There has long been a serious trust deficit between leaders and their people, and the pandemic has exacerbated it. But before examining this, let’s explore the meaning of trust and COVID’s effect on it.
Trust is often a misunderstood concept. People often say things like “I don’t trust that person,” making it sound like our decision to trust is a gut feeling or emotion. But we actually make our judgment to trust or not trust based on another person’s behaviors. When people don’t trust their leaders, it’s because there are untrustworthy behaviors happening, intentionally or unintentionally.
COVID and Trust
The pandemic has pushed the issue of trust to the forefront. We are no longer connecting at the proverbial water cooler, at lunch, or during happy hour. Our lack of face-to-face interactions has weakened our ability to connect. This has a cascade effect that also weakens the other three elements of trust. (See sidebar.)
Trust is the foundation of every relationship. If you don’t think your leader is there for you, there’s no real possibility for commitment, engagement, or collaboration. And being there during the pandemic is vastly different from the pre-COVID world.
Consider this example. Now that we have so little contact, it’s easy for a person to wonder if their leader really has their back. And if someone questions this fundamental need for a leader to stand up for their people, it’s extremely challenging to coach, have difficult conversations, manage performance, help someone navigate their career, or give meaningful feedback. The rift between the leader and their people grows.
In the pre-pandemic world, it was assumed good managers held weekly one-on-ones with their people where they gave them their undivided attention. But if leaders weren’t doing that before the pandemic, it’s not likely they’re doing it now. In this difficult moment, leaders have to be especially intentional. They must make it a point to communicate and connect if they are to build trust. They must show their people they care about them.
An Example from My Life
I’ll share an example from my life that shows how actions can be misconstrued and how leaders need to connect intentionally. I really worked to master my craft as an instructional designer and solution architect. I tend to get so excited about my work that it’s easy for me to overcommit.
What does overcommitment look like in terms of trust and untrustworthy behavior? I often have back-to-back calls (because it’s hard to say no), and when that happens, I’m habitually late. That’s a ding on my dependability, which breaks one of the four elements of trust.
When you’re not dependable, it can undermine trust. My people may begin to think “Britney’s always putting something else before me. Is there something more important than our time? If she’s not dependable, does she really care about me?” So even something as simple as being late to meetings can profoundly impact relationships with people.
How Immersive Learning Closes the Trust Gap
Trust has been taught as a central principle of good leadership for as long as leadership development has been around. But it’s not a simple thing. No one willingly says “Hey, I’m a total jerk. I’m untrustworthy and I need your help.” So subjective assessments about our trustworthiness are the norm. And when it comes up in training, learners gloss over it. They click through the module, multi-task during the virtual session, or scroll through the PDF. They think “Yeah, I got this! It’s easy to understand.” They aren’t wrong—it is easy to understand. But it’s hard to practice.
Immersive learning and VR, on the other hand, provide the objectivity needed for self-awareness. It helps the learner understand that trust is built on behaviors. It has nothing to do with how long you’ve been a leader. It forces people to consider whether they are intentional with what they say and do during a conversation. The focus is on behaviors: how they care about their people; how dependable they are; how authentic they are; how competent they are. Learning through immersing in scenarios and relevant situations in a realistic setting shows that there are many factors that contribute to a strong relationship built on trust.
Blanchard’s Building Trust Immersive Learning modules give individuals the opportunity to talk to Sherri, a leader who is having trust issues with her team. Through a lifelike conversation, individuals help her see and understand the impact of her behaviors on building or eroding trust and identify the elements of trust that need improving to build and maintain trusting relationships.
The ingenious part of each scenario is that it doesn’t immediately present itself as a trust problem. It starts with how Sherri is behaving. The learner’s challenge is to figure out what Sherri can do to improve the situation. This gives learners the chance to absorb the elements of trust and practice the conversation in a realistic and safe environment. You can ask yourself what you would do if you were Sherri, and it happens through a lively and casual discussion. You can’t do this with a static medium like a video, an article, or an interactive PDF.
Why VR Works
While the Building Trust modules are available to stream via a desktop computer, experiencing the modules in a VR headset offers a massively differentiated experience, as VR allows individuals to be more focused and more emotionally connected to the content. VR also helps participants learn faster than if they were in a classroom and be more confident when applying the skills.
When you have a sophisticated VR simulation like Blanchard’s Building Trust, you get to practice what you would say, help Sherri build trust with her team, and make her more mindful of her behaviors. And when you put on the VR headset, you’re immersed in the environment. You remember Sherri’s face, the clothes she was wearing, the look of the office. Because of this, you vividly remember having the conversation. It becomes something you can recall more fluidly. It becomes an experience instead of a memory.
Research shows that learners don’t have the same sort of experience with a traditional eLearning course.
The VR Moment
VR has many benefits other than the ones I shared. It’s a way to have real interaction in a time of social distancing. It’s ideal for a global, virtual, and matrixed business world, because time and place no longer matter. Everyone has equal access to the same learning materials. VR creates equality.
Using VR to build trust is a way to help people build better relationships, which is the foundation of great leadership. It brings a human element to learning. It lets people practice and then transfer new behaviors to the workplace. It’s also scalable and immersive. And it’s going to be a key pillar in leadership development in the years to come.