Four trust building ideas for dispersed teams

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.

Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2020

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Maintaining trust in a team that has to work remotely is challenging, but there are some preventative and responsive steps you can take.


To start with, let’s look at three examples that highlight why maintaining trust is important.

Teams with low trust levels

Teams with high trust levels

People feel that they are competing with other team members for status, respect and worth.

People feel like they are supported by each other; they feel accepted, respected and valued.

People fear being judged, mocked, made to feel like they contribute less; disrespected.

People are made to feel like their views and contributions matter and are considered equally with those of others.

People are careful to keep their work to themselves and protect their patch. They avoid sharing with others who may use the opportunity to find fault or increase their power and status.

People are comfortable to contribute and collaborate with each other. They let each other make suggestions and improvements.


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  • Trust is built one relationship at a time.  The trust level in a team is only as good as the weakest of the relationships.

  • Each relationship is made up of two ‘trust accounts’.  Each person has an account with the other. Deposits and withdrawals are made to each account by the other person in the relationship.

  • What constitutes a deposit or a withdrawal, and the value of each is determined by the owner of the account. So we evaluate each relationship’s trust level from our own perspective.

We can do things together as a team that may help build a good team feeling, but ultimately, we need take time to build trust one human being to another.


Trust is improved  when we make deposits into the other person’s trust account.

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1. Meet your commitments to them, and be responsive and timely to their needs.

2. Show interest and invest time to get to know the other person personally. Understand the things that are important to them.

3. Communicate clearly and be more open with what you need and why, and find out the impact of your agenda on them. And try to be inclusive

4. Talk openly with each other about you relationship and what could make it better.

Deepening trust between two people includes improving our knowledge of each other. This includes things like:

  • different skills and experience base
  • personal situation and background,
  • intentions, goals and aspirations
  • the ways we each prefer to work
  • the ways we prefer to communicate.

Knowing these things helps us be more responsive to the others person’s needs or concerns,  live up to their expectations and build a alignment around what we both need to accomplish.


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What challenges does a team face that is suddenly having to work in a dispersed way? And how might these impact on trust?

  • Team members now see, and bump into each other far less – This means there are fewer serendipitous, ad hoc personal and relaxed conversations. Just about any conversations suddenly tend to be scheduled, and as a result more purposeful, more formal, more like meetings, with almost always a work focus. Team members are likelier to may make more assumptions about what people are doing, what they are working on, what they are thinking, and what each other wants in terms of connecting.

  • There is an increased reliance on asynchronous and written forms of communication. This means that there is no real-time dialogue to clarify meaning and that there is far more potential for misinterpretation because we drop the all- important visual cues. When we correspond by text (or even when we use audio- only) we often read ‘between the lines’ and make inaccurate assumptions about the ‘real message’ and what someone was really saying. And when someone fails to respond in a timely way, their silence can leave us with (almost always) negative impressions about the meaning of that silence.

  • Team members tend to be less aware of each other’s context. When we don’t inhabit the same space with others, what the other person is exposed to becomes invisible to us. We become unaware of their distractions and the other pressures and stresses that they are facing. Because of our ignorance, we can easily come across as less interested, less empathetic and more judgmental even though we don’t mean to be.


As a leader, your role is to keep your team working as well as it can. Therefore keeping each relationship working well across the team is really important. To respond to these challenges what are some ideas for building trust in a newly distributed team?

1. One on one time

Set up an expectation for individuals to have one on one catchups with each other, ideally regularly with the agenda to get to know each other better.

Here are some discussion starters for one on one catchups

    1. How are things going for you working from home? What is working well, not so well and what pressures or distractions are you facing at the moment?
    2. Tell me a something about yourself that I don’t know – e.g. about your family or your home life; the positives and some of the challenges.
    3. What types of work do you most enjoy and what types of work do you least enjoy?
    4. How would you describe how you like me to communicate with you?
    5. What would you say are your strengths and what are your weaknesses to do with work?
    6. How can I work best with you? What helps bring the best out in you?

2. Team Socials and Team Building Events

It is important for team members to feel connected to each other to prevent feeling increased loneliness and isolation as has been reported by numerous sources: Feeling Connected when working remotely .

Facilitate a team brainstorming session to come up with a social event to be held every week or two to reinforce feelings of belonging and support. We’ve heard of teams doing fun things like:

    • Doing a quick quiz or tackling brain teasers together,

    • Taking turns spotlighting one or two team members where they share their personal story, family history or background, and discuss what motivates them and how they prefer to work,

    • ‘Shout-outs’ to other team members who deserve recognition for some act of kindness or assistance, contribution or great work,

    • Tell a joke or display your favourite party trick.

Have a look at this blog for ideas that you can share with the team: 15 Virtual Team Building Activities to Level Up Your Remote Team.

3. Set up clear expectations for how the team communicates with each other

Get the team to agree protocols for how they will communicate and use different media and the logic behind these protocols. For example:

    • Agree to use face to face (video on-line) channels where it is important for people to develop a clear understanding and be able to question each other. Only use written formats like email, chats, texting and bulletin boards when a conversation isn’t necessary – where you are mainly pushing information out. Use on-line bulletin boards or apps like WhatsApp for sharing social, fun and non-work contributions.

    • Make sure all team members agree to be diligently responsive to the communications from others. Reply on a timely basis to all team member messages, even if it is to say when you are able respond with more focus or that you would prefer a one on one face to face conversation. This prevents the potential negative impacts or inferences that silence or a non-reply can have on the sender.

4. Prevent tensions from escalating – Have a ‘SOSO Convo’

When team members are at a distance, the potential is there for misunderstandings and frustrations to build with each other. Internal stories and assumptions about each other’s intent can mean that tensions build and people avoid working together.

Where one person is sensing tension between themselves and another team member, or where team members sense tension between two others, that they call the frustration out, and take active steps to deal with it as soon as possible.

We call this having ‘SOSO Convo’ (Sort our Sh*t Out!). This is where two people, who are experiencing some tension for whatever reason, address the mounting tension by having a one on one, private face to face conversation. The intent of this conversation is to diffuse the tension by each taking time to listen to each other to better understand each other’s point of view and clear the air.

For more detail on how to have one of these, download the guide – Have a SOSO Convo to relieve team tensions.


Being in a recently distributed team means you are facing some new communication and interpersonal challenges. These challenges will very possibly erode trust between team members over time unless you take proactive steps to prevent that from happening.

We’d love to hear what steps you have taken to help maintain levels of trust in your team.

Phil Hartwick is a Director of Updraft – he can be reached at

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