How Trust and Competence at Work Relate to Employee Performance

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced workplaces everywhere to go virtual. Employees and employers alike have to cope with the fact that face-to-face, physical interaction will not be possible for a prolonged period. Establishing and maintaining office relationships during this health crisis are suddenly a priority, especially because a virtual workplace limits collaborative interaction coworkers would normally have.

To maintain productive and efficient teams despite a virtual workplace, trust is a crucial factor that organizations must foster. Unfortunately, many people have a faulty understanding of what trust truly is and how to develop it in such an unprecedented time. 

What, then, is the real definition of trust, and how does it relate to employee performance?  Trust is being able to give full responsibility to your team, without any reasonable doubt, that they will perform as expected of them and put the company’s best interest in the front line. In return to this trust, employees are more confident with their own abilities and work more efficiently. They are more motivated to prove their worth and contribute to the success of the company. 

Andrew MawsonOpens in a new tab. is the owner and managing director of Advanced Workplace Associates. As a workplace strategist, he shares his insights on the misconception people have regarding trust and what it truly means in relation to employee performance. He also discusses the importance of cultivating trust, especially in the virtual workplace, and how to develop our individual trust index and organizational cohesiveness.

The Definition of Trust

Trust is a confusing concept, and many misconceptions revolve around what it entails. Many people often wrongly associate trust with competence. For example, when people say they trust someone, it often means that they believe the person has the ability to do something. When asked the question, “Do you trust your partner?” most people think, “Trust in doing what exactly? Changing the tires? Fix the plumbing?”

However, trust is more about the intentions of a person than the mere capability to do something. In general, “Trust is a belief that someone is going to act in the way you expect them to in a relatively positive relation towards you,” Andrew says. 

In the professional setting, trust is all about whether an employee will put the team’s interests first before their own. Without a manager to regularly monitor them physically, will they still do their task at hand with due diligence and maximum effort?

The concept of trust is something many of us need to navigate given the current circumstances. After all, you can solve and improve competence in the workplaceOpens in a new tab. with training, but trust issues can be problematic and are not easily remedied.

Trust and Competence at Work

As the entire world transitions toward remote work and a virtual set-up, trust is an increasingly important indicator of a successful team. Various communication methods once readily available are now limited, and our colleagues are as inaccessible as ever, even though the same level of productivity and output is still required. 

In reality, both trust and competence go hand in hand when it comes to an effective organization. Trusting someone means you have confidence in them putting the team first above everything. In addition, trusting someone directly affects numerous factors of an organization’s productivity, including social cohesion and information sharing.

Trust is the glue that binds all the six factors of knowledge worker productivityOpens in a new tab.. These factors are as follows:

1. Trust. “The belief and expectation that other person will act to one’s benefit, or at least not be detrimental to the team.”

2. Social Cohesion. A team with no trust with and among each other cannot bond well. It also limits important cooperation. 

3. Perceived Supervisory Support. Operational employees that do not trust senior leaders will have questionable commitment.

4. Information Sharing. Lack of trust severely inhibits the spread of reliable information. It also disregards potentially valuable information because of prejudice.

5. External Communications. Tied with information sharing, having no trust forces individuals to close themselves from the team and refuse to communicate well.

6. Vision and Goal Clarity. Without trust and organizational commitment, team members will not be eager to pursue long-term goals and objectives.

Having a virtual model of the workplace exacerbates the effects of organizational mistrust. With no manager to monitor what you do at your desk, no meetings to raise concerns, and no opportunities to at least grab lunch with coworkers, trust can be especially hard to cultivate. It’s built over time, yet it is easily fractured.

The Individual Trust Index

Andrew believes every individual has a trust index in the eyes of colleagues. We may have a grasp of our colleagues’ trust index, but we don’t know our own trust index. Thus, Andrew advocates for us to be accountable for our own trustworthiness. This is not easy to do with the current virtual nature of the professional setting, but we have to do it anyway.

