The Cost of Trust in Project Management

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In this episode of the Project Management Paradise Podcast we speak to Sara Gallagher, a Senior Consultant at The Persimmon Group and discuss Sara’s presentation at the PMI Global Conference last year entitled “You Can Trust Me: Communicating When Nobody Can See Your Face”.

You can listen to the full episode or read excerpts below.

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Sara’s Background

“I am a management consultant who specialises in project management, and my sweet spot is helping organisations select, plan, and execute high stakes projects. These are projects that have very high potential rewards, but if they’re executed poorly, it could lead to a disastrous disruption in the business. Most of the time when I get a call it’s the trouble project team, or it’s a company that’s looking to get better because of a past experience that was troubled. What I’ve found is that kind of work–where you have a very politically complex environment–is much easier to do in-person, and you can work through conflict, looking at each other face-to-face. The big challenge that I’ve found with my background and doing this kind of work is when you have to do that work over the phone or a conference call. It’s much harder to do that work when you can’t see each other, and that’s where my interest in this topic came from.”

Companies you work with?
“Everyone from a small-sized to medium company to fortune 200 companies. I’ve worked with primary oil and gas, IT, non-profit, healthcare, a major airline, so it’s a diverse experience.”

Interview Excerpts

How did you get into this field? Primarily from dealing with clients over phone conversations?
“I didn’t hit immediately upon trust as a diagnosis that came a little later. What I started to see s that when I was trying to untangle complex, often confusing projects and teams, and unravel what exactly had gone wrong and when–it was more difficult when there was distance. There was more confusion or the need to clarify something. You all hop off the call and think you’ve decided on one thing, and a week later you see an email string that’s completely different.

That’s what was intriguing to me as I was trying to figure out how to get better at doing this in a virtual environment. What causes that? What I’ve learned is trust is really at the root of it. We’ll get into what I mean by trust because more people think of trust as someone having my best interest at heart or someone wanting to do the right thing. Conceptually, that’s easy. Real trust, the kind of trust that I’m talking about is much a hairier, grittier, day-to-day, email-by-email concept that’s very easy to get lost in translation when you’re talking about a virtual team.”

Definition of trust
“I love the framework that was established by Stephen M.R. Covey called the Four Cores of Trust where trust is more than what we typically think of. When we think of trust normally, we think of something close to integrity. Does someone have character? Are they the same person with me that they are with others? That’s a very important part of trust, but what I’ve found in my travels, I’ve only run into 2-3% of people who truly have a real integrity problem.”

“Most of the time is people perceive they have an integrity problem; it’s an innocent misunderstanding that got in the way. There are three other aspects of trust as well. To sum up, trust is much more than just integrity; it’s are we correctly interpreting the messages we’re getting from people the way they were intended when transmitted. Those miscommunications stem from a lack of trust.”

What is trust tax?

“The trust tax is the economic cost of having low organisational trust. It’s real dollars that we pay in waste time, redundant decision makers, and employee turnover when trust is low in a team. One of my favourite stories about this to see how quickly you can make gains when you get rid of this is the company Zappos. Essentially a call service, call centre company and their real innovation when they got started was that call centres, in general, were operating under a metric, the average length of a call. That’s how they were evaluating their call sales representatives was how long were they on the phone. Well anyone who has ever been on the phone with a call centre and gotten hung up on knows the fallacy of using that as a metric. People are motivated just to get you off the phone.”

“Zappos changed that metric from average length of call to average speed to answer. Unlike most Call-centres that had a very structured system of decision making–so only supervisors and managers could offer certain things – Zappos empowered their front-line employees to get to that speed of answer by any means necessary. They could stay on the phone as long as they needed to, send their customer chocolate, authorise the return of money or a purchase. As we know, when they changed that model and removed their trust tax, they emerged in the forefront of their industry and became a sensation. That’s what happens when you can eliminate that trust tax.”

How to manage social distance?
“The trust tax is paid by everybody to varying degrees whether you’re working in person or not. Social distance is defined as the degree of emotional connection between people. The social distance we found is much smaller when people are working in person–in other words when the distance is less. Think about when you’re working in an office, and you get up to take a quick break, you pass someone and share a joke with them or talk over coffee about their families. What you’re doing with all these micro-interactions is accumulating data about them and context.”

“For example, if you ask your colleague a question and receive a response email that guides you to read through the messages again if it’s someone you interact with a lot, you would know that it’s a gentle reminder. On the other hand, if you got that same email from someone you don’t interact with as much, you’ll know that they’re just trying to be genuinely helpful and give you context. How I interpret that fairly innocuous opening of the email is based on what I know about the person.”

