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How to Build Trust within a Virtual Team

In response to a recent newsletter, a reader dropped me a note to share a few of the challenges he’s facing — challenges I suspect are common to many young professionals, especially aspiring leaders who work on a virtual team.

As Paolo Sciacovelli pointed out in a blog for ScienceforWork.com, the success of tools like Google Hangouts, Google Drive, and Slack have made it easier than ever to collaborate at a distance, reducing the need for phone calls, emails, and in-person meetings. With this, however, comes some unique challenges. Sciacovelli quotes the meta-analysis from 52 studies that found, among other things, that virtual teams have fewer opportunities for social clues, a higher risk of ambiguity, and greater risks of conflicts and misunderstandings. As a result, it’s not always easy to create and maintain trust. And trust is vital to the success of any team.

I suspect that Mike, the young man who wrote me, would relate to what Sciacovelli is describing. I’m not using Mike’s full name or the name of his employer, but here’s a broad description of his reality: He’s been on the job a few years and likes the company, his co-workers, and his supervisor. But the culture lacks the “safety” that allows for real transparency and teamwork. His team is spread across the country, and they’ve been involved with the same project long enough that they mainly work on their own and touch base with a few team calls throughout the week. Since they all are high-achievers on a similar career track, there’s competition for attention and promotions. As a result, the calls often lack true collaboration. Everything is great, or at least that’s what everyone says. No one mentions their mistakes or their challenges. No one asks for help or tries to steer someone else clear of an oncoming hurdle. Everyone seems intent on preserving his or her reputation. If they have an issue, they’re more likely to discuss it privately with a supervisor who has their back.

I found it interesting that Mike wasn’t complaining about his virtual team’s work culture; he was describing it. And he admitted he’s been sucked into some bad habits because of it. He was legitimately concerned about how he handles the challenges and about the patterns he’s creating that might help or haunt him as he advances in his career and the stakes get higher and higher.

Mike outlined a dilemma that most of us face in our careers – when to voice challenges or share our mistakes with a work group, and when to hold them more tightly to the vest. That dilemma becomes even more complicated on a virtual team. Figuring it out takes real discernment. There is a time and place for everything. Team calls like he described can easily get bogged down or thrown off track by conversations about things no one really wants or needs to know. So, I recommend starting with a “value-add” filter. If you have a question, complaint, mistake, or information that you could share, ask yourself how sharing it will add value to others on the call. If it doesn’t add value or adds minimal value, then there’s probably no need to share it.

Mike outlined a dilemma that most of us face in our careers – when to voice challenges or share our mistakes with a work group, and when to hold them more tightly to the vest. That dilemma becomes even more complicated on a virtual team.

It’s also worth remembering, as Sciacovelli noted in his blog, that trust typically is based on three factors – competence, integrity, and benevolence. Are you skilled in your work? Do you keep your word? Do you go the extra mile for others? I would add that admitting and owning your mistakes, especially with the intent of helping others, is essential to integrity and is a display of benevolence. Thus, it earns trust.

Mike pointed out that he was being transparent with his manager, and that’s a good thing. A good manager can provide advice for when and what to share with the larger group. But learning the skill of discernment is essential to advanced leadership. As our position of influence grows, we have to be even more proactive about sharing our mistakes with others. The question isn’t whether we will still make mistakes as we advance up the leadership ladder, but whether we will show the courage to admit them in appropriate and constructive ways. There’s more on the line and expectations are higher, so the tendency is to sweep mistakes under the rug out of fear and pride. The courage to overcome fear and pride makes the difference in the trust our team places in us as a leader. But the time to learn and display that courage is now. Otherwise, it won’t be there later.

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