Trust Building in a Virtual Leadership, with TUDublin's Colin Hughes

Cathal Divilly

In the eighth episode of the Red Cube Podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by Dr Colin Hughes. Dr Colin Hughes is Head of the Graduate Business School at TU Dublin and has recently conducted a PhD examining trust-building in virtual leadership. In this episode, the duo is discussing the different trends in the new ways of working based on the PhD research, the SOAR practical model developed by Dr Colin Hughes which covers eight successful leadership behaviours of hybrid leaders, and useful tips for leaders' communication. 



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Speakers (1)-1

Dr Colin Hughes
Head of the Graduate Business School
TU Dublin

Cathal (1)

Cathal Divilly
Great Place to Work Ireland



> Transcript

Cathal Divilly: Welcome Red Cube listeners, you're very welcome to the latest episode of our podcast The Red Cube which deals with all things people and culture, and we are delighted to welcome, from TU Dublin, the Head of the Graduate Business School, Colin Hughes. Colin, you are very welcome.

Dr Colin Hugues: Thank you, Cathal. Delighted to be here.


Cathal Divilly: Colin, for our listeners. You might, you might take them through sort of your career to date. Sort of the role that you're in at the moment and then kind of take us into the research that you've done.

Dr Colin Hugues: I suppose at the moment I'm Head of the Graduate Business School, TU Dublin. As I say, we're transitioning at the moment and doing a big re-org, but essentially come this September our new structures will be in place. We've about 45 Postgraduate Business programmes, a large portfolio of Executive Education programmes. We run programmes with leading Irish and international organisations and so on, so it's quite a busy role.

Prior to that, I've held a whole bunch of roles over nearly 20 years in TU Dublin, or DIT before that, heading up Executive Education, our MBA programme, and a bunch of other kind of management roles in different areas and schools like marketing and retail and so on.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah, and Colin, the hot topic at the moment, right? So… you're on trend! I never thought you'd be as on trend as you are at the moment. But look, the hot topic given the experience we've had over the last couple of years is: workplaces and how their way of working for now and the future is going to look. Will it be hybrid, remote, some sort of flexibility? So share with the listeners the research that you've done, and yeah, looking forward to hearing about that.

Dr Colin Hugues: Yeah, so a really pivotal point, I suppose, in organisational life and in people’s working lives, I think we're seeing that huge shift at the moment, this hybrid paradox, as some people call it as we return to life post-COVID and we try and figure out what that blend will look like. And from speaking to a lot of organisations, they're trying to figure out what that blend looks like, and some people have made those decisions and a lot of people are probably waiting and giving it a little bit more time.

I think the balance to be struck now is the expectations of individual employees versus the expectations and needs of individual employers. Simon Sinek, your listeners will know quite well, and he's famous for the ‘Why’ when he talks about purpose and so on.

And I think about the ‘Why’ when, you know, as a response that employees will have to many employers when they tell them they have to come in four days a week, right? Because there's been a lot of discussion around this, about how productive people have been, how they found new ways of working during COVID when asked to work remotely at short notice, and that their metrics or their performance on many metrics is up.

So it hasn't worked for every role and I think the reality is we're going to see the balance will be, will vary based on role type; based on sector or organisational type, but also based on the individual because some people will be happy enough to work almost fully remotely or fully remotely. Other people crave the office environment and the energy that they get from being with people on a daily basis, and so on.

And then everyone has different setup, right, at home and that can be stage of life. And you know, if you’ve young kids running around at home, which I did during COVID, maybe you want to go into the office, but at the same time it's good to be able to be there and spend some time with the kids, you know, during the day at break times and not have those long commutes.

And I think the important thing about that is what I always say to people is, and particularly our students, our postgraduate students when they're conducting research is, you have to separate remote working during COVID from remote working. And what I mean by that is a lot of the research I've done was conducted pre-COVID, and I suppose when you talk to those people, when I interviewed people, they talk about having this balance and flow in their lives and the work-life balance. And really I suppose being able to leverage the benefits of remote working, and we haven't had as much of that during COVID because what COVID has brought is a huge amount of additional pressure onto organisations and individuals.


Cathal Divilly:  Great Colin, and the topic, the title of your PhD again, remind me what that was?