“Social distance when we’re in person is quite small, and it allows us to interpret digital messages more accurately. When we’re talking about a virtual or remote team, we don’t have those day-to-day interactions. In fact, the only time we probably get together to talk is when we have an expressed purpose for doing so, which means our volume of data that we have to interpret their messages accurately is much smaller. When I tell people working in virtual teams is that you have to clarify your own intent a lot more explicitly and frequently than you think you have to in-person.”

“For example, when you’re talking to someone in an email, and you ask them a question, I almost always will say explicitly in that email communication is “the reason I’m asking is” and then tell them why I’m asking that question. When I CC somebody, which can often cause conflict because people don’t know how to interpret why are you CCing the person in the message, I will explicitly say “I’m CCing Bob because I want him to be in the loop in case we have to involve him in a decision later on.”

“Be very explicit about exactly what your intentions are with each communication so that you don’t have to leave it up to interpretation. That’s one of the best ways to mitigate social distance. The other is to eliminate or reduce the social distance by interacting more frequently with people if you can and doing so in a more personal way. I love to video chat and using it with teams because it helps when you can see their face, engagement, and sense of personality, which can help with social distance.”

Uncertainty Tax
“The trust tax that we covered is another concept from Stephen M.R. Covey’s book “The Speed of Trust.” The uncertainty tax is a little nickname that I’ve given to a concept that pertains to especially to remote teams. If we are already paying the trust tax, the uncertainty tax is that additional tax that we pay, typically in virtual teams where social distance is high, because we just don’t understand the intent of the person giving the message.”

“A great example is the one I gave earlier, you get that email, and the first line is, “As you will see in the email string below..” There are a lot of ways to interpret why that person included that in their message. One is simply factual. They’re just giving you information that’s necessary and telling you where to find it. There’s also less charitable ways to interpret that message. I think it’s really important to understand the difference digitally and especially in writing, there are always at least two, but up to 10 and even 15 nuances. That uncertainty tax is referencing that concept. With digital communication such as email, we think that we’re being perfectly clear and in fact, it’s rarely as cut and dry as that.”

The Four Cores of Trust
“Integrity – We already covered integrity, which is being congruent. Are you fundamentally the same person with the same character even if I pick you up and put you in different situations? That’s what most people think of when they think of trust. It’s absolutely an important part of the trust, and there are a lot of ways in digital communication that it can get compromised quickly.”

“Intent–The second core of trust is the intent. What do you mean by the things that you say and do? With social distance introduced in a virtual team, intent can get confused really fast.”

In my mind, integrity and intent are the two most important cores of trust to address first if you have an issue with them.”

“Capability – The third core of trust is capability. This can be tough for people to think of in the context of trust. We think of trust as integrity, but I can think you are the best person in the world with the best of intent, and if I don’t perceive you are in control of a situation or competent in what you’re doing, I’m still not really going to trust you. I’m still not going to relinquish control and leadership to you.”

“With digital communication, we can compromise people’s perception of our competence quickly simply by not mastering the technology that we’re using like in a conference call. One of the things that I think is important for project managers working in a virtual team is to know that your first call with your team is critical, not just to achieve the agenda items, but to establish a relationship and perception with the team that you are in control of the situation. That you are competent and capable of leading them, and you are always going to respect their time by testing out that technology beforehand and effectively facilitating that meeting.”

“Results – If you’re doing those three things, then the fourth core is results or what’s your track record? You can come across as competent, have great intentions, and great integrity, but if you aren’t driving your team towards actions, then you’re still probably not going to be considered trustworthy over the long term.”

“Results are particularly difficult in virtual teams because it’s logistically harder to get things done. When we’re in an in-person meeting, we can look at each other and see the visual cues whereas we don’t get those in a virtual call. You have to build some questions and lines from your facilitation toolbox to help you move forward. You have to ask: what are some things we can decide today versus what can we solve later? Or, I’ve heard some discussion, it sounds like we need to do X, but how do we do it and when can you commit to doing it by. When you’re working in an office, in-person there’s more of a margin of error.”

“You can get the what–the action items from a meeting–and figure out the who and the when in cubicle conversations if you have to. You don’t get that luxury in a virtual meeting, so if you don’t get that information in a meeting, then you might not get it for another week. It’s getting better from a facilitator perspective at driving the team towards action. All four of these cores of trust is important, no matter whether you’re in-person or digital, but they’re much harder to achieve when you’re in a digital environment.”

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