Trust - The Most Critical Element of Team Dynamics

Author: Pavitha Urs, and Sanjeev Himachali
Date: 2021-10-26
As a result of COVID-19, many of us have stepped into a new reality of virtual working, which poses new challenges for leaders. It goes without saying, virtual is not physical, and team connection and productivity will not automatically continue in a virtual world. Virtual teaming affords many benefits but presents a higher risk of misalignment and lack of collaboration, which may take a toll on team trust and employee engagement if not done right.
Distance and lack of face-to-face communication makes managing virtual teams a challenge. When people are not in the same location, it can be hard to understand what they are saying. It is easy to misinterpret their meaning. And unless you can video conference, you do not get the benefit of reading body language or facial expressions. That is why you need really good communication to manage virtual teams.
It's tough but not impossible to build long-distance relationships. The same interpersonal skills you use with office mates work with remote team members, too.
Be clear in your communication, confirm understanding, be supportive and respectful, take care of your people and help them overcome obstacles, and do not forget to thank them and tell them when they do good work.
Misunderstandings, communication issues, cultural differences, these all can create conflict. It is never easy to resolve conflict. It is even more challenging with virtual teams. Email is too impersonal for delicate discussions. Plus, it can lead to even more misunderstanding.
Instead, use phone or video conferencing to work through conflict. Speaking of phone and video conferencing, figuring out when to hold a group session can be tough. Someone is usually up really late or much too early. Once you sort out the best time for calls, hold an initial session to talk about how communication will work on the team.
Understanding the manager's connecting role in a remote team - Now to me, the main purpose of the manager is the care and feeling of the team members, making sure that they have everything they need to successfully complete their jobs. The manager may roll up their sleeves at time to pitch in, but that's not their primary purpose. Rather, they have the responsibility for monitoring overall team performance, schedule and workload and making sure everything comes together as planned. In addition to these tasks, the manager of a remote team has some special responsibilities.
Primarily, I think the remote manager needs to act as the hub that connects the geographically disconnected team. They're the ones who are going to be the primary contact back at the command center and will like to be the pass-through point for information flowing to the remote workers from corporate. This isn't to say I don't think there shouldn't be direct communication to the remote employees from the company. There're absolutely should be if the company wants to keep the workers engaged and informed, but the manager holds a pivotal role for the team as the intermediary for a lot of activities. This is going to require some special effort.
Setting Ground Rules - Make sure that there are well-documented procedures in place and that they are being consistently followed. How can a team have a solid basis for performance if the requirements of that performance have not been defined?
This is important for any team, but I think it's even more critical for remote groups. Since the individuals on the team may not interact with each other as frequently as a co-located team, there is a lot more opportunity for them to head off in different directions unless there is a solid understanding upfront.
For me, this is one of the manager's most important jobs. It is ultimately the manager's responsibility to make sure everyone on the team understands their role. Making sure there's adequate definitions of the work at hand and that individual tasks and deliverables are spelled out provides team members with actionable goals to meet, reduces ambiguity, and sets common ground. All of these will contribute to an increase in group trust, and by the way, consistency and application is really important here.
You as the manager must apply rules around procedures and performance to everyone on the team equally.
It's much better to set the expectation and have rules in place upfront and have everyone follow them consistently. Building a level playing field makes it fair for the whole team.
Developing working agreements and defined norms in a virtual team - Just because it's the manager's responsibility to make sure procedures and expectations are in place that doesn't mean that they are the only ones developing them. In fact, it's critical that managers get the input of the team whenever they are standardizing process or setting goals.
First of all, your team members are the experts at what it takes to get the job done. They're the ones who know what steps need to be taken, and in what order. And they're the ones who know where the process can get bogged down. Maybe there's a spot where work has to pass through a gate that's controlled by someone outside the team. Maybe there's a manual process that ought to be automated. Or information required that isn't provided through standard input forms that team members have to then go and research. Whatever the case, involving the team in setting up the process means everyone is invested in it and its success. I also think that creating a team working agreement is extremely valuable.
How do the team members want to communicate? When will people be available? What are mutually agreeable service levels and turnaround times? Who is available to help with specific tasks?
