After a year of Zoom meetings, we’ll need to restore trust through eye contact
The pandemic has exacerbated an already troubling confidence deficit despite political, economic and demographic divisions.
Research shared just before the onset of the pandemic found that millennials are reluctant to trust government, business leaders, corporations, social and mass media or even traditional social institutions.
Meanwhile, a recent Canadian investigation found that half of respondents believe business leaders are deliberately trying to mislead them, and just under half think the same about government. The decline in confidence is understandable, a predictable consequence of real leadership failures.
But there is also something else going on. The pandemic has forced most of us to spend our lives on screens. And as we become more comfortable hiding behind screens, rarely receiving and making eye contact, we also handicap our ability to trust.
Confidence is the foundation of civilization, and living through screens takes a heavy psychological toll. Researchers have found that real, direct eye contact holds our attention.
As psychologist Christian Jarrett explains, eye contact forces us to make sense of the fact that we are dealing with the mind of another person who is looking at us and shapes our perception of that other who meets our gaze. Perhaps the most important in this context, direct eye contact promotes confidence when people say things we’re not so sure about.
Confidence and puppets
Announcements of a future imbued with Zoom – such as recent news that Ontario school boards must offer virtual learning as an option for throughout the 2021-2022 school year, or that some companies sell their real estate and make a permanent transition to remote work – are very worrying.
While looking for my book, Connected capitalism, I watched award-winning puppeteer Ronnie Burkett not only to delight an audience, but to call upon them to perform essential tasks in the show, such as adjusting lighting, music, and playing supporting roles as amateur puppeteers.
When I asked Burkett how he got a diverse crowd of strangers to trust each other enough to work together in this unexpected way, he attributed it to eye contact. He explained that we declare ourselves with eye contact. A look is like saying “I don’t agree with you, but keep talking to me.”
Burkett’s eye contact sparked attachment and a sense of security in the audience. But feeling safe doesn’t mean we aren’t expected to be active. It just reinforces the feeling that we can trust our cooperative partners; that they have our best interests at heart even as we are challenged to push ourselves to do something new.
And now, in the age of Zoom, it’s hard to find and maintain eye contact. This single most powerful tool for building trust and strengthening relationships is largely gone. So what can we do about it?
First of all, knowing all of this, go the extra mile to engage and receive eye contact in all of your offscreen and real-life interactions.
Second, compensate for the loss of this tool with an effort to project reliability. Jay Barney, professor of strategic management at the University of Utah, defines reliability as an attribute of being worthy of the trust of others by not exploiting any adverse selection or moral hazard.
So what is the difference between trust and reliability? Trust is a mutual effort allowing an existing relationship to function with minimal stress. Seeking to be seen as trustworthy, on the other hand, is an individual initiative directed at those we have not yet met. It doesn’t have to be mutual to be of value. And that will allow us to partially compensate for the trust deficit in the post-Zoom era as we step out into the world to try to bond.
Third, normalize friendship in the spaces that need trust. Viewing friendship as, for example, a meaningful work resource may seem odd. But as social beings, we constantly strive to influence others collaborate or cooperate.
What motivates cooperation? Sometimes I cooperate with you because I think it is in line with my principles, so trust is a secondary consideration.
But sometimes cooperation arises from a relational motivation, based on the need for identification through social relationships. This means that I choose to cooperate with you because I want and hope to establish or maintain a satisfactory relationship with you, generally based on reciprocity. Here, trust occupies an important place. And if I can’t stimulate it with eye contact, I can compensate with the language of friendship.
This notion may not be suitable for some. But cutting-edge research demonstrates the decision to engage in prosocial behaviors mainly arises from intuition. When we cooperate, it is not because we have engaged in an in-depth analysis and have found it to be valid. It’s actually because of the feelings. Without eye contact, we need to reinforce these relationship feelings with words.
At the end of the line? Confidence after Zoom will be difficult. But projecting reliability and friendship in places where we’re used to being more transactional can help.