when your colleague is down (or up), or when they’re going through something at home or at work. All of this tends to help you explain their behavior and accept them to a greater extent. It’s harder to stay close when you are socially distanced. But make an effort to see people as much as possible through video conference, texting, snapchatting or any other ways through which the door to your relationship is regularly open. Unplanned connections are powerful. But if you can’t run into each other at yoga class or in the conference room as often, plan for those interactions to keep up the frequency of seeing each other.
Be predictable. People crave certainty and classic leadership studies have shown team members would choose a predictable, yet badly-behaved boss over an unpredictable one. You’ll demonstrate good behavior, but also, be predictable. In small things and large, when you can always be counted on, you’ll breed trust in the relationship. Always offer a greeting or smile when you see your acquaintance (this seems ridiculously obvious, but a leader in my early career who was volatile, and could never be counted on to say a simple “hello” was never trusted by her team). Always follow through or follow up and avoid letting others down. These absolutes (or near-absolutes) are keys to building trust.
Be easy to read. Another element related to the human preference for certainty is that we tend to trust those who are easy to read. People don’t trust what they don’t understand, so be open with your expressions and put into words what you’re thinking or feeling. If you get quiet during a meeting, explain you’re struggling with an idea, or if you go silent on a call, be clear you’ve just paused to take a quick note. While these may seem stilted, they actually contribute toward trust because people won’t be wondering about your motives or drawing incorrect conclusions.
Support others. Trust is the assumption of support. Be the person who will go to the wall for your teammate or colleague. I’ll never forget the meeting where a leader was berating a colleague, Selena. This is never good form, but Geoff was unjustified as well, and everyone on the team knew it. Trina stepped in on Selena’s behalf and their relationship was bound forever. Trust is built when we put ourselves on the line for others—when we step up with courage and join in their circumstance—to help and support.
Be selective. Nurture your most trusting relationships. You’ll assume goodwill and basic trust with plenty of people, but you’ll know the people with whom you can have the most open relationships. Consider the concepts of task trust and relationship trust. With task trust, you may not share personal confidences, but you know someone will follow through on critical tasks—completing the project’s next step or responding to your need for a quick answer on something urgent. You may also have relationship trust, in which you would share secrets with a teammate and trust her never to tell. With some people, you’ll have one or the other and with others you’ll have both. Nurture all your relationships, but put the most energy into the ones where you have both kinds of trust.
Hold people accountable. A brilliant leader told me this about remote work: “If you trust your team member, it won’t matter where they work. If you don’t trust them, they shouldn’t be working for you.” You’ll start with trust and assume good intentions. And if someone fails to maintain behaviors for which they deserve your trust, hold them accountable and make a different choice about the relationship—either reducing or eliminating your investment in it.
Demonstrate integrity and tell the truth. Of course trust is easier to build when we’re face-to-face and in the midst of what we remember as normal. But for now, we can still build trust from a distance. Share openly, assume goodwill and stay in close proximity with your people. Contribute to the certainty and clarity people crave by being predictable and easy to read. Support others. Be selective about how you engender trust. Hold people accountable and, of course, tell the truth. Trust is trust, whether or not we’re in the midst of a pandemic—and creating it and maintaining it can be an art form from a distance. Trust yourself to build the best relationships through it all.