Trust That We Are Together, Even Apart

November 2, 2022

Are you kept up at night with concern about how to continue engaging your team in an ever- changing and now mostly remote environment? As a collective society, it is unprecedented how much change we have endured over the past few years. First in absolute crisis mode, then in waves of uncertainty and ambiguity that seemed surreal, and now (maybe) approaching some sort of “new normal”, but still knowing that some other surprising change is probably just about to happen.

Many leaders I speak with are currently asking, what kind of performance is possible in the new way we work together as teams? How can we drive innovation when we are not whiteboarding in the same room? How do I know that what is being communicated is the whole story when we are not in the room together? With ongoing daily articles about the great resignation, is it unrealistic to try and keep my team together?

According to a report from McKinsey, proactive reskilling of employees is necessary for companies to effectively navigate this kind of change. While it requires a focused effort, they identify certain power skills that can be taught so that the workforce can rebound even stronger than before. Team collaboration, innovation, and business performance can be better than they were before. We all know the expression that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?

The article highlights four key areas to focus on:

1.    Expand the ability to operate in a fully digital environment

2.    Develop cognitive skills to ensure that critical players can respond to the need for redesign and innovation

3.    Strengthen social and emotional skills to ensure effective collaboration

4.    Build adaptability and resilience skills to thrive during an evolving business situation

In my view, the first two areas are what I consider comfort zones of change. As a business society we have strong systems in place to support these areas. We have learned a lot about virtual working and we are good at developing cognitive skills in individuals. But the third and fourth areas, strengthening social and emotional skills and building adaptability and resilience, are more amorphous skills areas. These skills are increasingly identified as crucial for wellbeing and productivity, but we have fewer tools and less know-how to develop them effectively.  

These skills are sometimes referred to as “soft skills” and are largely interpersonal and responsive skills, requiring a balancing of influences that are beyond our individual control. And despite the gentle name, they can be extraordinarily challenging and uncomfortable for employees to develop. This is especially true during times of stress, but their development is ultimately essential for personal thriving and bottom-line impact.

If these interpersonal skills were difficult to embrace and develop when we were in person, is it even possible to develop these together, when we are apart? How?

For me, work life has always been remote as part of a remote team that stayed connected at home and on airplanes, in cars, and even in areas where service was spotty at best. I have lived through transitional technologies that supported our team efforts to reach organizational goals. We have evolved from pay phones dialed roadside to instantaneous video conferencing on airplane rides.

It wasn’t until the pandemic that I realized how much this kind of functioning was unusual for most teams, and especially teams that were responsible for driving innovation. In these remote environments, we figured out as team members how to carefully coordinate our efforts in alignment to delivering a shared mission.

Over the years these virtual working teams I was part of have resulted in both amazing successes and in what I would characterize more as “learning experiences” that delivered sub optimal results at the time. With more data points on my personal experience graph than most, I have gleaned a lot of insight about high performing remote teams.

Now it is a personal study of fascination. I look for identifying characteristics of teams that are consistently high performing versus those that vacillate between mediocre performance with occasional bursts of brilliance. There is no richer time for this study than during massive disruption and change such as we are living through now.

So why do some teams know how to ride the volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex waves with enthusiasm and some get into the whitewash, never seeming to get out past the break despite the effort and intention? My conclusion: the dynamic and fluid teams had a foundation of social and emotional learning skills that allowed them to be adaptive and resilient. They learned how to stay together even though they were apart.

Staying together can mean and result in so many things. Retention. Engagement. Drive. Risk taking. Communication. Connection. And above all else, a belief in each other. Trust.

Remember the first time you did a trust fall? For me it was in middle school gym class. How do you know that you can fall backward without looking? You need to know that in that moment, someone has your back (literally, not just figuratively), that they are going to support you and not put their own interest ahead of yours. They also have to be paying attention! But to allow yourself to fall, and trust, you must feel confident that the other person will meet you with behavior that is benevolent and demonstrates integrity.

The combination of competence, benevolence and integrity are the foundations of trust according to organizational psychologist Adam Grant. He also talks about the two tendencies with trust 1) do you need to experience safety to experience the trust that allows you to take risks or 2) is it the act of taking the risk that actually builds trust? According to Grant, developing trust is both! It is a vulnerability loop, and it is interconnected to every other behavior in a team.

Trust is hard to build and easy to break. It is much more resilient when there is a strong foundation of psychological safety. If there is a secret ingredient in the successes of those remote teams that worked, it was that we were able to be vulnerable and speak freely because we trusted each other. This allowed us to  show up fully, question, ideate, challenge, collaborate. It enabled us to stay together even though we were apart.

For the teams that didn’t work as well, we would have benefited from some focused effort and investment to help us build those “soft” interpersonal and trust-building skills. This is where a structured and digitally-delivered program like AwakeTeams can be so beneficial. It develops the social and emotional skills that create a foundation for enhanced collaboration and performance. People want to stick around; they aren’t as likely to be looking for their next gig because they have a sense of belonging and possibility. 

That this kind of tool is now available for remote and distributed teams of all kinds shows that we are adapting and creating the tools we need to step more confidently and successfully into the future. The only way we will successfully adapt and thrive is to learn the ever-changing rules of engagement and find the resources that will help us develop to meet them. And I’m pretty sure we have to do this together, even though we are apart.

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