Dr Colin Hugues: Well, the PhD examined virtual leadership, trust building in virtual leadership. So it was basically, an investigation of trust in virtual leader-member dyads, essentially. So, what I looked at was – in three tech multinationals, all household names – I looked at people right across EMEA and I did over 40 interviews with employees and leaders.

So I was getting both perspectives, so I was trying to understand from an employee perspective, what makes you trust the leader, but also what makes you feel trusted? Because trust is reciprocal and there's a saying that “trust begets trust”. That's a saying that people would be familiar with, but that's also being borne out more recently in the work of Paul Zak and others in the areas of neuroscience, where they've actually measured for things like Oxytocin, and actually proven that when someone trusts you, that it actually causes a spike in Oxytocin and makes you more willing to engage and to trust others.

So I looked at the leader, the member perspective for employee perspective and I also looked at the leader’s perspective. So what makes you trust individual employees and what makes you feel trusted by individual employees. So, that type of dyadic focus and getting both perspectives is probably rare enough and I think it's really important, given that reciprocal nature of trust.


Cathal Divilly: Fantastic Colin, and I know you've developed a practical model that's going to be really useful for companies and leaders around how they, how they support leaders, right, in this remote setting. I'm looking forward to kind of hearing all about that, but one thing that sparked there is I remember you saying to me sort of at the start of the pandemic that what you're seeing is that low trust leaders – so if you're a low trust leader pre-pandemic – that some of those traits are almost being magnified in terms of a virtual setting. What did you mean by that?

Dr Colin Hugues: There's a great quote, and it's attributed to Warren Buffett, and it says, he apparently said “only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked”. And I think the tide went out with COVID, and what I mean by that was overnight all leaders, or most leaders, became remote leaders. And I think remote leaders really have to double down on the levels of support they give to employees and the engagement and the clarity of expectations and all of these different things.

And from all of the virtual leaders I've spoken to. And you know, spoken to really experienced virtual leaders and hybrid leaders in advance of COVID. But they will tell you that you need to be more intentional when you're a remote leader in showing people that you care. In supporting people and you need to be much more reflective.

So I love that quote because I think it really kind of shines a light on the fact that it shows how good of a leader you are when you're in a remote setting, in many ways.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah, and in many ways the cream is rising, right, with the, top perhaps right, and you know from having conversations out there with organisations as they think about their new way of working, a real concern that’s there Colin is they're thinking about their leadership group right, or their management population, and they are concerned, worried, wondering how they can support them in terms of this virtual leadership piece, right? And I think that brings us on nicely to the SOAR model which you have developed. The S, the O, the A, and the R and Colin, maybe let's take us through the SOAR model?

Dr Colin Hugues: Yes, OK, great, and I think before I do – I’ll make the point, I think that… I think pre-COVID, most people probably assumed that managing people remotely was the same as managing people sitting beside you in the office. And as I say, very experienced virtual leaders have said to me that that's absolutely not the case, and whilst a very, very strong leader probably will be a very strong leader in a remote setting, it does require a level of effort that goes beyond maybe leading in an office environment, I suppose. That doesn't tend to be differentiated, you know, when people complete Leadership Training or orientations and so on within organisations. So I think that's important to note, and I think that's something we need to focus on in organisations going forward.

So what is the SOAR model? So the SOAR model, I suppose, listen with all of these models, if you develop a model it has to be a little bit catchy, little bit corny, so the SOAR model is kind of based on the premise that you know, build trust and your relationships will SOAR. It’s quite easy, it's eight leadership behaviours of hybrid leaders. So each letter has two behaviours.

So the first one S: the first one is Support. And really, the findings of my research show that really strong hybrid leaders are employee-centric leaders, so that's a term that I've kind of coined that I like in that they're really focused on the individual employees both personally and professionally. So from a personal level we saw a lot of that during COVID. We saw a lot of good leaders stand up and check in with people, see how they are on a personal level. Knowing that, you know, they might be feeling a bit isolated, or you know they might be sick or have family members sick and so on.

So really strong hybrid leaders do that quite naturally, and they're empathetic. And empathy is something that doesn't come naturally to everyone, but it's something that if it doesn't, you kind of have to work on. I have a Post-It here in front of me on my screen in my office here at home that says “Check In with People”. Right, and that's just when you're really busy, it's just to remind me to check in and see how people are doing.

