Re-Building your Virtual Team
How can you re-build a virtual (i.e. geographically dispersed) team that has had some negative interactions within the group? If you had a single in-person team meeting, how would you go about rebuilding trust and a sense of camaraderie within the group? Or can it be done?
I posed this question to a panel of world class experts:
- Mr. Peter Bye – former Corporate Diversity Director at AT&T, he was selected in 2008 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) as one of 100 distinguished global thought leaders
- Mr. John Bender – holds an Executive MBA from Harvard University, and led the world-wide HP/Compaq Integration Office responsible for planning and executing the $19B acquisition, which involved creating multiple virtual teams
- Mr. Tim Flanagan – Senior Instructor and Director of Custom Programs at the Leadership Development Institute and the co-author of three books: Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader, Building Conflict Competent Teams, and Developing Your Conflict Competence
- Ms. Danna Beal – author of the book The Tragedy in the Workplace: The Longest Running Show in the Country, and creator of the “Healing the Workplace Culture Series” that teaches individuals how to operate from authentic power and genuine self worth, rather than egos and personal agendas
- Dr. Mike Kroth – Assistant Professor at the University of Idaho in Adult/Organizational Learning and Leadership, and author or co-author of three books including Transforming Work: The Five Keys to Achieving Trust, Commitment, and Passion in the Workplace and The Manager as Motivator
- Interview folks in advance to discover the depth and details of the hurt
- If the hurt is big, work on healing – otherwise skip
- Start creating a new shared vision of the future, shared values, shared goals, and rebuild trust
- Get the team to create shared ways of communicating – operating principles in writing that state how we will support each other in the new way of being
- I’ll do what I say I’ll do, and when I don’t, I’ll help clean up the mess
- Listen sincerely and openly to others’ ideas, and seriously consider them
My next expert was John Bender. He says there are some critical success factors for managing a virtual team:
- Connectivity – the team’s operating norms and rituals that provide a sense of cadence, community and togetherness. This is enabled by technology. It’s reinforced by face-to-face interaction.
- Confidence – owned by the team collectively – the team must believe everyone is able and willing to fulfill their roles.
- Commitment – whether or not team members have a choice – do they get the chance to enroll or un-enroll in projects, can they pick directions and establish goals and make choices, and is the work important and worthy and meaningful? Do I feel challenged to grow?
John says these can be built deliberately.
When a team has struggled, it’s often the case that they are then weak on Confidence — the past failures are predictors of likely future failures. The team does not jump on opportunities to solve problems. They leave problems on the table. Instead they catalog the issues for possible future use as excuses. You overcome that by creating quick wins.
When you undertake “re-launching” a team, John recommends:
- Honor the past – past successes and challenges – as part of the context for the re-launch
- Offer teams the opportunity to re-enroll, both individually in advance, and then collectively as a group — this step could need to be repeated
Enrollment is personal and reflective — it’s the intersection of the team member’s own personal goals and the goals of the team and organization. It’s the method of deciding if you want to be on this team or not. To check your own level of enrollment, ask yourself:
- Am I excited about this opportunity?
- Will I be challenged and will I grow?
- Do I trust my teammates and the leader?
In virtual teams, using lots of electronic communication, much of the nuance of communication (facial expression, posture, gesture, some voice inflection) is lost and it can be harder to build trust because of that loss of nuance.
Danna Beal found that across all the people and industries she worked with, the same basic underlying dysfunctions were at work — a web of egos, in which people engage in gossip, sabotage, secrecy and politics.
That’s true across virtual and non-virtual teams alike. And there’s a way out, which takes courage.
These biggest underlying cause is fear. A lack of trust will accelerate fear, and a bad economy will enhance fear.
To fix it, the leader needs to start by looking at his or her own ego, and start developing the traits of true leadership:
- ability to honor each individual
Danna would start the team rebuilding by creating honesty, where the team members acknowledge that past behaviors have contributed to the problems, and that they all want to move to a place of increased compassion and respect.
This meeting starts out with acknowledging the negative experiences people have had — gossip, fear, sabotage, and so on.
Danna next leads everyone to see that harm to another team member also harms the team. She helps each member release their fear. Each person acknowledges the “image” they like to project, and then lets go of their need to project that image to the team — becoming less fearful, more authentic and more human.
Now the team can come together around their goals, and the new steps they will take when problems arise, the new ways they will express their needs without fear of being attacked or diminished.
Teams only work well when there is trust, respect and a sense of safety. Leaders have to create that safety so team members can take risks and be vulnerable.
Tim Flanagan agrees that conflict, and erosion of trust, are big issues with teams. Research shows there are two types of conflict that can erode trust — these are Task or Cognitive Conflict (about the work or “the stuff”) and Relationship or Emotional Conflict. Far too often we try to dive in to the rational, logical, task portion when the problem is in the relational and emotional end, or before the team members are emotionally ready to work on “the stuff.”
Many engineers and other task-oriented folks (including many CEOs) want to work on things they are comfortable with, i.e. tasks. Making those folks stop, switch gears, and engage in an area where they may feel weak or be uncomfortable, is not easy for them, and it’s not easy on them. Yet we have to work on the relational and emotional aspects of the team conflict first.
How do we get them to do this? Tim worked at the Harris Corporation with 30,000 engineers, and agrees with this assessment. He’s working now on a nuclear power plant construction project that’s virtual — the client is in one place, the engineering firm is in another, and the construction is happening in a third place.
The right way to do this is to front-load this team development work. Acknowledge the inevitability of conflict, and develop up front the agreements, operating principles and relationships needed to handle that conflict well.
Trust is a huge mandatory element. You cannot just adopt a standard set of operating principles. You have to make sure everyone feels heard and understood. People only develop trust by taking risks and then having them turn out well.
How do you build that trust? Tim’s book contains lots of small exercises for exactly this purpose. One of his favorites is called Structured Disclosure — as people are re-introducing themselves, along with the usual name, job, role, and location, Tim likes to ask them to add one unique thing about themselves that nobody else in the room knows — it should be positive and culturally appropriate, and need not be work related.
These disclosures help create new connections among the team members.
This harkens back to the Johari Window, the model that suggests we grow as people by both revealing themselves and being open to feedback from others.
- demonstrate caring
- going through the phases of Forming Storming Norming and Performing