How to build trust and improve team work with Colleagues You Rarely See

When you exchange pleasantries with a co-worker in the elevator, the two of you are building trust. Face-to-face meetings, office parties, and opportunities to socialize together after work-hours can all contribute to the feeling that your fellow employees will be reliable in what they say and do, and that they will act for the good of the team and the organization. You believe they are trustworthy because you’ve developed this feeling over time. So how do you earn the trust of a co-worker you barely see in person?

This is a particular challenge for global teams, where employees contact with one another over email at different times of the day and night.

There are two types of trust— swift trust and passable trust— understanding which is useful for people who work in global organizations. In addition, there are two types of knowledge —direct knowledge and reflected knowledge — that employees must possess to make up for the inevitable cultural and language differences, which can hinder trust. Here’s how these categories break down, and how they work together to improve team work and morale.

Swift Trust. It is the notion that team members or co-workers can learn to swiftly trust one another from their very first interaction. People decide to trust one another immediately — until proven otherwise, often because they have no other choice. Swift trust was first identified in flight teams and law enforcement teams who are brought together in crisis situations and are expected to work together for a limited amount of time.

This can be crucial for global teams, whose members are likely to originate from diverse cultures and countries, and who must immediately begin collaborating and coordinating.  Swift trust can develop early when managers endorse virtual team members during introductions by highlighting relevant or important experiences, or when team leaders explicitly set rules that require frequent communication in order to reduce uncertainty and foster trust.

Passable Trust. Passable trust is a category that was identified by looking at how employees behave online, especially on social media at work. Passable trust does not have to be complete or perfect. In contrast to swift trust, which is quickly established and may just as quickly evaporate when the job is done, passable trust can exist as a permanent state without anyone expecting that it must deepen or develop. The transparency of interactions on social media (work-related and non-work related) and the time spent messaging about personal information is enough. For global teams, which communicate largely via electronic technology, passable trust is especially useful.

Both types of trust have their limits, however. For global teams, there are other factors besides geographical distance that complicate establishing and building trust with co-workers. Can you trust someone who, in addition to living in a far-away continent, speaks a language you can’t understand and sometimes behaves in ways that feel, to you, awkward or inappropriate? It’s easy to develop cultural stereotypes about your colleagues from a different culture. Yet stereotyping handicaps trust building and instead leads to misunderstanding, resentment, and an unproductive “us versus them” dynamic.

To counter these tendencies, two additional means for building trust — direct knowledge and reflected knowledge — are especially relevant for global teams.  Direct knowledge enhances your understanding of distant co-workers, be they geographically distant, culturally distant, or both, while reflected knowledge leads to a feeling of being understood by distant co-workers.

Direct Knowledge. Direct knowledge is defined as learning about the personal characteristics and behavioral norms of distant colleagues. Learning that your teammate in France prefers to work uninterrupted when under pressure, or that your teammates in India use their tea breaks to actively collaborate are two examples of direct knowledge. One way to uncover this information is by allowing for unstructured time, at the beginning or end of conference calls, to encourage casual conversation. Another is to encourage your employees to travel to a distant collaborators’ site for a period of time.

Reflected Knowledge. Less obvious, but equally important for building trust among global teams is reflected knowledge. This is achieved by seeing the norms and behaviors of one’s own site through the lens of a distant collaborators. This can be an important means for building understanding and trust. Here’s how this could play out:

One may perceive as being treated with coldness from their colleagues, who work off site in a different office, with direct questions over the phone being met with silence, which can be frustrating.  However, these perceptions about communication norms could change by spending time with the colleagues in off-site office. One may be able to learn about the other ‘office-culture’ and reflect on the norms of their home site. This in turn will lead to the feeling of being closer and also being able to trust their off-site office colleagues.

Trust is paramount for global teams, but it’s something you can’t force on people.  It’s a feeling that develops in various ways over time. The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge based management consulting firm in India, believes, that it’s necessary to understand and utilize the aforementioned information about different types of trust and knowledge, to ensure smooth functioning for global teams. This will not only improve teamwork and morale, but can also deliver better results for organizations.

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