So, I think that on the personal level, I think as well that would encompass the fact that people, particularly at the early stage of careers or early stage of working in new organisations, may feel quite vulnerable. There’s a settling in period, when you don't have your manager on-site, or you know in person, you'll have a ton of questions, that's only natural, but you need that level of support and you need someone maybe checking in to tell you that it's OK that you have lots of questions. Or putting some support structures in place with people locally or other people to check in, or a buddy or whatever it might be, so that's support on a personal level.

On a professional level, this is a really interesting one, so I mentioned being an employee-centric leader, what really good leaders do is they adopt a coaching style of leadership. So they're not necessarily qualified coaches, but what I mean by that is they don't tell people how to do everything. They give them space to make some mistakes, they give them the broad parameters and that helps them to develop. So that's part of their development in terms of figuring things out for themselves, so they're there when they need them. They're available when they need them. But they give them things to work on and they give them that space.

And I found a really some really fascinating examples in my own research over the last few years where very good virtual leaders actually went out on a limb to give people a platform within their organisation. So what I mean by that is, you know, where people that were working remotely, fully remotely in some cases, they reached out to other leaders in the organisation and said, “hey, you need to talk to Cathal. Cathal’s on my team and he's an absolute expert in podcasting, right? So you need to you need to talk to Cathal.” So what they were doing there is giving them a platform and giving them a visibility within the organisation which would help their career progression.


Cathal Divilly: Just on that Colin, that's really interesting, right? Because often our tendency is to just focus on our own job, our own team, right? But what I love about that is, we're encouraging leaders, is it to promote their team members throughout the business, or how do you see that?

Dr Colin Hugues: Yeah, it's really having – this may or may not happen kind of organically, depending on the leader, but I think, you know, cleverly organisations maybe put that into, you know, performance reviews and so on where they look at how well their leaders develop the people that report to them.

I saw the extreme of this in my research where some leaders actually spoke with with people that reported to them and the person said, you know, “I want to move on, I want to move to a different role”. And despite, in some cases, in Sales teams, and I remember one particular situation where the person brought their team member to dinner with his other senior colleague and said “listen – this person, he's a great guy. He wants to move on. You might have an opening, or if you don't, would you consider him?” Right, and made that happen even though it left him with a massive hole in his team target, if you like. Because he was such a good performer. And I said, “well, that's a really interesting thing. It's quite selfless”, and he said, “well, that's your job as a leader. What people don't realise is that it's not just about doing – it’s not being a manager, it's not about, you know, making sure everything is running smoothly and effectively. If you're going to step into that leadership role, it's about developing talent for the future.”

There's an old saying that “the sign of a good leader isn't creating more followers. A good leader creates more leaders.” And I think we really saw that being borne out there. So I think that was a couple of really great examples of that kind of professional support. So Support is the first S and a huge, a huge kind of category of management behaviours there.

The 2nd S is simply Showing people that you trust them, so this might sound quite simple, right? But because of the reciprocal nature of trust, which I mentioned before, people feel from your behaviours, from your demeanour, from how you engage with them and interact with them versus how you engage and interact with some of their team members, right? So people pick these things up, they get a sense of how you trust them and I probed for this quite a bit in my own research and I continue to do this, and I ask people “what does that mean? How you know how do they show you?” And in some cases they tell them, right? And in other cases, they say “we’ll start this relationship on the basis of trust. And I will trust you unless you give me a reason not to trust you, right?” And even that level of openness and some of those discussions actually goes a long way in building a relationship. Then they go about proving that in a variety of different ways, and I'm going to come to some of them now with some of the other letters.

So the two Ss, just to just to summarise are Support and Show people that you trust them.

Support and Show Colin, it's interesting there that 'cause we think of trust as this intangible thing, right, but people actually can feel it I think which is interesting, but let's have a look at the O then.

Yeah, so Openness is the first O. Openness was one of the… has been one of the main themes that comes up in my research when I talk to people about trust. Openness does two things. Openness suggests to others that you are a trustworthy individual. If you're willing to share information, speak openly, you're not being guarded, you're not being evasive, you're not hiding things and so on. But Openness does a second thing in that it sends a message to people that you're willing to confide in them. You're willing to share information with them, which may be sensitive. You're willing to be open, which highlights to them that – to my previous point – that you trust them.