Giving people a good understanding of how the team operates means they'll be able to integrate that much quicker. While this is a good idea for any team, I think it's especially important for remote teams to have a solidly defined set of norms. It will smooth team interactions, build trust among team members, and bake in accountability.
All important factors to overall team health and success. But at the end of the day, it's the manager's job to guide the team in this process of creation. And it's their responsibility to make sure everything that the team will need is in place.
Setting Accountability in a Virtual Setup - Virtual employees need to take more individual responsibility to meet deadlines, so it is critical for someone to hold them accountable despite the fact that virtual managers have fewer opportunities to observe their employees. To address this dilemma, project management software is an effective tool. Software programs such as Basecamp, WorkZone and Wrike can make each project visible to the entire team so that everyone concerned understands where their job fits into the big picture. The ability to share files, assign tasks and check due dates also allows team members to easily communicate next steps, whether it's providing data or passing along a document for review.
Time-tracking software (such as TimeFox, Timesheet and Kronos) is also an effective tool for improving virtual team performance, allowing team leaders to track hours (especially helpful if you work with multiple clients and you're trying to determine how much time you're investing in each one).
Other habits that help leaders manage accountability and improve decision-making in a virtual environment include:
  • Develop metrics that focus on results, not number of hours worked.
  • Involve employees in the early project planning stages so realistic deadlines can be developed.
  • Give employees more autonomy by allowing them to determine the best way to organize their work.
  • Schedule check-ins at key milestones with individual team members in order to assess progress, provide feedback and coaching, and make required course corrections.
  • Share calendars and action plans with the entire team so that everyone is aware of the status of a project.
Keeping track of what your virtual team members are doing - With so many working remotely today, leaders are now facing a set of challenges that didn't exist before. How do you keep track of what everyone on your team is doing when they are potentially thousands of miles apart? Here are four strategies you might find helpful.
First, set clear goals and expectations. Openly discuss performance metrics, deadlines, and delivery milestones. You'll also want to establish a defined system to monitor their progress, either with a shared dashboard or regular status check-ins.
The key is to hold each team member accountable for their own deliverables without micromanaging.
Second, emphasize ongoing communication. Create a pattern of consistent interaction with your team as a group and one-on-one.
Be explicit about your preferred guidelines for team communication, what types of messages they should share with you and with others and how often they should provide those.
When you set a good example for effective communication, your team members will likely follow your lead.
Third, leverage technology to keep your team connected. To integrate the work of your virtual team members, you'll need to find the tools, software, or apps that meet your specific needs.
You can find options like Slack that enable anytime, anywhere chatting.
A system like Basecamp can help to keep your team informed about progress and changes in real time.
And platforms like Doodle can dramatically increase the efficiency of scheduling for a virtual group.
You might also consider using collaborative tools like Google Docs or Microsoft Flow.
These allow for real-time collaboration and support anytime and anywhere-access to a multitude of documents.
And just because your team is scattered doesn't mean you can't have daily huddles. It's important to schedule regular meetings through video conferencing like Skype or Zoom.
These virtual gatherings will help to build a sense of community and reinforce the importance of working collaboratively when close proximity isn't an option.
Fourth, ask for feedback and provide ongoing support. When you aren't physically working in an office down the hall, you lose some opportunities to detect problems that may be brewing. So, in a virtual team setting, it's essential that you get candid feedback on a regular basis.
Ask your staff members what they need from you to be more successful. What challenges are they facing?
You could gather that information in a one-on-one video chat or maybe through a virtual suggestion box. And then here is the main message. Respond, take action, make sure your team members know you're listening and are willing to provide the support they need.
When you apply these strategies, you can transform a diverse set of remote workers into a dynamic, collaborative team with the potential to achieve impressive results.
Virtually Motivating Your Employees - Virtual team members face frequent distractions and many unique challenges that can affect their motivation, especially if they work from home. Virtual workers often feel isolated and as a result can lose sight of why their individual contributions matter.
Here are some practical ways to keep your virtual team motivated:
  • Practice active listening: paraphrase what your employees say in order to confirm understanding, since there are more opportunities for misunderstandings without visual cues.
