On a traditional team, trust evolves as a function of demonstrated actions over time. However when working virtually, members typically do not have the opportunity to develop trust in the traditional gradual, cumulative way. The challenge for you, as a leader, becomes how to build trust rapidly across boundaries and borders.
The stark reality is that virtual team members do not usually have time to get to know each other. Typically, the team needs to focus quickly on critical tasks and has little time to build relationships. Despite this fact, virtual teams require a high level of trust in order to be successful.
You can’t compel team members to trust one another. It’s asking diverse people to protect the interests of their virtual team – initially total strangers, often with culturally different ways of thinking and acting. Because of this, building trust and a cohesive team culture from a variety of national norms, values and traditions can be overwhelming. Without high levels of trust virtual team members quickly lose morale and motivation. As a leader in a virtual environment, you need to foster a sense of trust in each members’ competence and a commitment to team goals. Each member must believe that the entire team is doing their work conscientiously – with the team’s goals at the top of their priority list.
Building trust on virtual teams may not be easy, but it can be done. If the following guidelines are incorporated into attitudes and work practices, trust is likely to emerge:
With time and location differences being inherent in virtual teamwork, these teams have limited information from which to build trust upon. As a result, it’s not only necessary, but critical, that you invest in an initial orientation where members meet and have the opportunity to build relationships. Ignoring this step has serious repercussions – not the least of these being the lack of transformation from an “us”/ “them” environment to a “we” culture. Initially, the team should spend some time face-to-face co-creating ground rules, a vision, the charter and mission statement, as well as team norms, roles and responsibilities. Build in significant time for “bonding” – even if you need to extend the meetings a day to do so.
Communication requires a conscious ongoing effort by everyone. Create a communication plan that facilitates people contacting one another to discuss and consult on various issues, promoting a collaborative culture within the virtual team. Create an environment where team members, despite their location, check on one another and offer assistance. Ongoing interactions will expedite virtual members coming to understand they are an important part of the team. Through regular communications, they will come to trust the team they are an integral part of.
On an administrative note, establish a policy for responsiveness – not only to clients and other functional areas, but to each other. Ensure all team communications reach all members at the same time – regardless of location. In a virtual environment, it is hard for members to discern whether they have been systematically excluded or just forgotten… having the potential to erode trust very quickly.
3. Virtual Team Vision
Clarity of vision will enable a sense of trust that everyone is traveling in the same direction – keep the vision front and center. Initiate ongoing conversations around the vision, encouraging team members to bring their unique insights and perspectives to the table. Provide frequent feedback, facilitate virtual discussions and consistently validate consensus of common understanding around the vision – especially in multi-cultural environments. It is essential that members are constantly reminded that they are a part of a collaborative effort working toward a common vision – reinforcing the sense of virtual community and common purpose will facilitate trust.
4. Cultural Sensitivity
Trust is not the same across cultures. Cultures differ in how they communicate, how they relate… and in how they show trust. As a result, virtual teams need to be aware, knowledgeable and respectful of cultural differences on the team. Members, at a minimum, should be familiar with some key cultural orientations that will help them to interpret team members actions and behaviors. Some important focus areas are:
- Time Management: Scarce/Plentiful, Linear/Multi-tasking, Past/Present/Future
- Identity and Purpose: Individualism/Collectivism
- Organization: Hierarchy/Equality, Stability/Change, Competitive/Collaborative
- Power and Responsibility: Humility/Harmony/Control
- Territory and Boundaries: Protect/Share
- Communication Patterns: High/low Context, Direct/Indirect, Formal/Informal
In addition, all virtual team members should understand how and why culture influences the team. By addressing cultural differences early on, miscommunication can be avoided – or at least put in context. The goal should be to develop virtual team relationships and ways of doing business that facilitate team success.
5. Work Processes
For trust to emerge on a virtual team, work processes need to be consistent and everyone must be accountable to following the agreed upon processes. This doesn’t mean that the team can’t reevaluate its processes. It simply means that if a work process is to be altered, the change must be made clear to everyone… and everyone is bound by the change. At the end of the day, the implementation of disciplined work processes means that structure and process remain consistent and that every member of the team knows what to expect and is accountable to adhering to team norms, thus inherently fostering trust.
In direct relation to work process, timely follow through on commitments is critical to building trust. Failure to do so erodes trust very quickly. This is more important for virtual teams than for traditional teams because dispersed teams have few cues from which to evaluate whether or not members are committed to the team’s success – follow through is a key indicator of commitment. Have each member keep a log with agreed commitments, checking off each item when completed. If a team member cannot meet a commitment, establish the expectation that the lapse will be justified to the team.
The above guidelines for building rapid trust in virtual environments will enable the team to become a cohesive virtual unit. As the team is oriented… as they learn to communicate frequently and effectively… as they espouse a shared vision… as they understand and leverage their cultural diversity… and as they establish defined work processes, your virtual teams will develop a trust in each other that will ensure a cohesive, committed team that drives effective results across boundaries and borders.
Is building team trust part of your Virtual Success strategy?
Please engage the discussion and let us know how you build trust on your virtual teams. Always feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check back soon for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders, when we will continue to discuss the complexities of virtual teams.