Organizations have to prioritize a culture of trust because a lack of it can be the root of numerous problems. Mistrust in the workplace leads to a cyclical downfall of the team and its productivity. As Andrew says, “When trust begins to dilute, relationships dilute, misunderstandings start, generosity is taken away, and the organization’s cohesiveness decays.”

Measuring Performance in Remote Work

What are organizationsOpens in a new tab.? Simply put, “Organizations are ultimately the aggregate energy of large numbers of people harnessed together within structures and processes to deliver a defined outcome.”

The workplace experience thus encompasses the work done of organizations on both:

• Inside the office. Physically in a dedicated workstation with other employees.

• Outside the office. Whether remotely working from homeOpens in a new tab. or even beyond.

It also involves both practical issues as well as emotional and sensory issues. Thus, standards need to be set for office performance, even as work from home settings are starting to become more prevalent. 

Remote work has always been a worst-case scenario in businesses and offices. There has been a long-standing belief that people are far more productive in an office with colleagues than they are at home. However, the pandemic has accelerated the paradigm shift that remote work and use of the internet will soon become the norm. With the global health crisis, the transition to remote work has never been urgent. 

The workplace has to accept and adapt if it wants to survive. Fortunately, the software has been developed, and technology has evolved to replicate some of what occurs in a physical office. Yet, it’s not the same; the virtual workplace is still not an ideal place to monitor and measure performance.  

For managementOpens in a new tab. to assess your performance accurately, they need to feel your presence. Andrew urges that employees have to be seen as a positive contributor to the team. This entails:

1. Being proactive. Being active and engaged in your work rather than passively catching up to deadlines shows commitment to the team.

2. Forging connections. Even if it is more difficult in a virtual setting, the internet has various tools to allow for relationship-building.

3. Taking initiative. Bridging the gap made by physical distance by constantly updating and bringing ideas allows positive contributions to the organization.

To further explain the need for trust, Andrew uses an analogy. He compares an organization to a football team, where someone less competent is less likely to get the ball. Having less time with the ball then correlates to diminished opportunities for contribution and development. Fewer opportunities and contributions then lead to even more distrust.

On the flip side, people who are trusted are sought more by coworkers and given more information, which then leads to them contributing more value. To sustain a virtual workplace, trust needs to be enhanced and cultivated within an organization. As the common cliche goes, “without trust, you have nothing.”

Cultivating Relationships in a Virtual Workplace

Whenever we see a cluttered and messy desk, stacked paperwork, and a stressed colleague, we immediately know they’re busy, and they have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, with remote work, we can only perceive snippets of the true situation of our coworker.

As Andrew emphasizes, the human brain fills in the gaps of what might be happening whenever we don’t feel another person’s presence. This makes empathy and understanding even more important because being cynical will lead to a culture of mistrust and will burn important bridges unnecessarily. 

“Trust is at the heart of keeping us all together. We have to believe that we’re all together, that we’re working together, and we’re all on it.” Andrew says.

Knowing how important trust is in the workplace, we have to take responsibility for building, earning, and maintaining trust in the organization. Now more than ever, we should cultivate our relationships with coworkers.

These simple steps can help us develop a trustworthy version of ourselves and a socially cohesive team.

1. Give people the benefit of the doubt. We inevitably make mistakes. If we want to be forgiven for our own shortcomings, we should also understand and empathize with the other person.

2. Be responsible for your trustworthiness. You may have little control over how other people ultimately perceive you, but you can show that you’re a trustworthy person not just through words but through actions.

3. Go out of your way to connect. Going out of your way to connect with people, regardless of distance, is a key indicator of trust-building and a cohesive organization.

4. Express yourself honestly. Expect that some people won’t cut you as much slack as you’d like. We have to be accountable, but we also want to maintain trust even if we sometimes fail other people. Whenever we miss deadlines or make mistakes, we should honestly explain, sincerely apologize, and make amends to our colleagues.

There has to be a balance among performance, workload, trust, and perception in a virtual workplace. Likewise, we should have both empathy and trust in each other — not only do these make a more productive team, it also strengthens our relationships with our peers.

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