So Openness is incredibly important in relationships and all of my research and a lot of the really high trust dyads, they started with that level of Openness. I Remember one where a very experienced Sales Rep said to quite a senior Sales leader that he ended up reporting to, he said at the very start, “listen, I've been in the industry about 30 years. I've had all sorts of different leaders, all sorts of different managers. I’m going to work really hard. I'm going to, you know, I'll be a really good team member for you. I just need you to be honest with me. I need you to be open with me so that we can have that relationship. If I do something wrong, tell me. Don't beat around the bush, just tell me straight away, I'm a big boy I can take that feedback” and that relationship just started because they were two quite open people. I interviewed the leader as well. That relationship just started there and just got stronger and stronger as a result.

I did come across other relationships that – I had a really good example, for instance, of a new leader who stepped into a role and his, one of his employees told me, he said, “he was in the role, he visited our office, never came to see me, d’you know, had been in the role maybe two weeks and small enough team, no engagement. So I had to reach out to him and say, you know, what's happening here? You know, and did you know I was in the office, right?” So those initial interactions with people, I think, can be quite crucial. So Openness is a really, really important leadership behaviour.

The other O is Other people – consider Other people’s disposition. So what I mean by that is, we are all along a continuum of trusting disposition. Some of us are really high trusters and we trust people, you know, emphatically and immediately, and sometimes to our detriment, right? So you need to be smart, as Stephen Covey says, and smart trust. Others are quite cynical and maybe they've been burnt in the past and they trust nobody, right, and we probably all know those people, so there’s a conspiracy behind everything and everything is a negative outlook and so on. The majority of us are probably somewhere in between those polar opposites if you like.

Now I found, one of the studies I did, I found three dispositional profiles if you like, right? So I asked two questions about disposition, so I asked them, do you think people are generally trustworthy? Just generally, do you think people are trustworthy? The second question is when you meet someone for the first time, do you – A. Trust them straight away? B. Distrust them? C. Wait to see, wait for more information?

Right, so I kind of figured out there's three profiles of people. One is people aren't generally trustworthy, so therefore I don't trust them straight away, so they will be our low trusters. The next one is yes, people are generally trustworthy, so I trust them straight away, so that's the opposite of that. The third one is, people aren't generally trustworthy, but I do trust people in this organisation straight away.

Right, so that's an interesting one that no, I don't think people are trustworthy in general. But the culture in this organisation, or the type of people that we hire in this organisation, or the sanctions either culturally, behaviourally, or you know, or something else, are such that people behave in a trustworthy manner within this organisation, or in some cases, hey, it's such a fast-paced environment you kind of have, you’ve no choice, right? You kind of have to trust them and move on, but again, I think the culture underpins that because you know they’d very quickly, they’d do that once, and if that was a negative outcome they wouldn't do it again.

Right, so there's that third trusting profile, that probably needs a little bit more unpacking, and that probably for your listeners in terms of creating great workplaces and great cultures that really kind of, I suppose, supports the idea of, you know, getting that cultural fit, you know hiring people that are… hiring for values and things and not just for performance, if you like and you know, making sure that you then also have a culture that people fit into, where people know what's acceptable and what's not acceptable.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah and hiring for trust almost as well, right? Because people have a different level in terms of their propensity to trust or not. That example you shared Colin that came up from your research where the individual talked about how the manager had come and he or she had visited the other team members but never came to visit me, right? So one of the things that's coming out in terms of a concern for workplaces is that leaders will now have some people who are physically in the office with them, perhaps, and some people within their team who are in a virtual setting. That's… is that going to be an issue, do you think going forward or?

Dr Colin Hugues: Hugely challenging. There's a lot of research on this, there's decades of research on trust in remote teams. What you tend to get in some cases is this us versus them. So what you can have is, you can have a multitude of different options with all of this, so you can have a leader based in an office with, you know, some members of the team in that office, and then you can have other members of the team either in, let's say a regional office, or working from home and so on.

