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Trust in the Desert of Zoom

Building the trust needed for innovation and collaboration through Zoom with those we’ve never met in person, by Dr Chris Coleridge.

Abstract image of a virtual meeting.

The world needs its innovators and innovation capabilities more than ever.  But innovation has always been a “contact sport” – it originates in and needs personal contact, personal trust and the possibility for two or more people to set aside the urgent exigencies and “realities” of the moment and imagine, together, a new and different way of doing things and how that new and different way can be plugged into, and spread into, a fast-changing world. 

Dr Chris Coleridge
Dr Chris Coleridge

Yet it looks like distancing measures will continue or recur, across the world for some time to come. And, while life will “return” to something more like the “old normal” in some respects and at some times, the “new normal” of having to collaborate through online tools to a greater and greater extent will weigh heavily on how we work together in collaboration. 

So, if we want to keep the innovation wheels turning, we have to figure out how to develop trust with people we have never met. Collaborating with people we already knew, pre-lockdown, is always possible – but eventually, the world will run out of such pairings, or, at the least, a degraded ability to form effective, trust-filled new relationships will start to hold innovation back, just when we need to accelerate it. 

Zoom and its fellow video-meeting tools allow us to experience some facsimile of being in the same room with others. But we lose something precious: we can neither assure ourselves of our counterpart’s attention and engagement, nor “read” them in the same way through body language, eye contact and nuance. And, just as damaging as the loss of what we take, without realising it, from another’s presence, is our inability to give assurance, attention, and transparency, and certain markers of passion, of the impulse to go, if only for a moment, beyond the rationalWhen inspiration strikes, I normally leap up from my chair and start pacing the room – which is not good Zoom etiquette at all!   

Zoom costs us, in short, authenticity. 

How can we give trust, and project trustworthiness, to people we don’t know “in person”? 

Perhaps we should pause for a moment and think about why we need trust in the first place. One important reason is because of power imbalance. We talk about “placing” our trust in someone or in an organisation because we need to enter into a transaction or relationship with them where we will give them some power over us, where a violation of trust will be costly and we may not be able effectively to seek redress or be recompensed: 

I trust you not to talk about me behind my back 
I trust you to serve me with well-designed products or services 
I trust you to tell me the truth and keep me informed 
I trust you not to waste my time 
I trust you to make time for me. 

In innovation situations, the joint imagination of a potential future for the world is based on some expectations of reciprocity, of joint imagination of a potential future for us

I trust you to give me credit for my ideas 
I trust you to go on the journey to realising this idea with me 
I trust you to use my contribution judiciously and wisely 
I trust you to use what we are creating together for the collective good. 

We face a challenge: how to reach past the degraded facsimile of our “selves” on Zoom and build authentic projections of our intentions and trustworthiness, projections that inspire trust? How do we co-create a relationship as vibrant as the one we would like to have with a colleague whom we see every day, or with whom we break bread regularly? 

Here are three modest suggestions for new habits to build trust for a new type of non-contact innovation: 

1. Unearthing the implicit 

We may have to talk about things we never needed to talk about before. Talking about the elephant in the room, the power behind the throne, the way we’re feeling, the hopes we’re harbouring – we may need to take risks of “oversharing” we never took before, in the service of building an authenticity that transcends the tiny gallery picture and the reaction emoji. This will require some courage to overcome our traditionally cringing response to oversharing – make it clear that unexpected openness is intended to serve, not to provoke or boast. 

2. Accelerating quick wins 

What does someone get from interacting with us? If we have lost simple aspects of the human pleasure of interaction, what can we give instead?  Without turning ourselves into entertainers or gurus, how can we bring forward the payoffs and pleasures of interaction and make it fun, or energising, or mood-lightening to “be” together now? Better to bring the unexpected and routine-breaking into the virtual connection than to settle into pleasing but bland versions of ourselves.   

3. Making the journey clear 

There has been much talk in recent years about the importance of the “why”. Sharing a purpose can help bind people together beyond the need for immediate reckoning of “what’s in it for me right now?” We will need to make space for, and develop the habit of, projecting shared futures together, so that innovations make sense in the context we have already co-imagined. Set aside time for “visioning” – a shared, if as yet only imagined, future enriches the unspoken meaning within each conversation you have with your “vision sharer.”

Humans are inventive as hell. We’re entirely accustomed to inventing new etiquettes to match the particular quirks of new communications technologies. Now, we will now sometimes be forced to use technologies when we’d rather share space. New Zoom-era “trust pioneers” will emerge to show us all-new ways of ensuring innovation without in-person contact. Trust me.