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The four factors of building trust: Do they get affected by working remotely?

I found that to build trust we need to pull four factors together. But would they still work from be


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Bassel Deeb

3 years ago | 7 min read

How important is for you to be able to trust your colleagues? And for them, how important is it that you trust them?

All of us rely on trusting one another at work, probably more so in cross-functional and agile environments. Designers, product managers and developers, leaders, operators and centralised units: we all depend on the trustworthiness of others. I certainly do.

When leading a function such as Design Operations, you need to build mutual trust with various team members from almost every corner of the business. Coming from a non-design background, I knew that being able to establish trust with the design team was vital for the success of this function.

“And how did you manage to do that?”

A question I was recently asked, after my talk at a DesignOps meet-up. It made me reflect on the concept of trust, what it takes to build it, and, if I had to do it again now, would the new norms of remote working have an impact? I dived into some readings on the matter, spoke to a few experts, and here is what I learned.

The definition of trust

We all know what trust is, so you would think it should pretty easy to find the definition of trust out there. Or so I thought.

It took me a while to find something relevant to my research, yet it was really interesting to read about the psychology of trust. Learning about Rational, Institutional and Active Trust was eye-opening (and maybe a topic for another day). But the focus here is on trust at work, therefore let’s consider a simple definition like Amy Cuddy’s:

“Trust is the conduit for influence: It’s the medium through which ideas travel. If they don’t trust you, your ideas are just dead in the water. If they trust you, they are open, and they can hear what you are offering. Having the best idea is worth nothing if people do not trust you”.

Trust is both a logical and an emotional act, which the two following characteristics of trust demonstrate pretty well — You will notice that these are also embedded in the four factors:

- Professionalism: You are competent, always committed, show-up on time, do what you say, and are dependable. We trust you to get the job done.

- Personalism: This is about connecting with others on an emotional level, it’s more complex and requires a level of emotional intelligence. It’s when others see you as one of theirs. They know that you will be non-judgmental, fair and respectful. You will celebrate their successes as yours and you will support them during their “less successful” experiences. They can be themselves with you, be open and vulnerable around you.

McLeod stated, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that trust “is an attitude that we have towards people whom we hope will be trustworthy, where trustworthiness is a property, not an attitude.” For trust to be “plausible”, the parties must possess qualities and behaviours that allow the trust to develop. And for trust to be “well-grounded”, both parties must possess trustworthiness.

We must not forget that trust is a two-sided game, played by both trustors and trustees. Although this article is focused on how to help others trust you, it is equally important to remember that as players we all have:

  • Our own life-long developed capacity to trust others.
  • A perception of our and others’ capabilities and competences.
  • Our judgment of others’ actions and words as being motivated towards the benefit of all, rather than the individual themselves.

Okay but why the fuss anyway?

Simply because research showed that, in addition to the intrinsic value of trust (i.e. trusting someone is a sign of respect), trust has enormous and instrumental value to many aspects of our lives, such as creating opportunities for cooperative activity, meaningful relationships, knowledge, autonomy, self-respect, and overall moral maturity.

More importantly, individuals who trust their colleagues and leadership are more likely to be open, honest, empathetic, collaborative, and constructive. All of which boosts innovation and productivity.

The four factors

Now that we are done with the broad concept of trust, let me share with you the four factors my research, interviews, and experience have led me to. These, I believe, are essential to building trust:

1- Integrity

2- Dependability

3- Affinity

4- Benevolence

Let’s dive deeper into each of these and what I mean by them, before talking about the potential challenges that might be imposed by the new remote environment we are in.

Integrity

Demonstrating honesty is essential to building credibility. Being truthful, admitting your mistakes, and accepting the lack of knowledge are signs of honesty and authenticity. In my previous blog Please let me fail: Failure, Vulnerability and Creativity, I wrote about the importance of celebrating failure. When it comes to trust the story is no different: your colleagues need to know that you are able to fail and to own your failure.

