How to Destroy Trust in Your Virtual Team

This is a guest post by Leila Machiavelli, who specialises in making sure organisations don’t evolve and that flexible working doesn’t work so that everyone has to be in the office at set hours, regardless of whether they can do their job from somewhere else or not.

This post covers the T in VIRTUAL, not Distant®.

It is difficult to trust people in a virtual team because you never see them. So how can you know that they’re doing the work? There are those who say that your team members need to be able to trust YOU. Why? You’re the boss, so regardless of whether they trust you or not, they have to do what you say.

No matter how hard you try, some people might trust you and expect you to trust them, even when you’re not working in the same physical space. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2013 Work and Wellbeing Survey, 1 in 4 people don’t trust their employer. That means that 75% of people do and that, is a terrible thing.

If you or your team members are part of that 75%, here are ten steps you can take you make sure trust disappears.

(1) Never reply to messages.

You’re too busy to reply to unsolicited emails. You are too important to go on the new online collaboration tool and post a reply. Letting people know that you have received their message is a waste of time – almost as big a waste of time as actually getting back to them with the information they need. They will figure out eventually that you’re not interested in them.

(2) Never use a photo of you on online collaboration platforms.

I’ve already said that these are a waste of time but I understand that you need to be seen using them. Putting a face to your name might mean that people think they know you just that little bit better and they might start to feel like they are able to approach you when they have a problem, or even worse, if at some point you do meet them face to face, they might feel like they can come to say hello and approach you as though they’ve met you in person before. Avoid this. It’s best not to upload anything and remain anonymous.

(3) Ignore deadlines.

Deadlines are constraining and you want to be creative. Do meet the deadlines that are really important for your promotion, but if your team members have decided that something needs to be done by some date, or if someone has asked you to get back to them by a specific time, or if, in a moment of weakness, you decide to volunteer to do something for someone by a specific date, just ignore it. If not, your team members might think you’re reliable.

(4) Say ‘yes’ to requests.

This might seem counterproductive to our strategy of eroding trust in our team, but there is a twist. Say that you will help someone, say that you will send them a document they need, say that you will take on a few more responsibilities… and then don’t. Don’t do any of these things you promised. Not being helpful or going out of your way to help people is a good strategy to destroy trust in itself, but if you really want to have an effect on morale, then say you’ll do something and then, just don’t do it. Which brings me on to my next point:

(5) Don’t admit to not doing something or to making mistakes.

Admitting you’ve made a mistake is a terrible thing because it signals that you care more about the team and your work than you do about maintaining an image of perfection. If you admit to making a mistake instead of hiding it so that nobody finds out about it, people might start trusting you.

In a similar way, if you’ve said you’re going to do something (see point 4) and you don’t get the chance to carry it out, don’t tell anyone. This is one of the secret ingredients of destroying trust: say you’ll do something, don’t do it and leave everyone else thinking that you’ve done it. When they eventually realise how this has affected the team, the business and your customers, they won’t trust you ever again.

(6) Do not listen.

Or if you find yourself listening to someone, don’t let he or she know you’re listening to what they’re saying. Leave long silences during phone conversations if you have them. Never check with anyone that you have understood what they mean in an email or post. Don’t reflect back a complex issue to show that you have understood it – coaches do this all the time and they just end up gaining their clients’ trust. Don’t make that same mistake.

(7) Don’t engage in small talk.

Small talk is a waste of time. There is no point in finding out whether people have pets, or what hobbies they have or what the weather is like where they live. That’s the great thing about working in a virtual team, you don’t have to put up with small talk that takes you nowhere. There is no point in finding out that you have a common interest with someone else – feeling like they’re getting to know you will only lead to people asking you for help with their problems or sharing information they’ve gained outside your team.

You might even end up having to have those dreaded “virtual coffees”, which will mean you will have to stop your solitude and have to talk to someone during your day. You might feel “connected” – why would you want that? (Apparently this sense of being connected affects some people's motivation. I don't get that.)

These first tips are all about making sure that your team members, or even other people in your organisation, never trust you. Now let’s look at why you shouldn’t trust those in your team.

(8) People don’t like working, that’s why they’ve gone virtual.

This work-life balance is nonsense. Nobody likes to work, so the balance will always tilt to the “life” side. And this “life” is not really life, it’s just about being lazy. Those who prefer to work remotely, don’t really like the autonomy and flexibility – what they enjoy is daytime TV.

So make sure that people log in their hours. Make sure that you send them a chat message every twenty minutes to make sure they’re on track. Get them to copy you in every single email to make sure they’re communicating correctly with those outside the organisation.

And make sure that everyone in your team is at their computer from 9 to 5. If work with freelancers, make sure they don’t charge you when they’re having a cup of tea (even of the virtual kind).

(9) Always assume that people are out to get you.

Not only are your virtual team members not working but they’re also trying to outsmart you, they’re after your job. They try to innovate so that they’re seen as experts. They help each other out so that they can all clump against you at some point. They engage in conversations on online platforms with people in other parts of the organisation because they’re trying to take credit for the team’s achievements and push you to one side. So, anytime that you see they’re going out of their way to do a better job, be afraid, be very afraid.

(10) Lastly, ignore all the advice out there about working in virtual teams.

This flat-organisation stuff is just a fad. Organisations should have strong hierarchies, where some people tell others what to do and others just do as they’re told. All this virtual team nonsense is just making sure that people are happy while being paid. Do you want to live in that kind of world? 

In the spirit of offering a balanced view, feel free to check out the podcast Trust at Work, where Lisette and Pilar talk about how to build trust in your team.

TRUST is the T model in Virtual, not Distant® a new online course for managers and leaders of virtual teams, starting in September 2015.