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:

This may be our best program of the year so far.  (listen to the interview)
Peter Bye opened by saying that a team can be rebuilt, and suggesting that a key success factor is to focus on “how” — how the team interacts.  Pete knows this first hand — he once took P&L responsibility for two virtual teams, one with a mature product that was losing money and the other with a new product that was late.
Both these teams were focused 100% on their tasks — on the “what” they were supposed to be doing, and were not paying conscious attention to “how” they were doing it.  Pete started by listening a lot, letting people vent, and understanding the nature of the problems.  (By making sure everyone feels heard, you build trust.)  Then he brought each team together in one place — for the first time in that team’s history — and worked with them on developing and getting agreement on the “rules of engagement” (my term) for how the team would work together.
Pete turned these teams around.  The mature product became profitable, the new product got finished, and people’s happiness soared.
Notice that this seems on its face to contradict some good management theory about empowerment — that you should tell folks What to do, and leave them free to decide for themselves How to do it.  There’s a big difference between telling someone “What not How” with regard to tasks — we do want to empower people to accomplish their work tasks — and helping them master tools for communication.
These team dynamics are even tougher with a cross-cultural team.  You learned how to communicate with people by growing up in a family.  Even if you had a highly effective home life, your inner rules for how to communicate are still tied to that context, that culture.  To work well with folks from a new culture, you cannot assume your old skills will work or that others will understand you.
Once the team members understand there is a difference between the Message I Sent and the Message You Received in team communications, they can start to build some explicit and written rules for how to communicate important concepts and messages with each other.
Culture is just one factor.  Consider the case where one teammate feels let down by another.  The hurt is there and needs to be addressed.
How do you heal the team?  Pete does these steps:
  1. Interview folks in advance to discover the depth and details of the hurt
  2. If the hurt is big, work on healing – otherwise skip
  3. Start creating a new shared vision of the future, shared values, shared goals, and rebuild trust
  4. 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
Pete worked with a virtual team with lots of dysfunction and mistrust. They were a mix of Americans and Canadians, and half were former independent business owners.
What are some of these “operating principles” the team might write down and agree to?
  • 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
These are all about clarity of our roles as team members, and having more mutual respect.

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:

  • humility
  • self-reflection
  • 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.

Dr. Mike Kroth (rhymes with “growth”) has lots of experience with engineers and relates his experience — the same engineers who complain and say they don’t need or want to learn soft skills — will then complain about bad team experiences using these exact terms: they need respect, they need trust, they need to be heard.
I think they resist the soft skills learning because they know they aren’t very good at it.  It sounds like you’re asking them “How would you like to spend an afternoon being uncomfortable, doing something you’re not very good at?”  They will often say “no.”
The team should have a shared understanding of how we will interact.
Suppose our team has agreed that, if I have a problem with Mike, I’ll take it to Mike.  And suppose I have a problem with Mike and I go to Alice and start complaining.  I say “You won’t believe what Mike did.”
Ideally, at that point Alice will hold me to our joint agreement and say “What did Mike say when you told him how you feel?” And when I admit I haven’t gone to Mike yet, ideally Alice will say “Do you need my help to take this to Mike?”
If we’ve all agreed to this in advance, then Alice will feel comfortable doing this, and I’ll feel supported by Alice when she does it — because she’s helping me live up to the behavior I had agreed to.
Mike does not believe that the case study example for this interview is workable — if the team really is dysfunctional, then a two-hour meeting will not be enough.  It’s way too late.
Good virtual teams start off by norming even before storming — by agreeing up front how to run meetings, how to share information, and starting the team off with shared expectations.  Up front, we should share information, share details about ourselves, get to know each other deeply.  Establish social bonds.  Create a virtual water cooler.
(Experience shows that high performing teams, even after they disband, the relationships among the team  members continue.)
Once you have these good things in place, as issues begin to arise, there’s some hope the team will be willing and able to face them and work through them.
Trust is a process.  It’s taking a risk.  No two-hour meeting is going to create the trust, or not fully.  Good virtual team leaders are always looking to make connections.  And so far at least, no matter how good the technology has become so far, we still don’t have telepresence or webinar tools that replace the “Bagel Practice” of having a face-to-face experience like eating a meal together.
Good virtual team leaders often spend lots of time on the road in order to have that face time with their team members.
All the principles of team development:
  • demonstrate caring
  • communication
  • going through the phases of Forming Storming Norming and Performing
all apply to virtual teams as well.  The practices themselves may be different.  The virtual team leader may want to be far more sensitive to the early signs of conflict in order to fix it early.
The interview went on for another 30 minutes, including an excellent set of stories (the Trip to Antarctica was especially good) — listen to it here.
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