Leading a virtual team: How to build trust when team members may never meet

Have you come across Patrick Lencioni’s excellent work on the Five Dysfunctions of a Team? He describes five problems which build on one another, the first dysfunction being Absence of Trust – a fear of making oneself vulnerable by being open with colleagues about weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours. Without trust, 4 other dysfunctions are likely to follow:

  • Fear of conflict as people are reluctant to disagree with, challenge and question one another in order to reach the best decisions and solutions. Such treading carefully around other people’s egos results in ‘artificial harmony’ which leads to ….
  • Lack of commitment arising from woolly discussion and unwillingness to buy in to decisions, which leads to ….
  • Avoidance of accountability where team members feel unable to challenge one another about performance standards, which leads to….
  • Inattention to results with people focussing on self-preservation and individual success rather than team goals.

Whenever I present Lencioni’s model in a workshop about Building Effective Teams, there are nods and groans, with many leaders recognising this downward spiral occurring in their own team.

However, how do Lencioni’s ideas translate to a virtual team, which is the reality for many people these days? Team members are working on the same project but in different locations across an office, a city, a country or the globe. They may rarely, if ever, meet each other face to face.

So let’s start with the fundamental problem: How can you as a team leader help to build trust in a virtual team?

Virtual teams face an added challenge in building trust: working in different locations makes it harder to get to know team mates and understand how they tick. It’s all too easy to build an ‘us and them’ rather than an ’us and us’ culture. In order to prevent sub-teams developing:

  • Take every opportunity to meet face to face, both for formal meetings and social gatherings.
  • Schedule routine catch-ups face to face if possible, but if not, then via Skype/GoToMeeting etc . Conference calls are the next best option. Seeing colleagues on screen helps build trust more readily than just hearing them.
  • Value the ‘chit-chat’ at the start of a meeting or call; it helps to develop empathy.
  • Use email judiciously: misunderstandings are generally cleared up much more quickly by calling or going to see the other person.
  • Look for opportunities to move people around whenever feasible so they sit and work in different locations with different colleagues.
  • Be crystal clear on roles and responsibilities of team members in every location to avoid misunderstanding and frustration.
  • Challenge negative assumptions about team members who are ‘out of sight’; don’t condone or engage in negative banter about them. This creates cliques. Instead, ask people to test their assumptions respectfully in a conversation with that team member.
  • Be especially sensitive to cultural differences that may be harder to recognise without face-to face communication eg. level of discomfort in disclosing mistakes and weaknesses, particularly where strong workplace hierarchies are the norm and ‘loss of face’ is unacceptable.
  • When using English, for example, as the common language, be aware that it is harder for non-native speakers to converse and understand by phone than it is face to face.

Next time… how can you generate healthy conflict in a virtual team in order to discuss issues openly?


What does it take to persuade you?

What does it take to persuade you?

Watching recent coverage of the Scottish Referendum debate has made me wonder what it takes to persuade a wavering voter to decide for or against independence. The strength and clarity of the argument is a key factor, of course. But what about the speaker and how much we like, trust or admire them?

Remember the inspiring story of Stephen Sutton, the teenage cancer sufferer whose courage and positivity persuaded thousands of people to donate money to Teenage Cancer Trust. So far more than £4 million has been raised through his efforts, though he sadly died in May 2014.


So what makes people willing to do what you want? In reality it’s a blend of the messenger and the message.

Here are my Top 10 factors for being persuasive.

  1. Build relationships

People do things for people they know, like and trust. Or people they admire. Meet face to face where possible, or at least pick up the phone. Build a reputation as a trustworthy professional.

  1. Know your audience

Adapt your approach. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Learn about their preferences, needs, priorities and concerns.


  1. Be generous in doing favours

Do something for another person and they are more likely to want to reciprocate.


  1. Prepare

What do you really want to achieve? What are your main points? Back them up and bring them to life with engaging evidence, examples, details, illustrations, stories, precedents.


  1. Identify the benefits for your audience

People typically make choices based on self-interest – so what’s in it for them?


  1. Make it easy for to agree

Getting a response from a busy person is far more likely if they just have to click or tick a box rather than answer an open question on a blank sheet. Nudge them towards the outcome you want. Of course, it means more preparatory work on your part.


  1. Communicate your message clearly and concisely

Don’t waffle or apologise for yourself! Practise aloud beforehand when it really matters.

  1. Really listen to views and objections

Show that you understand and respect their viewpoint. Be open to new information. Collaborating is likely to lead to the best solution.


  1. Remember that body language is critical

Use good eye contact and an upright open posture. Use your hands to reinforce what you say. Arrange seating for cooperation rather than confrontation (45-90°).


10. Use your voice for impact

A lower pitch makes you sound more persuasive. Speak slowly and use pauses for emphasis. Raising the volume will also make your voice more modulated and interesting to listen to. Use downward inflection at the end of key points for authority.




The Three Little Pigs

The Three Little Pigs filmed as a political satire for a team awayday on Handling Change? Weird but wonderfully effective!

Three PigsThe setting was the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) at Cambridge University where staff were digesting news of potentially huge changes to their work. Not only this, but they were also gearing up for a move to a new office location.

So this awayday was a timely opportunity to equip them with the skills and attitudes they need to handle such changes effectively as individuals, and cohesively as a team.

What better way to get the ball rolling than to give them an experience of unexpected change? So I split them into two groups, each with a very different project, clear deliverables, key resources and a deadline.

One group was asked to make a demo film of the classic children’s story of the Three Little Pigs. The other group had to produce a menu for a St George’s Day buffet. Once they got started, I changed things around – people were swapped from one project to another, the scope widened, the budget changed.

Actually they showed impressive resilience and flexibility. Once they knew to expect change they built in processes to help them deal with it.

The end results were wonderful: the Three Little Pigs became three disabled student pigs pursued by a big and very bad wolf. The buffet menu sounded delicious and suitably patriotic.

Change is pretty much the norm in the modern workplace, but we don’t often step back to think about what we need to do to handle it proactively, rather than simply ‘coping.’

Our discussion of some theory around change explored the fact that when one element changes on a project, such as the scope, it’s important to consider the knock-on effects on other aspects, like risk and budget. And we looked at Stephen Covey’s Circles of Concern/Influence/ Control to enable the DRC team to identify the issues they can do something about during a time of change.

In the end the team agreed a set of Commitments for Change, specifying how they will treat one another and communicate during the change.

Managing change is a critical skill for leaders tasked with introducing and implementing a change initiative. But it’s just as important for staff affected by the change to feel they have the skills to handle it, whatever the impact.

For more information, contact Duraikan Training at info@duraikan-training.com. For an outline of our Handling Change workshop, click here.