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My clientele is experiencing a min-outbreak of apathy –or so they have been told. Three of them have received feedback that they lack emotional intelligence. The feedback has come in different forms: A 360° among peers, survey responses from a direct report, and in one case, a performance review from his boss, the CEO.
They all work in different companies and in different roles. One of them (a finance lead) was told he seems emotionless. Another (a product manager) was told she is stoic and never seems happy. And yet another (a data scientist) had to deal with the news that she delivered bad news badly.
Is It True?
Here’s the strange part. Because all of them are executive coaching clients, I know them well. All are caring and introspective people. I have never experienced any as lacking in empathy, affect or finesse. Yet, from the feedback they’re getting, their peers clearly don’t trust them or feel fully comfortable with them.
There is one commonality. They have all been working entirely remotely almost from the moment they were hired into their jobs. They have had no significant time in office and have spent virtually no time in-person with the people giving that feedback. Is that relevant? I think so.
Trust-Building and Trivialities
Trust is not something we usually work on explicitly. It amasses over time, through shared confidences, time spent doing trivial things, and the simple process of learning what matters to another person. When we share an office space these things happen naturally. We chat about last night’s game over the Keurig, learn about our colleagues’ families, that they play the guitar or like to fly-fish. You might know that your peer just scheduled her wedding, or that he is shopping for a new car. Small talk.
Surprisingly, despite how annoying many of us find it, employees experience more positive emotions on days when they have more small talk. While it may sometimes feel like an interruption, it’s worth putting up with because it brings with it increased levels of pride, gratitude, focus –and trust.
We know from multiple research sources that psychological safety is the single biggest indicator of a team’s being extraordinary. And trust is the essence of psychological safety. Without trust, people feel like they need to protect themselves. That protectiveness leads to poor outcomes: less innovation, fewer collaborations, less willingness to take risks.
That’s at a group level. But the same thing is true in one-to-one relationships. Without a foundation of trust, individuals remain guarded with each other.
Recent research suggests that physical proximity and contact increases trust. But working remotely eliminates that. When you work in the same space small talk and physical contact just happen. We have hundreds of low-stakes interactions over the course of a typical in-office working week. Conversations about life, about movies, sports, family, Wordle and traffic.
We fist bump after a killer call or inadvertently touch fingers while passing a cup of tea. The very smallness of the talk and the contact is what makes it approachable and easy. Nothing is at stake and no single one of those conversations or casual touches are noteworthy.
But each one is like depositing a penny into a compounding bank account that buys affinity, familiarity, and trust. (click here to tweet this thought!)
You may discover through lots of low-stakes interactions that your colleague is a smart-ass. Maybe she constantly makes sarcastic remarks that seem like insults on the surface. If you don’t know her, she seems mean-spirited. But, if you do know her, you recognize her sense of humor and banter with her, matching her snark line for line. You have learned that “her heart is in the right place”.
With that knowledge, when you have a high-stakes conversation with her, you can read her meaning. She is being serious and non-snarky; you know that means this is an important conversation. Or, she continues to be snarky, and you are relieved because she would only do that if everything is ok. Now that there are real stakes involved, that knowledge makes it possible to have an authentic conversation on a foundation of trust.
Transactions Don’t Build Trust
Unfortunately, when we are remote, conversations are formal. We rarely have the time or occasion for unexpected, low-stakes interactions. At most, maybe there is 5 minutes at the start of a Zoom. When we talk one-on-one there is a purpose. It may be tactical, managerial, or transactional. Those don’t build trust or affinity. Maybe you successfully scheduled a next call, or decided who should attend the upcoming conference, or agreed the order of the next sprint. You completed the transaction. You are exactly as you were at the start. No more (or less) connected.
This is only problematic when it comes time for a high-stakes conversation: A performance review. Asking for extended time off. Pushing back on a strategic decision. Suggesting a new direction despite it being unpopular. These are all high stakes.. But when you are having such consequential conversations with someone who is a black box to you –or you to them– your own EQ is disabled. You can’t read subtle signs accurately. You make assumptions about what is “meant” or how it’s meant without any experiential knowledge to inform them.
The trust deficit is a symptom of working remotely, and there is no simple answer. The best I have come up with involve either artificially creating low stakes interactions or going into the office as regularly as is permitted or practical. There is software that companies can use to create random occasions for small talk.
But you can do it yourself. Be bold and willing to look silly. Call a peer. Ask about their kids, their weekend or what they’re reading. Disclose information about yourself. Share that you went hiking and now have 4 blisters, or that you’re shopping assisted living places for mom. And perhaps most of all, go to the office if it’s open. We trust those we feel we know, so get to know your peers and let them know you.