  • Don't assume that your instructions are clear; have team members summarize the assigned task before taking it on
  • Make yourself available outside normal business hours.
  • Minimize the use of email; encourage team members to schedule conversations with each other as they collaborate on a project.
  • Instant messaging tools like Google Hangouts, Google Talk, Microsoft Lync (now Skype for Business) and Cisco Jabber allow you to check in with team members in a way that's less formal.
  • Make it easy for all employees to access the documents they need remotely. Using cloud-based file-sharing software, such as Google Drive or Dropbox, can help everyone easily share documents and stay organized.
Providing constructive feedback through virtual coaching sessions is another important way to keep team members motivated. We asked the virtual leaders we surveyed to share their best practices for coaching virtual employees. Here's what they recommended:
  • Use video conferencing so you can talk face to face.
  • Name behaviours rather than labelling. Don't tell someone her lack of commitment caused the project to fail; you're not making it clear what she did wrong. Point to specific behaviours instead, like a failure to meet an agreed-upon deadline.
  • Make the session consultative. Ask employees about their challenges and what you can do to address them together.
  • Pay attention to the tone and inflection of your voice.
  • Ask employees to repeat what you've said to confirm understanding.
  • Don't assume they'll remember the follow-up actions; put them in writing via email.
Performance reviews in 2020 and beyond - I was a having a conversation with one of my clients, a CEO of a media company. We were talking about 2020, this crazy, awful, no good year.
He said to me, "My people don't want to do "performance appraisals this year because nobody "had good performance."
I got a little triggered, I have to admit cause here's the thing, it's even more important to hold performance appraisals this year.
Everyone's dealing with uncertainty, but they still have a job to do.
So, let's talk about it. People are in different emotional states. Some people took advantage of remote work and ran off to Maui.
They're living their best life and if so, God bless. But some of your people moved in with their parents or are supervising kids in Zoom school or they've dealt with their own health issues or family health issues and maybe problems with stress and anxiety.
So, you're going to have to deal with all of this by video.
Your job as a manager is first of all, to care, to acknowledge all the issues, create safe space, and give them a moment to pause and process what happened this year, and then to get this year behind you and look to the future with some hope.
Even though there is a crisis, people still want to know where they stand and you might need to make sure people know what they need to do to improve and advance their careers, even in a pandemic.
So, I want to be more specific about your environment right now. Everything we've talked about still stands.
Communicate the process, even if that means at this point communicating that the process will take place next week.
Get your video set up in good shape. Schedule the time, making sure you have a buffer.
Get input from others. Use examples. Have your folks do a self-appraisal. All of it.
And then think about each employee and their circumstances. Decide what you want to communicate and how you can best make this a meaningful conversation about their performance.
Lead the appraisal conversation with compassion. Remember that through video you have to be more deliberate in showing your intent by having a sympathetic look on your face, open body language, and a softer tone of voice.
Start by acknowledging the challenges of the year and ask them to share how they experienced it.
Listen while looking directly into the camera to make eye contact over a video.
You can also open up a little bit and share some vulnerability about how it's affected you. That will help set the tone.
Then turn to the appraisal itself. You can say, "Well, I'm actually glad we're getting the time, "to reflect together. And I'm glad we're doing this performance review.
"I think it'll be helpful to review the year together, look at your career development goals, and build a strategy "for next year. "That's my intention today. "Let me start by sharing some of the key themes "I noticed this year. "Then I'd like to hear what resonates with you."
Boom, you're in.
You can and should be flexible on the goals and what was accomplished if that's called for.
You should give them a lot of time to share their thoughts and give them the benefit of the doubt.
Now, it's possible that some of your employees didn't achieve their goals that they could have or need to make some improvements.
If that's the case, start with a coaching mindset as always.
Focus on strengths and what was accomplished.
Then you can say, "Let's talk about these milestones" that you missed.
"I'd like to explore how you can improve "your time management and how you can communicate "to me earlier so there are no surprises."
Frame it as support, listen to what your employee has to say, and ask questions.
And with a game plan for next year.
