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The Virtual Leader Part 1 Building Trust

“Community is nothing, except what is based on trust.” – Yo-Yo Ma[i]

Since so many of us are practicing social distancing by, among other things, working from home, I thought it would be a good time to review some tips and tried-and true techniques for leading teams virtually. This article focuses on the importance of and tips for establishing trust virtually.

When we work from home, it is harder for us to establish trust. Although not impossible, it’s harder to communicate, which we’ll discuss further in Part 2. It’s harder for us to recognize and address conflict. And it’s harder for us to ensure that real work gets done without being overbearing.

What can the virtual leader do to establish trust? We establish trust virtually the same way we establish trust in any work environment, but it’s harder. So here are a few tips:

Make and meet commitments

  • Make commitments purposefully. It’s well known that we need to follow through with our commitments. But that means we actually need to make them. I tell people that I once had a boss who never had to meet any commitments because he never made any. Telling people what we’re going to do and when is critical for leaders wanting to establish trust. Even if we’re not sure that we can meet the commitments, we need to make them. However, this is not license for making commitments haphazardly. They have to be realistic. We lose credibility quickly when we lack the courage to make realistic commitments—when they are either too easy or too hard to meet. Our commitments should be grounded in reality rather than being overly optimistic or so loose that it will be impossible not to meet them.
  • We need to let everyone know when we can’t meet our commitments. Life and the unexpected happen, and when they do, we need to let people know. Immediately. Many of us have fallen into the trap of waiting too long to communicate bad news. We think that somehow if we try extra hard, we’ll be able to meet pull off a miracle. But if we wait too long to communicate bad news, we will break the trust. It’s better for us to let people know if there’s a high likelihood that the commitment can’t be met. How we communicate, though, is key. For example, telling stakeholders “we’re late–sorry about that” is weak and will automatically bust any trust we want to establish. We need to let them know why we’ve missed the commitment we made, the impacts of doing so, and then make a new commitment based on data, not emotion.

Establish routines

It’s important for the virtual leader to ensure team routines are established and followed. Routines can be established for many things, and routines that work for one team might not work for another. As virtual leaders our role is to facilitate the team and help them decide on such things as how often the team will meet, for how long, and for what reasons. Routines establish a sense of normalcy. They can provide the team with a sense of purpose and security, which in turn builds trust in the virtual leader.

Our role as the virtual leader is to facilitate the conversation about routines. The team’s role is to provide recommendations to us. But we should not accept the team’s recommendation without question. An effective leader, virtual or not, ensures that the team’s recommendations have been well thought-out and will meet the goals of the team, the project, and the organization.

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Plan and monitor results

As Lewis Carroll famously said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” If we want Wonderland-style chaos, we’ll skip the planning. We might hear team members say things like “let’s just get the work done,” or “it takes longer to plan than to do the work,” but in these uncertain and chaotic times, it’s not a great way to build trust. Planning, regardless of the methodology or set of practices used, is a proven way make the team feel purposeful. It provides them with a sense of accomplishment as planned tasks get completed. And that shared sense of accomplishment is a great way to bring the team together and build trust not only with the leader, but within the entire team.

Monitoring to ensure results are complete is equally important. Monitoring has many names. Some people call it micromanagement. It’s not. It does not involve doing the work for the team. It does not involve looking over anyone’s shoulder. It’s not “Big Brother.”

Monitoring work can take many forms. It can be done in a daily meeting where members talk about what was planned, what was accomplished, and obstacles that have occurred withing the last 24 hours. It can be a status report with much of the same information. It can involve the use of software where all team members can see the progress of work items. Scrum and other agile methods are all over this concept with daily scrums and burn-down and burn-up charts. Sure, they use different terminology, but the concept is the same—let’s figure out where we are, where we should be, and what’s getting in the way of getting there.

One important component of monitoring involves learning of obstacle/impediments right away. Our role is not to chastise team members for incomplete or late work, which is guaranteed to break trust. Rather, it’s to coordinate all necessary resources to solve the problems and remove the obstacles so that team members can move forward. This is particularly important in a virtual environment. Being geographically dispersed can make some team members feel stuck and isolated, preventing them from moving forward quickly. Knowing that the goal of the leader is be “chief roadblock remover” can be comforting to the team. As virtual leaders we need to find the time and courage to:

  • Coordinate resources outside the team to solve the problems
  • With the team figure out how to keep moving forward in a parallel path as a solution is found to the obstacle at hand.
  • Get experts or other team members to help get unstuck. Having other sets of eyes is important, but it’s much harder when the team doesn’t have the benefit of being together.
  • Let the team know what we’re doing to resolve the problem. Keeping the team informed is vital to building trust.
  • Provide encouragement. Take time to let team members think through problems with you. Listen to them and do not provide easy but ineffective answers.
  • Communicate delays and problems to key stakeholders. Tell them what the delay is and what we’re doing to remove the obstacle.

There are, of course, more ways to establish trust virtually, but these tips provide a start. In Part 2 we will delve into the complex subject of communications.


[i] PBS Newshour, March 18, 2020,

Elizabeth Larson

Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, CSM, PMI-PBA is a consultant and advisor for Watermark Learning/Project Management Academy, and has over 35 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth’s speaking history includes keynotes and presentations for national and international conferences on five continents. Elizabeth has co-authored five books and chapters published in four additional books, as well as articles that appear regularly in BA Times and Project Times. Elizabeth was a lead author/expert reviewer on all editions of the BABOK® Guide, as well as several of the PMI standards. Elizabeth enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, theater, and spending time with her 6 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.

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