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?


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