So let's take the example where you have half the team co-located with the leader and half the team in a regional office, which I've had, an overseas office which I've had in my research. There is very much that us versus them and there's a perception whether realised or otherwise, that the people that are co-located with the leader are building really strong relationships. They’re having coffee with each other the whole time, they're having lunch with each other the whole time, and that's not always the case, right? But that can be the perception, and that as one person said to me – “I'm here in Austria, that person is based in Dublin with the leader. He gets to take one person with him through the organisation, in terms of his favourite mentee if you like, is that going to be me, who he sees once a year? Or is that going to be that other person who he has lunch with a couple of times a week or a month, you know?”

So there are those perceptions, and there's also things around, just individuals then working by themselves at home and then feeling maybe a little bit isolated and disconnected. So good virtual leaders are deep reflectors and we'll come to that a bit later, but they're aware of these issues and even coming down to the situation where they say “OK, you folks that are co-located in an office together, don't come on a team call all on the one screen. Do it from your own PCs”. Like it's simple things like that, right? That kind of even creates the optics of that everyone has an individual voice in this, and it's not us versus this big team, and they look like they're all having the craic in in the office there and you know, we're isolated.


Cathal Divilly: There's going to have to be a real consciousness, I think, on the part of leaders when they think about the makeup of their team, their own situation. Like, the nuances there are really important. Even people coming together on that one screen, right, and how that's perceived if you like. So we've got the S and the O…?

Dr Colin Hugues: …so we're on to A. The first A is Ability – in my research, in most of my research, the leaders were seen to be quite capable and you know, high levels of ability based on their experience and so on. That's not always going to be the case in terms of leadership ability, and I think what you tend to have in many organisations, and you know, organisations are more sophisticated these days in how they do this but, someone’s a good individual contributor and they get promoted to a management/leadership role because of that. Now that's an issue because leadership is a very different thing. If leadership is employee-centric and it's and it's about being selfless in many ways, if you take your best individual salesperson who is knocking it out of the park in terms of sales targets and make them a sales manager, you're doing two things: you may be taking away their individual target and their individual sales skills and that type of thing. And then putting them in charge of a group of people who maybe they have no interest in being People Manager or Sales Leader. But that was the only logical career path.

Now, people can earn very good money in sales, so you know, so that that's not always the case. But look at that, like, that's just a sales example. But look at that in every different type of role right? So I think we need to be recruiting people with leadership potential. And we need to be fostering that we need to be giving them very strong guidance and support and training and development and so on and giving them that room to grow. But I think that's something that not every organisation gets right.

The big ability piece that comes that comes up when you talk about hybrid leadership is your ability to communicate effectively, and that includes things like being able to set clear expectations. You know, you might not have the opportunity to tell the people a second time, right? So if people are… you’re not seeing them in the office, right? And being able to maybe clarify things really smoothly or quickly, so you have to clarify expectations. You have to be very clear in terms of the ask and the and the communication. You also have to be able to leverage multiple forms of communication and know when to use different forms of communication, so whether it's using instant messaging for very quick queries, to emails for a communication blast or an information blast, to a group chat with the video on for a team call, or an individual chat. Or whether it's a face-to-face kind of, in-person, and how do you leverage the benefits of that?

And I think about this quite a lot now. I schedule my days at home very differently to how I schedule my days in the office. So what I mean by that is, there’s things that I'm not as comfortable with or as effective with at home. So things like creativity and brainstorming. I have a massive whiteboard in my office, when I'm in the office I try and have meetings with people and get in front of that board and tease certain things out. I like to connect with people, buy them a coffee you know, catch up with people when I'm in the office.

So I try and schedule my day very differently than my at-home days where I'm probably still guilty of packing in 100 meetings a day. You know, back-to-back Teams or Zoom calls. So I think good leaders are very good at figuring out how they get the blend with individuals: so I need to catch up with Cathal every X period, maybe in a in-person if you like, whereas other people are very comfortable with the virtual piece and they mightn’t need to meet as often.

So for instance, if you differentiate between a new hire, you might need to go and visit them a lot more, or see them in the office a lot more, versus a very seasoned person is very comfortable with the remote working. Has been working that way for years. And every now and again, you'll need them, but you'll really use that time, that valuable time.


Cathal Divilly: You talked about the channels there Colin, which is interesting, right? And I often, I often wonder like who's listening right? I know a couple of organisations we spoke to over the last few weeks and there’s a heavy reliance on emails, and every email seems to have Urgent written on it, and I wonder if everything is urgent like is anything urgent, you know?

