“My team members just don’t seem to trust each other. You can hear the animosity and frustration in their voices when they decide to talk. I detect passive-aggressiveness in almost every comment. All day long, I’m getting emails and private IMs about how this one is constantly missing deadlines, or how that one never seems to be working even when she’s supposedly online. If we get together face to face, we could make some reparations, but that won’t happen for another six months. What can I do to rebuild trust – fast?!”
That’s what a client recently asked me. In fact, this is the #1 question all of my clients ask. My answer: Trust is possible only when team members feel they’re being treated fairly and equitably. With a virtual team, especially when some members are closer to the leader in terms of proximity or relationships, it’s easy for some team members to feel they’re being treated unfairly.
Here’s where shared operating norms come into play. All teams benefit from clear operating norms, but virtual teams need them more than others. Why? Simply because they have so few opportunities for real-time conversations where they can detect differences, check assumptions and resolve issues. When team members explicitly agree how they will work together, they’re far more likely to trust each other and their team leader, as long as everyone upholds and reinforces those norms.
To build healthy relationships and cultivate trust among virtual teams, here are a few tips I’ve culled from my newly-revised tips guides, 122 Essential Tips for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams and 123 Tips for Planning and Leading Engaging Virtual Meetings, orderable on my website now. You can download an excerpt here of 12 Tips for Building Trust Across Virtual Teams from my newly-expanded Virtual Teams guide.
1 Access to vital information. Give everyone, regardless of location, equal access to information that will benefit the team at the same time. Avoid sharing big news with people who work closest to you or those you know best. Resist the temptation to share the big news with people you see in the cafeteria or in the hall. Schedule an “all-hands” meeting at a time when most, if not all, can attend, so that everyone has a fair chance of hearing the news first.
2 Share power. Structure the team in such a way that power never lies with just one or two people. Give everyone a chance to lead something once in a while. Grant decision-making authority to those who are in the best position to make well-informed decisions. Likewise, provide everyone a reasonable opportunity to have visibility with senior managers or important clients, which is often missing when people work virtually.
3 Strive for equality. Apportion your time evenly among team members. Make an extra effort to develop relationships with those new to you, or new to the team. Carve up your time evenly between those who work close by and those who are remote. If anything, you might need to schedule more time with those who work remotely to compensate for the lack of serendipitous conversations you might enjoy with those who work close by.
4 Give everyone an equal opportunity to take on the most prized work. Consider all qualified team members equally for important assignments and interesting tasks, rather than doling out plum projects to those closest to you. Yes, this means you will need to spend more time guiding the work of more junior or newer team members. But ultimately, when people become self-sufficient more quickly, you’ll spend less time handholding along the way.
5 Recognize and minimize power differentials – perceived and real. Be sensitive to the perceptions of remote workers that you may be playing favorites with those closest to you. Ask people on your team for an honest assessment about the extent to which they believe you treat all team members equitably. Even when you believe you are being scrupulously fair to everyone, people working remotely are more likely to assume that those closest to you have a favored status.
6 Define trust. As a team, discuss openly how members would know if trust has broken down. What are the signs? Ask what behaviors or actions from you or fellow team members would help cultivate trust. Reach agreement about which behaviors are most important to uphold, and how best to ensure that all team members abide by the same norms, including the team leader.
7 Hold each other accountable. To build trust, all team members need to hold each other accountable to the same standards of behavior. When leaders permit some members to violate agreed-upon norms, they risk their credibility with team members who expect them to enforce the rules consistently. Encourage everyone to take responsibility for enforcing team norms. It should not always have to be just you calling out bad behaviors.
8 Encourage small-group conversations to build trust. Consider which team members most need to develop trusting relationships with others. Delegate projects and tasks in such a way that these people will need to have at least a few small-group conversations to complete their tasks. It’s through conversations with just a few people that relationships are created and trust can be built fastest.
9 Reinforce candor. To foster a culture of trust, the leader needs to ensure people feel safe about revealing vulnerabilities and can voice their reservations or concerns. As leader, you can start by acknowledging issues or problems you are facing, and then invite others to do the same. Express appreciation when team members voice a difficult concern or surface a sensitive issue so that others know they can follow suit.
10 Anticipate and address stress points. When people feel pressured to perform, especially when deadlines are overly ambitious, unattractive behaviors can emerge. Without face-to-face conversations to smooth ruffled feathers, such behavior can quickly derail even a strong team. Openly discuss likely stress points in advance, and determine how team members can best help each other, and themselves, to avoid any dysfunctional behavior that might result.
11 Enable reasonable autonomy. People who work remotely often feel a need to touch base frequently with their leader when their decision-making authority is ambiguous. Clarify the extent to which employees have decision-making authority right up front (which may be different for each team member), and encourage them to contact you when in doubt. If they overstep (or under-step!) their bounds, take the opportunity to explain why for next time.
12 Keep an eye out for the small problems. With virtual teams, little annoyances can lead to big problems. Team leaders need to be vigilant about addressing small rifts and immediately bring team members back to the sense of purpose. In some cases, this requires an open conversation with the whole team, and in others, a private conversation may be more appropriate. For example, if some people prefer to communicate with a steady stream of IMs throughout the day, while others prize their uninterrupted time to get work done, it’s probably time to discuss communications norms with the whole team before resentment can build.
If you want to build trusting relationships across your virtual team, you need to earn it. It doesn’t happen overnight, much to my clients’ chagrin. Whether you’re making a difficult decision, assigning an important task or planning your agenda for your next meeting, ask yourself whether team members will regard your actions as fair. When in doubt, ask. Don’t wait until you begin to detect the signs of disengagement. Remember: It may take a while to build trust, but it can be broken in an instant. And with virtual teams, making reparations can be nearly impossible.
12 Tips for Building Trust Across Virtual Teams – downloadable excerpt from my recently revised “Virtual Teams” tips guide
Just out – my newly- revised tips guides – for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams and Planning and Leading Exceptionally Engaging Virtual Meetings