What not to do if you want to build trust in a virtual team

Before we get into how to build trust between virtual team members, let’s recap on what damages and undermines trust. Here is some stuff to not do if you want to build trust.

  • Have a hidden agenda
  • Do unpredictable things that don’t seem to make sense
  • Lie, or say different things to different people, or breach confidences
  • Say one thing and do another
  • Hide the truth, or mistakes, hoping that it won’t be discovered.

Bear in mind that trust isn’t something you can control directly, you can’t make someone trust you, or make team members trust each other. But there are ways that you can create the conditions for trust in a virtual team and there are ways you can behave that will lead others to believe that you are trustworthy.

So, here are our 11 top tips to build trust…

Get clear

If there’s one thing that a team needs for team members to start to trust one another, it’s clarity. Clarity of goals, clarity of roles and clarity of purpose. If everyone in the team knows why the team exists, what it’s there to do and how each team member individually contributes to that purpose and to those outcomes, the team has a really good chance of creating a trusting (virtual) environment. People in teams get “jostl-y” and spikey when they feel unsafe and uncertain because they don’t know their position or how they are making a positive contribution.

Share strengths with other team members

When team members share their character strengths (for example, Relationship buildingEmpathyCommon senseCritical thinking) and offer those up for use by other team members and when those strengths are borrowed by teammates, trust builds fast. This isn’t being trusted for particular skills or competence or experience, it’s being trusted for what you enjoy doing the most, so trust gets supercharged when strengths are shared because of the human element.

Create boundaries

Everyone needs to contract on what is ok and not ok to do in the team. Ask ‘What do we value?’, ‘How do we want to behave in accordance with those values?’, ‘What will happen when someone doesn’t behave in line with our values?’ Provide those boundaries and the sanctions when they are crossed and you have the start of trust in a virtual team because you have created psychological safety.

Be consistent

Inconsistency and unpredictability, saying one thing and doing another – these behaviours are real trust-drainers. If I can’t be sure that you’ll do what we agreed by when you said you would do it, how can I trust that you will do what you say next time? If you have clear team roles, purpose, goals, behaviours and values, then stick to them, operate within them and call people out if they aren’t sticking to what’s been agreed.

Over-communicate

Keep coming back to purpose, goals, roles, responsibilities, values, and behaviours. Remind people of these things at each team meeting, keep repeating and overcommunicating. With a remote team, this is even more important as you won’t have as many visual cues to remind you of these important things. You can’t say this stuff enough, people will forget it over time, so keep it fresh, keep it alive and relevant for people.


“In high-trust companies, employees report 50% higher productivity, 76% more engagement, 74% less stress, 40% less burnout and 29% more life satisfaction.”

Forbes, 2020


Be honest

When things go wrong, own it. We’re all human, we all make mistakes and that’s ok. What isn’t ok is to try and cover it up or defend it or minimise it. Also, if you do have an opinion or a position you’re taking on something, i.e. you have an agenda, say it. That’s also ok. Again, what’s worse is that you don’t open up about that, but people do the maths later and conclude that you were holding onto something because you had a different agenda in mind.

Be vulnerable

The flip of sharing strengths and borrowing others’ strengths is to get open about your vulnerabilities – your strength in overdrive risks and the areas that drain you. This increases the level of humanness in the team. Feeling safe enough to share vulnerability is a great marker as to where the team is at on building trust. Asking for help in managing those vulnerabilities is another great indicator of whether the team has built trust yet.

Give the feedback

When someone doesn’t deliver or behaves in a way which doesn’t serve the team or the team’s goal, be prepared to give feedback. And in a virtual world (as well as in the real world), preparing what you’re going to say before you say it is worthwhile. It shouldn’t take long to prep feedback but when you do, it makes a huge difference. People don’t generally like giving or receiving feedback, but when you do it professionally and objectively, people will come to trust you as someone who will be honest with them and who will tell them what they need to hear, rather than being someone who shies away from sharing the whole truth.

Share it

Sharing information that you feel might be helpful to other team members, particularly in a virtual environment can be gold when you are seeking to build trust in a team. If you are willing to information share rather than to information hoard, people will trust that you don’t have a hidden agenda and that you have the best interests of the team and team members at heart. When you learn new information or if you think that other people in the team could benefit from knowledge that you have, share it. If you’re not sure whether to share, share.

Get social

Know that it is more than possible to create meaningful social connections entirely in a virtual space. You don’t need a bar or a restaurant or even an office to do it (although all of these things can help). Try having dedicated personal catch-ups with team members, or reserve part of meetings to do check-ins where you have some time just to share what you’ve been doing – top Netflix suggestions, the most fun you’ve had in the last week, best thing you’ve cooked recently, whatever. Being human and showing that human side will absolutely create the conditions for trust to form between people in the team.

Trust first

Trust others before they’ve earned your trust. If you believe in others’ skill or competence, they are more likely to demonstrate that skill or competence. If you can trust others in a measured way, while still having some checks built in, the more likely your trust will be reciprocated (the logic goes: if you’re trusting me, I must be trustworthy, which means you probably are too). So be generous with your trust, it will pay back many-fold.