Building Trust in the Next Normal
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the so-called new normal, but I’m hoping our future is not nearly as passive as that term implies. New normal sounds like something that happens to us. On the other hand, next normal sounds like something we can create. And when it comes to that next normal, I think the fundamental survival skill—for individuals and organizations—will be trust. Why? Because although people may be grateful for jobs now, lack of transparency and communication or any “bad acts” from your organization during the coronavirus pandemic will absolutely mar your employer brand as we move to the next normal. Even with the best of intentions, learning to work in a virtual world requires a whole new level of trust, up and down the organization. So what can you do to shape the next normal? Here are a few tips for individuals and leaders to build trust.
- Learn to Put Paint on the Wall. When you’re working remotely, you can’t be passive or wait for orders. Even in my early career I learned that I never got in trouble for taking a chance on drafting something, or coming up with an approach. I did, however, see colleagues get left in the dust for not acting until they had every last detail fleshed out for them. Even if I was 100% wrong, at least I had given my team or my boss a place to start. Nothing is worse than a blank page. And I’ll let you in on a secret: your boss doesn’t always know what s/he wants. Having something to react to is always helpful and reduces iterations, especially when you’re not in the same room.
- Be Available and Be Responsive. This may sound simple, but don’t underestimate it. Think about your co-workers. With some, if you don’t see them at their desks or they don’t answer their phones, you’ll just assume they’re where they’re supposed to be and that they’ll get back to you soon. With others, however, if you can’t find them, you begin muttering expletives and assume they’re goofing off somewhere. Trust me, you want to be in the first group. If you’re reachable when you’re supposed to be, are responsive to calls and messages, and meet your deadlines, on that infrequent day when you take a long lunch or a crisis at home strikes, co-workers will assume you’re where you’re supposed to be, despite the fact that you haven’t immediately called them back. Cultivate this reputation, which is worth its weight in gold, especially if you work remotely.
- Learn the Art of the Crisp Ask. When it comes to both day-to-day work and your overall career strategy, learning to ask questions with clarity goes a long way. A mentor once told me that asking someone “What should I do?” is too vague and open-ended. But saying “I’ve been thinking about doing A or B. What do you think?” is the way to go. (This is a close relative to putting paint on the wall.) It gives a clear choice to the listener, who can easily respond with an answer like “Do A.” Or, equally important, it opens the door for conversation around something you hadn’t considered before, like Option C.
- Set Expectations and Follow Through. As a leader (or individual), you should bend over backwards to build trust. And it may seem obvious, but to do this you need to be trustworthy. To avoid unpleasant surprises on both sides, it’s crucial for a leader to set expectations about your team members’ work and how you’ll measure their performance. And the only way to establish the quality of trust that will build a team whose members will run through walls for you is to reciprocate. If you set expectations for when and how you’ll respond, follow through. If you make a promise, keep it. If you’re asked to be candid, tell them the truth, even if that means you must say you can’t tell them everything right now. This level of trust may take months and years of meeting expectations, yet believe me, it can be gone in an instant.
- Be Real, Not Revealing. Being real and authentic doesn’t mean you need to be revealing. Most people aren’t best friends with their boss, and that’s perfectly fine and acceptable. When working remotely, however, you both may learn much more of each other’s lives than usual—the cat in one’s lap, the dog barking nearby, the kids demanding attention, what you look like without makeup, etc., but that doesn’t give the green light to share tidbits from your family trove of secrets. While it helps to understand and be respectful of someone's general life circumstances, it’s not helpful to share the behavioral issues of your kids or musings about your partner’s suspected infidelity. These fall into the category of TMI (too much information), which can not only be embarrassing but also cringeworthy to learn. These chattering and sudden confidences may ultimately erode trust and respect, even though they may feel initially like burdens lifted and shared.
I’ve been lucky to be a part of and lead great teams. In high-trust teams I like to say, “I don’t want to ever think about where you are or what you’re doing. Not because I don't care, but because if you’re taking action, asking good questions, being responsive and responsible and real, I don't need to. You’ll get it done, you’ll ask for help, and you know I’ll protect and even run through walls for you.” Over the many months to come, we’ll be creating our next normal, but trust should always be at its heart.