Dependability

Remember that when we trust someone, we don’t do it just for the sake of it. We trust someone to do something. Hence, demonstrating that others can depend and rely on you is fundamental.

You can do so by saying what you mean and meaning what you say. By delivering on your promises and responsibilities, you are signalling to the team that they can rely on you. You can cement the impact of that reliance by explaining your way of delivering, and taking others through your process of coming up with or doing something.

Trust is an invisible social contract, and the binding clause of it is building a sense of camaraderie with others. A great way of doing so is by delivering tasks and projects jointly. So instead of locking yourself in your silo, invite them in and deliver for and with them.

Affinity

What I mean here is the sense of closeness, intimacy and understanding between people. For many of us, this factor might be the most challenging. It requires us to be open and vulnerable.

To nourish this type of connection, you ought to be a starter, to initiate trust from your end first. A sense of camaraderie not only supports your image of dependability, but by being inclusive you open the ‘trust door’ for others. Whether or not you are the trust’s initiator, always remember the importance of reciprocity in building affinity.

Another thing to keep in mind is that enabling an environment of virtue, and being vulnerably open about how you feel, will demonstrate to others your rectitude and probity.

While you are doing so, you should be mindful of your reactions to what others say and to your own body language (I hear you saying “Aha! Body language is the problem with being remote”. I will come back to this).

Finally, as McLeod stated, “People also do not, or cannot, trust one another if they are easily suspicious of one another”. So, I can’t stress enough the importance of building your ability to give others the benefit of the doubt, to improve the closeness and understanding between yourselves.

Benevolence

This is all about self-awareness. It is about others and avoiding self-centred behaviour. You can build this by being approachable, by giving others their credit before claiming yours, by being respectful and non-judgemental, by creating opportunities for others to talk, and more importantly to listen to them actively and attentively.

If you are unable to listen in a given instance, it is better to interrupt and apologise rather than pretending that you are listening (I highly recommend reading “You are not Listening” by Kate Murphy).

From behind screens

Working from home by Freepik

I believe that if you manage to put all the four factors together, you will certainly be able to build trust. However, the important question here is: Can you do it from behind a screen?

I would argue that: Yes you can, but with one key challenge: body language!

Body Language

When it comes to building trust, we can group the relevant atoms of our body language into three categories:

Facial signs

Psychologists stress the importance of nodding, proper use of your forehead and eyebrows, a stable — yet slightly tilted — head, and eye contact to enable the building of trust. Therefore, you simply have to — and encourage others to — turn the cameras on. But more importantly, use it.

Maintain eye contact by looking into the camera. It is a very simple thing to do, but is also so easily missed when you have two screens. There’s nothing worse than trying to build trust with someone who is looking away (that’s how it would look and feel to others if you are busy with your second screen, and not facing the camera).

Mouth and what comes out of it

Smile, and pay attention to your tone of voice. Build up your ability to be a good listener, showing concern, being respectful, and being approachable and down to earth.

The rest of your body

Research suggests that the correct use of touch is important in building trust; the handshake, maintaining open palms, arms and legs, and body posture are all key.

Yes, these are tricky elements to master without being in the same room as the other person. Yet experts (including therapists) highlight that things like mirroring (mimicking the body posture of the other person) and distance can be as important.

You can always mirror the other person to a certain extent (assuming that both cameras are on). As for distance, experts agree that actually by being behind a screen you are “closer” to others than you would normally be in person.

They also stress the psychological importance of parties being at home, in their own habitat, which increases their sense of safety, allowing them to take more risk in trusting others.

In a nutshell

Of all the four factors (Integrity, Dependability, Affinity, and Benevolence) and their sub-elements and behaviours, only minor ones get adversely affected by remote working.

Those can also be tweaked to adapt to the “new norm”. We may even gain some other indirect and intangible benefits by being behind a computer screen in our homes. I strongly believe that the “new norm” is by no means a barrier to building trust at work. What do you think?

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