Are your teammates competent?

Do you trust your virtual team mates? I don’t mean would you leave your dog with them for the weekend (you don’t live near enough for that to be an issue.) I mean, do you trust them to put forth a lot of effort, do quality work, and meet deadlines? What are you basing that on? Are you suddenly second-guessing your first answer now?

One of the biggest factors in building trust is believing in the competence of the people you work with. Paradoxically, when physically separated from each other you need to have a high level of faith that everyone is doing their job, but those judgments are based on a smaller sample size. You need more trust but it’s based on less evidence.

When you work in the same location, you can see how hard everyone’s working. You overhear conversations, lob questions over each other’s cubicle walls and engage in casual conversations that help you know that Sally really knows her stuff or that Josh is pretty much a chucklehead. Over time you learn who to go to, and who you don’t want touching your precious data.

When you work remotely you don’t have those organic, casual, frequent interactions. As a result, it can be hard to get a firm grasp on the skill level of your peers. Often the only way to gauge someone’s ability is long after the work is completed. That’s great if everything comes in on time and with no problems. Based on that small sample of evidence, this person is obviously competent. But what if they miss a deadline, or something goes wrong? We have no way of knowing if it’s that person’s fault, if there was a system failure, or something else. All we know is that, based on what we see and hear, that person isn’t up to the task.

Studies show that we are very forgiving of people we interact with frequently - because after all, anyone can make a mistake, and Sherry seems like a smart person - and less understanding with people we don’t know. Basically, they get one chance to create an impression, and it will take repeated success to help overcome a bad reputation.

So how can we get evidence of people’s competence? There are many ways. If your team doesn’t use some of these tools and techniques, perhaps it’s a good idea to start:

Take the time to get to know each other. In the name of “not wasting time” we frequently eliminate the small talk and casual conversation that helps build working relationships. Even when you’re on a conference call or webmeeting, don’t shut down everything that isn’t directly work related. One way to do this is spotlighting a different team member each meeting, so that over time everyone will get to know everyone else.

Share wins with the whole team. Often, managers do a good job of praising and supporting individuals’ work with that person. They may feel really supported by their boss. The problem is that because that conversation took place on a phone call or a Webcam conversation, nobody else heard it. If someone does great work, share that with your teammates. Help them get to know how talented their co-workers really are. They may not see it for themselves.

Use asynchronous tools to help distant co-workers help each other out. With distance and timezones, it’s not always convenient for team members to speak to each other live. That’s where social media, private networks and SharePoint can come in handy. Question and answer pages on the intranet are an excellent chance for Po to answer Dave’s question, and demonstrate her expertise. When people go out of their way to answer a question (and the answer is helpful) we tend to believe that person is really competent and helpful.

As we have been teaching for years, trust is built on common goals, proof of each others’ competence, and proof of each others’ positive motives. How are you helping your team get the opportunity to draw the right conclusions?

more articles

About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.