Dr Colin Hugues: Yeah, emails a great tool but I have to say I kind of hate email as well, and I've grown to hate it because it's very difficult, like the volume of emails are insane and I don't know, like I'm sure most people are similar. You know, on a daily basis I'm getting emails from colleagues, students, bosses, partners in industry, graduates like it… Just you know sales emails and all sorts of different – it’s nonstop, and it's again even just, even if you're effective at managing those and you do your little ‘fo ur Ds’ time management, you Do it or Date-activate it or Delete it or Delegate it. Or any of those things, even to do all of that, still with a huge volume of emails, that still takes a lot of time, so I know people are moving to other channels and a lot of organisations move different, use different types of platforms and so on and, but what I found is like good collaboration tools are really important.

And that feeling of support from people, I mentioned support being really crucial. People need to feel that their leader is available. You know that notion of perceived proximity is really important in virtual kind of working arrangements. So, if I'm stuck on something, I know you're a busy Cathal, and you're my manager. Can you just? I'm going to send you a quick WhatsApp or quick IM, can you just give me a green light on something or can you give me? Can we jump on a call for literally five minutes and give me your perspective on something? They're the things that sometimes people need either permission for something or a bit of objective thinking around something a bit of advice.


Cathal Divilly: That's interesting, sort of perceived proximity piece Colin is… what're you doing? You're bridging the gap between kind of, that sense of maybe distance that people feel, is it? And good leaders are aware of this?

Dr Colin Hugues: Yeah, so perceived proximity talks about this whole notion of how, how proximate or how close you think someone is or they feel. And I remember reading an article number of years ago I can't remember the author, but they talked about virtual leaders or remote leaders needing to, needs to feel to employees like that leader is down the hallway so that when I need you, I can get to you, I think in making yourself available and make that effort for people. You're actually sending a clear message to them that you're here to support them, instead of just saying “oh I'm too busy and sorry I'll get back to you when I can”.

You know, like if you're if you're really taking your leadership role seriously, well, then you'll make time and you'll get back to them and support them because they have a road block and they need you to help them through that.


Cathal Divilly: That’s great Colin, and the second part of the A then? So we had Ability.

Dr Colin Hugues: The second part is one of my favourites. The second part is Autonomy, and to me, micromanagement is the death of trust in many ways, right, and Autonomy talks… I talked about this a little bit already. Give people space to make mistakes, to take risks, to allow that level of vulnerability. Like don't tell them how to do a task, ask them to do a task. And let them in some ways come up with their way of doing it. Obviously, in a sensible way, right? Depending on the task.

But given that level of autonomy, anyone I know personally professionally that enjoys their role has a fair bit of autonomy in their role, and I think it's curious to see during COVID with heightened levels of remote working, we're seeing a lot of tracking software and things like that, and there's an interesting relationship between trust and control, and there's been again decades of research on this. And I think, the research falls down in favour of this complementarity kind of view of trust & control. So they’re not necessarily mutually exclusive, you can have certain controls and certain controls can help people trust then 'cause there's a safety net if you like, but then also levels of trust then, means that explaining certain controls is easier as well, and justifying them, so I think there is a balance to be struck there. But I'm not so naive to think you need no controls in relationships or organisations, but I definitely think autonomy is so so important and either low trust relationships that I've that I've examined, that I’ve for covered in my research are ones where there's those levels of micromanagement and, you know, “where you at with this and tell me tell me, you know, give me an update give me an update” but no “how can I help you get this to the next stage or the next level?” You know, so that's a very different type of discussion.

The last thing I'd say on that is more hands-on management is acceptable, I find or I have found, if it's explained. So if someone’s very new in their career, I've had some leaders that have said to people I'm going to be quite hands-on with you for the first couple of weeks or whatever, until you're at a stage where you're comfortable and I'm comfortable that you'll start taking on more and more autonomy, so it's like, it doesn't have to be, you know, 0 to 100 with autonomy on day one, but I think the employees need to understand the approach you’re taking and similarly where people have made mistakes or are struggling with something, the leader might say “right, I'm gonna step in. We're gonna work through this together I'm gonna be a bit more hands on”, but that's explained to people. And I think once that's explained, I think, well, then a little bit more hands-on management is OK.