Even though this year has been chaotic, your people will appreciate a performance appraisal conversation that takes into account real life and also helps them assess what they've done and plan for the future.
Get the setting right for a good virtual discussion - When you're getting ready to deliver the actual performance appraisal, you'll obviously plan out what to say.
Considering that you'll need to do this review virtually, you need to spend just as much time planning out your setup.
Here's the thing. It's a high stakes conversation.
You might be keyed up about it and they almost certainly are. So, let's get the basics right.
Video on, check.
Camera at eye-level, check.
A quiet, well-lit space in a place that will be free from cats running behind you and kids jumping into your lap.
So, far so good.
Now, this may sound super basic, but make sure that you're professionally dressed, and you look more or less like you would if you were in an office.
If you're working from home and balancing a lot, yourself, it's tempting to just throw on a sweatshirt.
Remember, this is a professional discussion, and you want to show your employees that you put care into it.
That starts with your appearance. So no, you don't have to put on a tie, but yes, you have to brush your hair. Put some thought into your body language.
Some people are naturally expressionless. If that's you, please alter that, and make sure you have a pleasant and inviting look on your face.
If you're unsure what that means, practice with a friend, and ask them to help you get that right. It's important when people only have video to go on.
Shift between looking directly into the camera to have eye contact and looking at them to see how they're doing.
Use open body language. If you're cold, get a sweater. Don't cross your arms. You're going to want to try to interpret their feelings as best you can.
And that takes some patience.
So, schedule an hour or more, and make sure you have a buffer before your next meeting.
Don't just do this on a call as you're driving.
One of my clients did this once. You know who you are. And don't try to squeeze it in before you have to get to a parent-teacher conference.
When you're ready to start the conversation, it's worth saying to folks, "Hey, can we both turn off all our alerts in Slack and texts?
I know it's hard to stay focused, but it's important. "If they don't want to do this discussion over video, or for some reason, they don't have great internet bandwidth, you may have to use the phone.
When you do that, try to check in at regular times during the discussion by saying,
"How is this landing with you?" Or, "Do you have any more to say about this?"
Listen to their voices. And if you hear them getting upset, stop and check in. And over video, and even the phone, there can be a bit of a delay.
Sometimes you need to give them time to process what you're saying. Get comfortable with silence. Your virtual setup and etiquette should do everything to make them feel comfortable.
Put yourself in their shoes and pay attention to your setup, so they know that you're taking it seriously.
Measure success within teams - Right now, you might be struggling to complete a project or maybe you're ahead of schedule and under budget. If you don't know exactly why that's happening, how can you fix a problem or replicate the success?
Measuring and reflecting on your team's progress is critical for long-term success. Plan to evaluate your efforts at targeted points on your timeline when major deliverables are completed and especially at the end of a project.
This doesn't have to be formal or a lengthy process. As a consultant, I do a version of this regularly. Rather than wait until the end of the project to get feedback, I typically survey my own monthly and quarterly evaluations.
If I need to pivot or make adjustments to the pace of the project, I can do so in real time. Your team can monitor and measure your progress by conducting an after-action review.
The process is simple and straightforward, and when done well, it's extremely powerful. Start by setting aside a team meeting for this discussion. Let everyone know the purpose of the meeting so they can come prepared for the discussion.
There are a few critical ground rules for an effective After-Action-Reviews (AAR) that everyone needs to agree on, and leaders should take an extra effort to model.
One, get everyone involved. Everyone who is contributing should have an opportunity to reflect and contribute to the discussion. This conversation isn't productive if everyone, from the most junior person to the most senior executive, doesn't have a seat at the table. To that point, if you have varying levels of seniority in the room, you may need to find ways to, number two, encourage honest discussion. There may be cultural personality or rank related reasons people on the team don't feel comfortable speaking up.
And this brings me to number three, dismantle hierarchies and ignore rank. The people who are on the ground doing the work may have invaluable insights on how aspects of the project are getting done. Without making them comfortable speaking up, you risk missing out on important information that can change your work outcomes.
And finally, number four, establish a positive environment. This isn't the time for blaming or shaming people on the team. It's okay to speak about what did or didn't happen as planned, but it's important that the tone of the conversation remains productive.
