If you’re a team leader in charge of a remote working team, you’ve probably asked yourself how to make sure your employees are staying on track while working from home.
As with many always hot issues in our working lives, that of trust – and its flipside, control – has been massively intensified by the pandemic. Reports show that there has been a huge surge in interest in tools that help managers monitor their employees (1). Granted, in Germany (where we’re based) our strict laws on data protection and privacy prevent employers from using keystroke monitoring tools and webcam spying tools. But even so, we have heard enough from friends and colleagues about having to stay “online” on Slack or logged into a Zoom call all day.
If this is how you have been trying to secure your employees’ productivity, you are not alone. A 2020 study by the HBR attests that many remote managers are struggling to trust their out-of-office team and, in response, implementing surveillance tools (2). However: while exercising control by monitoring remote employees might give you a temporary sense of control, it is bound to backfire. Indeed, a recent report by the CIPD found that 73% of employees responded that workplace monitoring would damage trust between them and their employers (3). This is a real problem, since there are few things as likely to sour a relationship – working or otherwise – as an absence of trust! The effects of this are well documented (4). Apparently even the thought of a controlling boss can have a negative impact on employees’ performance. But the reverse is also true. As Manfred Kets de Vries writes, “Trust is the most important ingredient in effective organisations.”
Trust, however, starts with you – as a leader. So, if trust/control are an issue you’ve found yourself struggling with in leading your remote team, I would like to invite you to reflect on the following questions. Trust is a dynamic process, and while it certainly can be damaged (e.g. through control) it can also be created – and it’s up to you to take the first step!
Be honest with yourself: is your lack of trust really a matter of your team working remotely? Or did you simply feel more in control when you were able to walk around, see who was taking how long at lunch, and taking the occasional peek at people’s screens? Sure, we might say that’s normal behaviour for leaders. But that doesn’t make it conducive to effective business!
Simply put, if you never trusted your team face to face, you won’t trust them remotely. But in that case, it is not about your team and their productivity in or out of the office, but about your ability to trust and to instil trust. It’s not about them – it’s about you! And only you can change this.
What this question really comes down to is this: what do you assume about people and their intentions? Studies show us quite clearly that most people want to do a good job. Yet, if it is hard for you to trust people’s good intentions, you will find all the reasons why your team cannot be trusted. That’s not just confirmation bias, either, but the fickle dynamic we’ve hinted at above: when people do not feel trusted and leaders compensate through increasing control, employees do become less willing to cooperate. That can easily turn into a vicious circle of mistrust and resentment – a really terrible return on investment on a monitoring program, if you ask me!
What all this comes back to is early life experiences and conditioning. Work is no different from other social relationships in that we come into it with all kinds of unconscious beliefs. In leadership coaching and team development, we take a deep look at a person’s history and their belief system – and through psychodynamic work and methodical interventions, we can create trust where previously there was only its dysfunctional stand-in, control.
Why do you need to be able to see someone’s face (or their screen) on Zoom for 8 consecutive hours a day when they still meet their deadlines? Do you really care if they went for a jog between 10 and 11 if they get the job done and do it well?
Many leaders are still quite focussed on monitoring processes they’ve defined. Such an overt focus on process, again, is about exercising control. Yet, it’s an illusion that process secures results. What does secure results, however, is skilled and motivated workers equipped with the resources they need to do the best they can. And with so many of the workforce being knowledge workers, chances are good they know better than you how to get their job done anyways.
If they are able to do it in a way that is in line with their own personal working style – which may not be the same as yours, but no less effective – more power to them! Remember: you are a leader. You give direction and show people the goal – but don’t micromanage how they get there, even if there are fancy technological tools that might seduce you into nailing down on process.
Often a lack of trust – or the kind of disappointment or doubt that hampers it – is due to the fact that leaders project their own reality on other people. This is even more important during the pandemic when everyone is stressed, yes, but not to the same extent or even for the same reasons.
In order to nourish trust in your organization, you need to be able to gauge the authentic, honest needs of your team. And that requires you to realise that your employees’ reality may be radically different from yours, even if it doesn’t look like that on the surface.
An example: perhaps you are juggling childcare and professional responsibilities, as so many of us are during this difficult time. And perhaps this is stressful, sure, but going ok for you – for any number of circumstances. A supportive partner, a low maintenance child, and so forth. Swap out any of these variables and the whole situation can quickly become overwhelming. This may well be what is happening in someone else’s life – just because they’re faced with a similar situation doesn’t mean they are experiencing it in the same way or equipped with the kind of resources that allow them to cope.
As a leader, it is especially important that you don’t try to read minds or assume that people are just not prioritising work because they’re slacking off. Instead, ask them directly: what are you struggling with? How are you coping with homeschooling? What can we do to support you? Again, most people want to do good work – and as a leader it is your job to empower them to do just that, pandemic or not.
So imagine that you’ve asked someone who’s been falling behind on deadlines to be honest with you about their situation and their needs. Now imagine that the reason is that the person has been struggling with their mental health. To provide you with that honest answer, they need to disclose something deeply personal – to make themselves vulnerable to you. Can they trust that you will empathise and support them? Or would they be right to fear judgment and consequences further down the line because of your attitudes towards mental health challenges?
In that case, it is once again on you: to be willing to confront the fact that you harbour such attitudes – which only happens through honest, difficult self-reflection, ideally aided by coaching – and changing them. Only when your employees feel that they can be vulnerable with you and that you will still have their best interest at heart, that you will hear them, respond to them, and then follow your words with actions can you truly have a trusting relationship that goes both ways.
As Deloitte writes in their guide on resilient leadership in times of Covid-19, it is truly the softest things that can be the hardest. Still, resilient leaders are those who are “genuinely, sincerely empathetic, walking compassionately in the shoes of employees, customers and their broader ecosystems” (5).
I’d add that walking compassionately in their shoes means not just looking at them, but to take a good honest look at yourself, to see what your relationship is with trust and how your subconscious belief systems or projections may be skewing the picture. Don’t worry – most of us have a lot to work on in this area. The most important thing is that you start. After all, this is the journey of a lifetime, not just of a crisis.
If you’re curious to find out more, we’d love to hear from you!
References and recommended reading:
Sharon K. Parker, Remote Manager Are Having Trust Issues, Harvard Business Review, July 2020
CIPD, Workplace Technology: The Employee Experience, July 2020
Andrew O’Connell, Why Controlling Bosses Have Unproductive Employees, Harvard Business Review, May 2010
David DeCremer, What Covid-19 Teaches Us About the Importance of Trust at Work, Knowledge@Wharton, June 2020
Punjit Renjen, The Heart of Resilient Leadership: Responding to Covid-19, Deloitte Insights, 2020 https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/economy/covid-19/heart-of-resilient-leadership-responding-to-covid-19.html