Cathal Divilly: I mean, that's that's interesting, right? So so conscious leaders like there are always opportunities and moments to allow for autonomy to take place. And I think being conscious of that is important, right? And then on the second piece, then what I thought was really interesting was, actually good leadership, you're almost contracting with your employees and your team members to say, “look, at this particular moment, I'm going to be this type of way. We're going to work on this together, whether it's you're a new employee or not”, so I think that contracting piece is really important, and then that takes us onto the R.

Dr Colin Hugues: OK, and the Rs again, I'll be… we've mentioned some of these things and I'll be quick on these. There's two Rs again, one is reliable, reliability, right? And that goes to promise fulfilment and so on. And I've mentioned this. Some of this can be, you know, supports and so on. If you, if you promise something, to do something on behalf of an employee, for instance, or help them with something, or to get back to them with something and so on. It's about fulfilling those promises, and I think we can all be guilty of not getting back to people on time. I know certainly I can. Because something happens, the day gets away from you and you might think, “oh sure listen. That's one of a hundred tasks I have to do today”, but for that individual employee that's incredibly important for them because it was only one task you were doing for them, right?

So again, it it's just being conscious of the impact of maybe not being able to get back to people and what I found on that for me personally, it's about managing expectations and managing my time and diary and not trying to shoehorn things in and being a bit more realistic to say, “I'm not going to get to you this week, but I'll definitely make time to do it next week”, you know? So it's that type of thing.

Reliability can also be… a lot of those promises can be about helping people clear roadblocks, maybe in complicated global organisations about - you might need to step in because I'm having a difficulty with the team in X country and I'm getting no traction with them, so you might have to step in or someone more senior and make this happen or have a word with someone so there could be a bunch of different things there but what employees rely on their line managers and their leaders, like, a lot so it's being reliable.

The second R we've mentioned is to be Reflective and a reflective leader, and I've mentioned this already so I won't dwell on it, but good virtual leaders I think spend a lot of time reflecting on the needs of those remote employees and understanding what it is that they need at any given time and what might be happening on the ground that I'm not aware of and is there additional supports, is it time for a face-to-face, is there any… you know, all of those things and coming back to - when’s the last time they had a coaching conversation with them or a developmental conversation with them?

And those things don't always happen as naturally on Zoom calls you know, so I remember someone phrasing this really beautifully in my own research, they talked about the leader going ‘beyond the agenda-focused nature of video calls’. So going beyond the agenda and really having those kind of more personal conversations and more connected conversations. And again, that's something that leaders will reflect on and say “when is the last time I had one of those conversations?” So so yeah, I think good virtual leaders in summary are highly reflective.

Would you like me to summarize that very quickly? So the SOAR is Support and Show them you trust them; the O is Openness and consider the Other person's disposition, how willing they are to trust – the point on that is, really, consider their disposition, I probably didn't make that point. Is that, what that means is you might be doing all of the right things, and it might simply take you more time to build trust with somebody because they have a low disposition. So that was the point I probably failed to mention there, so apologies for that. The two As are Ability, ability to communicate really and to make yourself available, and Autonomy and be careful with the controls and the micromanagement, and the two Rs are Reliability and Reflection.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah, and that's great Colin. And actually I think it's OK to structure reflection like you, you made a point there, but the Post-It Notes you have on your screen, which is a reminder need to reach out to people that's, you know, that’s absolutely, that's absolutely fine. And I know we, we sort of made a little joke about the acronym, but like in an age where everyone is busy and there's lots of information, you know, coming from all over the place, a useful model like that is, can be so powerful in terms of, for managers and leaders. Can I just ask you Colin about, you know often we find ourselves talking to leaders and workplaces where you know an incident has happened and trust has been damaged, you know it often happens within workplaces. And there's then a fear or worry or concern, well, can we ever rebuild? Any thoughts around trust repair? Is it possible and can it be done?

Dr Colin Hugues: Yeah, great question. There's a growing body of research on trust repair and… there's not as much as there is on kind of trust building models if you like, but there are a couple of kind of useful frameworks and tips. All I can say on that really, or maybe the most beneficial thing is that I found a bunch of instances of trust repair in my research to date, I found instances where trust was really really low, or in fact those distrust in the relationship.

