“How to Build Trust When Your Team is Dispersed” with Frederica A. Peterson

Published: Nov 24, 2020



What happens to team trust when team members and leaders are physically separated? This topic was explored in the November 11 Ask the Experts webcast, How to Build Trust When Your Team is Dispersed. Part of AMA’s continuing Online Virtual Communication series, which draws on the expertise of AMA faculty members, the program was moderated by AMA Director of Education, Content and Operations, Dorothy Deming, and the guest expert was certified coach and leadership, diversity and inclusion consultant, Frederica A. Peterson.

The goal of the webcast was to explore the importance of trust in a virtual team, the challenges professionals are currently facing, as well as strategies and tools to build and maintain trust within a team.

Ms. Deming began the discussion by asking Ms. Peterson to explain why it is especially crucial to cultivate team trust in these difficult times.

Peterson noted that in the present challenging times, people have experienced complete disruption to the ways they’re accustomed to doing things, saying, “It is really important to be consistent, to stay engaged and to really have strong communication with your team. To build trust, all those things are super important. Communication is the key word there.”

Emphasizing the importance of communicating by video with dispersed teams, Peterson added, “Eye contact is literally one of the key ways to bond with people. Eye contact is actually related to a chemical that’s released in your brain called oxytocin. That chemical is related to human bonding. Our ability to connect with each other really does depend on how well we’re able to connect with each other visually.”

Without that visual connection, it is difficult to build and maintain trust. “Look at it this way, it’s being transparent,” Peterson said, noting that just hearing a person’s voice and seeing their emails is like “the guy behind the curtain in Oz. Just being able to see ‘the realness’ is going to be huge in building trust. Video is going to be your friend in building trust.”

“When we talk about trust, what does it serve when you build that?” Deming asked. “How does that have an impact on everyone at work?”

“When you have trust, your team will go anywhere with you,” Peterson explained. “We’re willing to make changes that might even feel uncomfortable because we trust the people that we’re with. A strong team cannot stand without a strong foundation, and a strong foundation is built on trust. So when the team trusts each other, you can do more, achieve more. The potential rating goes up much, much higher. When you have distrust, people actually spend more time protecting themselves than they do being engaged with the work.”

“When I think about trust, I think about a support system,” Deming observed. “I don’t have to have my guard up.”

“Distrust is a distraction,” Peterson added. “They’re one and the same.”

Deming then asked Peterson to talk about some of the challenges in building trust when team members are dispersed.

“I have a 30-year career in corporate,” said Peterson, “and for 10 of those years, most of my team was remote. I was literally the only person at my home base in New Jersey. My team was dispersed from Maine down to Alabama. I had 200 or so people on my team and two or three layers of leaders. And most of them met me virtually, not in person. So the biggest challenge that I typically found when I first started out was communication. Everyone communicates differently. Some people like email, some people communicate over the phone, some people like to talk once a week to do a check in. So in the beginning, I had to learn who each of these people were. So the only way was to be consistently engaging and communicating with them, and talking with them, asking questions. People will show you who they are versus telling you, so you have to be very, very engaged with what you’re seeing, and [observe] trends when you are virtual.”

Deming added that being proactive and practicing active listening are also important in fostering trust.

Peterson also emphasized that you can’t be afraid as things will go wrong when teams are dispersed, and the key is to try and learn from mistakes. This also supports building and sustaining trust.

“You have to be transparent,” advised Peterson. “Everybody’s trying to get their footing with this. If you make a mistake, be transparent. I would make it a point of apologizing, and [outlining] the steps [to prevent mistakes] going forward.”

“B is acceptable right now,” agreed Deming.

“The definition of communication is that two people have a mutual understanding,” Peterson elaborated. “It’s not just about me paying attention to the clues, it’s then using those clues to engage and make sure the other person is understanding me. It really is about flexing my style in order for the other person to be able to hear me. If you’re the leader, you need to be able to flex your style in order to accommodate someone else. When you’re able to do that successfully, the person you’re trying to communicate with feels heard, feels understood. When that happens, they’re going to be more apt to flex when you need it. Both people are flexing, but one person has to initiate it.”

“I see so much of this when we talk about diversity and inclusion and belonging,” Deming commented, “because when we do this, we start to get into that belonging piece where you feel like you’re heard and you have a place, and you’re going to be your best self, and that’s acceptable.”

Said Peterson, “When we’re thinking about diversity and inclusion and belonging, it’s race, it’s gender, it’s sexual orientation, it’s generational; there are so many things that come under this umbrella. The main thing we have to remember is, the biggest difference isn’t how we look, it’s what we believe, our value system, how we communicate. That’s really where the core of diversity is. But we tend to use things that we can see as the difference [between us]. When you think about diversity and inclusion and belonging, it’s about being comfortable with being uncomfortable. We tend to want to move quickly through conversations that aren’t comfortable for us. And if you’re leading a team that’s virtual, you can’t be shy of conversations that are feeling uncomfortable. There are things that are happening in the world that are more and more affecting your people. So if you see something, say something. Have a conversation. Usually if someone is saying something extreme in their behavior [e.g., being unusually quiet or excessively vocal], that is a cry for help.”

The bottom line is to get the elephant out of the room if there are difficulties people are dealing with in the current environment, Peterson said, and it’s important that everyone on the team support one another. She used the example of performance appraisals that go wrong, noting that it’s generally because people have been bottling things up throughout the year, and then they find themselves in a situation where everything comes out all at once.

Empathy and emotional intelligence are also crucial, Deming commented, especially now, when “everyone’s going through something.”

In addition to having empathy for others, “have empathy for yourself,” Peterson added. “There is no perfection in where we’re at right now.”

“How do we maintain trust?” questioned Deming. “Because it’s something that, if lost, it’s gone. How do we ensure you’re continuing to build that trust as a journey, and not as a one-time event?”

“With trust, consistency is the key,” Peterson said, “doing what you say you’re going to do; engaging with people the same way consistently. When people see consistency, that’s when they can trust. Being authentic in the way that we’re communicating, and being accountable whether it’s good or bad.” Regular meetings are a great way to maintain consistency of communication, she advised, and always have an open-door policy when a team is dispersed.

When Deming asked Peterson about key takeaways from the discussion, she replied, “Three main things: Being accessible, making sure that we’re engaged and communication is really strong, and being accountable to each other.” She elaborated by saying that regular meetings with video are essential for the accessibility aspect, and in terms of engagement, always be willing to flex your style. Finally, always be accountable, and realize nobody is perfect, and that’s okay.

“People learn most by watching you fail well,” Peterson emphasized. “It teaches them how to fail well, so if you don’t fail well, your team’s not going to fail well. If you learn how to fail well, and be gracious about it, and be open about it, then it’s going to help your team feel safe about doing the same thing.”

View the full program

How to Build Trust When Your Team is Dispersed