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Leadership Unlimited

Leadership Unlimited is a career column by Terry Wall, MBA '97. Terry is a recognized expert on strategy, leadership, and productivity, who will share his experiences and tips each month.

Alumni are encouraged to send comments, questions or suggestions for future column topics to

Building Trust Requires the Human Touch
December 2014

Email as a technology is a two-edged sword. Over long distances, email shrinks the world, allowing this article to go to people in Jordan and Japan just as easily as it goes to subscribers in Philadelphia.

With shorter distances, though, email expands the world greatly, making us farther apart, and insulating us from the human contact that is essential in building trust.

Trust is the foundation of any relationship, and leadership is about relationships with peers, coworkers, bosses, direct reports, and others. So, building trust is an activity that we as leaders must always pursue.

And yet email limits our ability to build trust by eliminating the human touch that is essential to building trust. I know it's easier to send an email, but if we truly want to build trust, we must go out of our way to actually talk to a person, rather than use email.

In my work with management teams, trust building is often the main objective. At the beginning of a session I'll ask team members what they've been doing to build trust since our last meeting.

With team members who don't work at the same location, I often hear that, due to the nature of their work, they don't have much contact, so they haven't done any trust-building.

My response is, "Have you had any contact with each other?" "Well, yes," they'll reply, "but not a lot." I tell them that EVERY interaction is an opportunity to build trust, and that they should treat it as such.

This is important because the trust people have in us is never static, it's always increasing or diminishing, based on our behavior, and how others interpret that behavior.

So every interaction is important, whether the interaction involves email, phone conversations, or face-to-face meetings. Obviously, face-to-face meetings provide the best opportunities to build trust; phone conversations come in second; and email would be in third place.

When you and I are talking face-to-face, I hope that my eye contact, tone of voice, facial expression, and posture all communicate to you that I'm sincerely interested in your thoughts and feelings. That builds trust.

On the phone, I can communicate my trustworthiness through only my words and tone of voice. The telephone limits the indicators of trust. Email limits these indicators even more.

Here's an example of how email expands the world, isolating us, and making us farther apart. I once worked with a team of 10 people all of whom worked in the same office, and yet their primary method of communication was email. They were literally sending emails to team members 10 feet away.

I found this very odd, and yet they saw nothing wrong with it. These weren't people who traveled a lot. They all spent most of their time in the same office, at the same time, and yet they rarely talked to each other. Email was their way of talking, so they might as well have been on different continents.

Email is NOT the best way to build trust, because the farther away we get from the person technologically, the harder we have to work to build trust. If email is the communication, the other person has even less to go on in judging whether I'm trustworthy.

This means that when using email or the phone, I have to work harder to convince the other person that I'm trustworthy.

We should never let email, even though it's a convenient technology, get in the way of building trust.

What are you doing to establish more face-to-face communication? Are you relying too much on email? If so, is it because you're afraid of the human contact, of the effort it requires, of discussing difficult issues face-to-face?

About the Author

Terry Wall

Terry Wall, MBA '97, accelerates success for individuals and organizations. For individuals, he accelerates success through coaching. For organizations, he accelerates success by building winning teams, working with management teams in groups. Either way, Terry teaches people how to improve how they manage and lead, so that they and their direct reports are more engaged in their work, more committed to organizational goals, and more productive in what they do.

That accelerates success. That improves profitability.

Terry specializes in strategic planning, leadership development, change management, corporate culture, and productivity improvement. He works in a wide range of industries, including service and manufacturing, non-profit, and large and small organizations. He is a skilled facilitator who provides coaching on individual, executive, or team levels.

A recognized expert on strategy, leadership, and productivity, Terry has a B.A. in psychology from Rockhurst University in Kansas City, and an MBA from Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is a professional speaker, and a professional writer who coauthored a book on teambuilding, and has been published in many publications.

Terry Wall accelerates success, and improves profitability, for individuals, teams, and organizations.

Issue Archive

October 2009
4 Best Practices to Destroy Employee Retention

January 2010
What is Responsibility Based Management, Engaging Leadership?

February 2010
Do You Have a Leadership Deficit?

March 2010
Trust is the Foundation of Leadership, Teamwork, Sales

June 2010
Look in the Mirror First, but Beware of Blind Spots

August 2010
Five Strategies to Improve Company Profitability

October 2010
The Leader's Role as Teacher, and the Threat to Put My Hand in the Shredder

December 2010
The First 48 Principle of Conflict Resolution

January 2011
Talk Makes People Do Awful Things

March 2011
3 Reasons to Pursue Social Responsibility

April 2011
Visibility is a Great Leadership Strategy

July 2011
Casey Anthony and 4 Dysfunctions of a Team

August 2011
Choice is a Key to Motivation, Engagement

September 2011
Labor Day, and Engagement's Missing Ingredient

February 2012
3 Trends, 4 Questions for Developing Innovative Strategies

September 2012
Mastering the Art of Public Speaking

December 2012
Leaders Use Purpose to Increase Profitability

January 2013
Leadership Model Accelerates Success, Focuses on 5 Areas

February 2013
Look in the Mirror First, but Beware of Blind Spots

March 2013
The Most Powerful Phrase in Leadership

June 2013
Public Speaking As an Important Leadership Skill, and Three Improvement Tips

July 2013
5 Tips to Avoid Snore-Filled Meetings

August 2013
The Adapt or Get Zapped Approach to Innovation

October 2013
Relentless Communication About Purpose
Engages, Motivates Employees

December 2013
3 Rules to Uncover Your Purpose

January 2014
Increased Employee Engagement Leads To Improved Profitability

February 2014
Leaders Should Embrace Conflict

March 2014
To Promote Values, Preach What You Practice

May 2014
Avoid Death by PowerPoint Presentations

July 2014
14 Strategies for Better Time Management

October 2014
Four Best Practices to Destroy Employee Retention