The research distinguishes between the two, so having low trust is maybe having a low level of… low willingness to be vulnerable to somebody, low level of confidence some people will say. Having a level of distrust in someone is having actually negative views towards them. So, I found very very weak trust or distrust relationships can and have been rebuilt.

I'll give you a great example of this actually, just to finish off. One of the leaders I spoke to in my study, talked about a guy that that reported to him. He felt that he was a little bit inappropriate in the office. He was a little bit unprofessional. He had some concerns, he had kind of a chat or two subtly with him, but nothing seemed to land. And they were on a train travelling through Europe and going to meet a client the next day to do this really important presentation. So on the train the leader asks him, “can I have a look at the deck for tomorrow? Just wanna have a glance over it” and the guy told him “I don't have it done”.

So this was it. This was the last straw for the leader who said “right, that’s it's, it’s the last straw. We're going to have to have a really serious conversation. When you get back to the office. I can’t work with you, I can’t trust you”, so had this really open conversation and kind of a blowout. So anyway, the leader stayed up all night getting the deck ready, they did the pitch the next day, that was grand. They were back in the office anyway in the next week. They had a chat and the employee came to him and said “listen, I really, I've reflected on this. I realize now that I haven't been, I haven't been approaching things right, I've been unprofessional, I’ve been so on” and by the time that leader left the business like a couple of years later, that person had become his trusted lieutenant, if you like, and was then in a position I suppose to step into his shoes and to replace him, right? So he'd grown that much in his own thinking and his own level of professionalism and his own self-awareness.

Well, there's a bunch of examples like that and we might talk about some again, but I I think there's a common theme to trust repair that I found in my research, and that is, there's a critical incident each time. And that critical incident tends to be some form of a blowout or a really really open conversation where people are very open with each other and tell them why they have an issue and what has brought them here and how they're feeling and so on. And I think that openness paves the way for trust repair.

The challenge we have in many many organisations or many relationships, is that people aren't always willing to be that open, and to have that open conversation that difficult, awkward, challenging conversation. So the relationships never really get repaired.


Cathal Divilly: Yeah there can be a moment right? So trust… perhaps trust needs a moment, and it needs an open conversation and honest conversation. And from that then things move forward because look, often what we see is the difficult conversations are the ones that don't happen, right? For whatever reason, Colin, that's really great stuff. I think the SOAR model is going to be such a useful tool for leaders out there. Just to get to know Colin a little bit more, we'll call this the rapid-fire round. I usually would ask, is it Netflix or TV for Colin? But actually I probably now have to ask, is it Netflix, Disney+, Prime, Amazon… what else have I missed? All of these streaming platforms or TV? What's your preference of choice?

Dr Colin Hugues: I can safely say, I think we have a subscription to every one of those with young children.


Cathal Divilly: And any show that you recommend, that you're listening to at the moment?

Dr Colin Hugues: What am I watching at the moment? I've just watched Jack Reacher on Amazon, the Lee Child series of books. They've made it into a new series, short series, so I watched that, it was quite good, I like a bit of drama/detective type books and action, so that was good.


Cathal Divilly: Very good, bit of a mystery to it. There's no dragons in it? I don't, don't watch things with a dragons.

Dr Colin Hugues: No dragons!


Cathal Divilly: OK, find it very hard to watch a dragon… Any recommended reads, books that you've really enjoyed?

Dr Colin Hugues: I read, a couple of books I read recently. I re-read The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters, I thought that was a particularly good book. Any of the Daniel Kahneman books. So I've just got his new one. I haven't read it, but his old one, Thinking Fast & Slow, is a particularly good book.

I've just obviously spent a huge amount of time doing a PhD and a huge amount of reading, so I've been trying to catch up on more casual reading lately – probably shouldn't admit that! But I have a whole library of trust books as well for anyone that wants any recommendations.


Cathal Divilly: You've had some heavy reading there, so it's back to Roald Dahl now, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and some light reads.

Dr Colin Hugues: Very very short books are kind of favoured at the moment!


Cathal Divilly: Very good, Colin thank you very much for joining us.

Dr Colin Hugues: Thanks Cathal, really enjoyed it. Talk to you soon.