Now that you've established the ground rules, here are the questions for your AAR. If you have a really large group or are conducting this meeting virtually, break your team into smaller groups so that everyone is engaged in the discussion and then reconvene after everyone's had a chance to share their ideas.
Number one, what was supposed to happen? This seems like an obvious question. If everyone isn't in alignment on this question, you want to revisit the team's goals and expectations next time.
Two, what did happen? Did we meet our goal and only our goal? Or, were there unexpected outcomes, either positive or negative, that also came along with accomplishing our goal?
Three, what worked well and why? What did we do a good job with and why did it work so well? It's important to understand why we've been so successful.
Four, what do we need to change and why? It's also important to know what didn't go as planned and have a good understanding for why things got derailed.
Five, how can we improve our process going forward? A thoughtful discussion about what we can do better in the future gives your team a revised roadmap on your path forward.
It's important to get in the habit of doing these even when things are going well. Learning from successes and failures is how we constantly grow as teams.
Rewarding and recognizing individuals at a distance - So, like I say, treat everyone equally, until it's time to treat people special. No, I'm not contradicting myself. Sometimes people will excel and when they do, you want to recognize that, but the key to this is in how you do it.
When a team member has a victory, the whole team has won and the whole team should know who and why they're celebrating. Real life example with names changed to protect the innocent, Carol manages a team of two dozen document processors, only four of whom are in the New England office. The rest work remote, scattered throughout North America. She also manages another ten people who work out of an office in eastern Europe, although their work is not connected to the working being done in the West. Carol's company has something called a High-Five Program. Processors who excel are nominated for the award, given a $25 gift card, and entered into a monthly drawing for a bigger prize.
What's important is that all nominees are recognized publicly when the monthly winner is announced. This message goes to everyone on the team so that everyone can share in the celebration. Additionally, if the team beats their standard service levels for number of documents processed or numbers of errors detected, Carol sends the entire team a message congratulating everyone for their work along with a small gift.
Now, a couple of important things. Number one, you have to be very, very consistent in this.
If you send congratulations to one person, you have to send them to everyone who meets the same criteria. Failure to catch this will result in resentment,
perception of favouritism, and assorted other evils.
Second thing is pretty obvious. If you need to call someone out on not performing, that's a private conversation. Public shaming is not a good recipe for team spirit. Of course, if it's team goals that were missed, it's okay to address that with the team, but be careful about ever singling one person out.
Another obvious point, but I'm going to mention it anyways, if your acknowledgement of individual success is accompanied by any kind of a concrete reward, a bonus, a gift card to Starbucks, a greeting card, anything, you need to be sure that all similar successes are similarly rewarded.
Parity, parity, parity. I guarantee you, if you treat people differently, the team will find out and if the team finds out, that will damage the way they see you and hurt the way they think about the team.


As you are coming out of a crisis, I think it is really important not to say, "Phew, got that behind us". Cause no, that did not end, and the road ahead is challenging, there are bigger and broader challenges. So, look at the broader implications of the crisis and what you can do and what are the crisis you can anticipate. Back to the coronavirus crisis, Bill Gates laid this whole thing out. Now with that name of a pandemic in 2015 no one listened to him. So, can you be the leader that's going to perceive what are we looking for in the road ahead. And that's really important that you have that capacity and have that courage and have that insight and willingness to step up and say guys we got to focus on this.
It makes sense that the future would punish the hubris of a leader who believes something is certain when it is, in fact, out of their control. But the point about clarity is critically important. How do we have clarity about a future that promises to be more complex, more crowded and more confusing than ever? For starters, you can have clarity about your own values and beliefs. What do you value today? What will you stand up for both now and in the future? Where are you uncompromising? What is non-negotiable regardless of how the future plays out? Getting clarity on what you and those that you work with care about is critical, as it can inform tough decisions in murky territory.
Knowing what you care about allows you to stay focused on the why and adapt if the what and the how get challenged.
Composed By: Pavithra Urs,Associate Director, People Operations, a Leading Entertainment Company, and Sanjeev Himachali, Principal Consultant & Talent Strategist, EclipticHRS
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