Getting things done in organisations essentially comes down to the interplay of three emotions, Trust, Respect and Fear, and how your team interacts under each of them.
While the ideal position to have is one where trust is absolute and everywhere in all relationships, supported by mutual respect for the capacity and capabilities of all involved, with fear completely absent. Reality is a little different however, fear seems to always find a place somewhere in a business relationship, respect is often lacking and trust can, on occasion, be a rare and precious commodity.
Trust In Business Relationships
Of the three cultures, trust is by far the best for an effective, attractive and pleasant working environment and relationship, yet, sadly, trust can be hard to find in many organisations. Many organisations are simply not configured to become trusting places to work and modern business practices are rarely structured around trust.
Many employment contracts are written to protect the employer from potential litigation in the unlikely event that an employee does something the company may not approve of, they are also set up to enable the employer to commoditise the employee, dehumanising them and destroying any potential for the building of trust. Similarly, even many personnel review practices are structured to maintain a power relationship between manager and managed, not to enable the employee to be genuinely open with their employer, nor for the manager to be completely open with their staff.
Competition between personnel is often also used to build district between them. Reward schemes that favour employees who work individually and who don’t share information or ideas with their colleagues are completely counter any attempt to build trust, yet these schemes are still hugely popular in many businesses. Similarly, reward schemes that prioritise the profitability of one office over another are actively destroying attempts by many businesses and projects to build effective virtual team structures.
Indeed, many contracts are set up to be adversarial from the outset. That adversarial mindset also drives the language used in business, where terms are used for other businesses in the same space such as the competition and the enemy, and where vast amounts of time is given to strategic planning and tactical measures to defeat these other businesses, all language of combat rather than collaboration. If the same level of energy could be spent on building trust between businesses, whether at a customer/supplier or a peer to peer level, many businesses could become more productive and the entire value chain would potentially be less wasteful.
Respect In Business Relationships
If trust is often hard to find and hard to build, the next option is to engender a culture of respect between individuals, offices and businesses. While this can on occasion be hard, it is often easier than complete trust.
Yet, frequently, a client will engage a company to perform work for them but write the contract in a way that clearly states that trust is not freely available. Sometimes this is appropriate, but more often, starting with a lack of respect is planning to fail.
When an organisation employs personnel to perform a task or, to fill a defined role, that organisation will go to great lengths to find a person with all of the skills they need. Why, then, do so many employers not respect that person’s abilities once employed, frequently treating them like they know nothing about their area of speciality. These specialists deserve the respect that comes with their level of experience. Ignoring the experience of employees leads to a breakdown of respect in the employee/employer relationship, leading once again to disconnected and frustrated personnel.
Similarly, if one business genuinely believes that the other is the right one to deliver a service or some specific goods, they should, also, give that other company the respect that they deserve as domain specialists or domain experts in whatever service they offer, whether that is as a consultancy or as a supplier of goods.
Peer To Peer Respect In The Workplace
Another area that respect is occasionally hard to find is between peers in a working relationship. This lack of respect can manifest itself in a co-located environment between personnel who see others as competition, believe they are intellectually, morally or in other ways superior to their work colleagues or who hold some other form of antagonism or bias against colleagues, such as not respecting those of a different gender, ethnic origin, age etc. In these situations the issues are usually visible to at least some other personnel and once the leadership of the organisation become aware of them, they should take action to address this behaviour.
Where these issues of respect can also occur is between virtual team personnel and locations. In this situation the issues can be harder to identify though typically are caused by similar issues, issues stemming from a false sense of superiority, cultural and linguistic differences etc. will often lead to tension between offices. This tension can be extremely destructive in a business or project environment and the leaders of the business need to ensure firstly that they do not model only of this behaviour and, also, that they act quickly to stamp out any of this behaviour.
A Fear Culture In Business
There are occasions where entire projects and businesses are driven almost exclusively by fear, fear of failure, fear of retribution, fear of not achieving goals and the fear of disappointing peers and family can drive many in business, but this culture of fear, where present, is short term and extremely destructive.
Some client organisations, or to be fair certain personnel and teams in client organisations, will work to dominate contractors, suppliers and those dependent on them for business by fear. They will make demands that are unrealistic, unethical and ultimately unproductive. They threaten legal action and the withholding of payment or patronage to achieve their ends, using power and privilege in the pursuit of their personal and collective goals.
In the short term this may even be successful, but in business as in life things have their ways of working themselves out, and those who have thrived for short periods on fear will ultimately find themselves dependent on the same organisations they have dominated. When this happens assistance is typically in very short supply and the former victims will seek to gain some form of recompense for their ill treatment.
Fear Culture In Office Politics
Similarly, in some businesses, some personnel in positions of power will seek to build and maintain their authority through a regime of fear. They will use the economic and corporate leverage they have over their personnel to threaten, bully and oppress. This treatment of personnel is, sadly, relatively common, but, in the long term, it is also extremely ineffective. Those being subjugated will look for ways to leave the organisation, either physically through finding another opportunity elsewhere or emotionally through becoming highly and actively disengaged employees, sometimes actively sabotaging the desired aims of the business.
Word of the regime within the business will also get to those who may become potential employees or clients, leading to a level of self selection whereby people will choose not to deal with or be employed by an organisation with such a reputation.
Solutions For A Balanced And Happy Workplace
While sadly it is unlikely that all fear based relationships will be removed from the working environment, businesses should at least aim to remove what they can. Fear may on occasion lead to some specific task being completed in a better than normal time but as a long term strategy it will destroy most businesses. Organisations need to look for ways to build trust and respect between their personnel at all levels and, as far as contractual relationships will allow, to have similar levels of respect and trust between customers and suppliers.
A healthy, respectful office is possibly the best many businesses can hope for in the medium term, but, the more that respect is shared and built the greater the level of trust that will be established.
Share your experiences
Do you have experiences with issues of trust, respect or fear in your virtual teams, or have you experienced issues in a team you have been a part of you would like to share? If so, we would love to hear from you.
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Ulfire specialises in supporting organisations plan, establish and run high performing virtual teams. We combine extensive practical experience from decades of involvement in virtual teams, with current, real world, academic research into the way members of virtual teams collaborate. Please contact us to discuss ways we can help your business, or sign up using the form below to receive our regular newsletter.
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