As teams migrate more of their work to a permanent hybrid state, where people work both virtually and in person, it’s critical to think about what team leaders can do to assure the success of their teams. In this article, we want to zero in on the importance of building focus and trust. Download the PDF
Simply put, these two dimensions are what distinguish successful teams. High levels of focus and trust enable teams and team members to feel – and be – productive, energized, and motivated. Research has shown that higher levels of focus and trust translate to stronger levels of collaboration, feelings of job satisfaction, and employee retention. Research has also shown that higher levels of focus and trust are tied to the team’s ability to meet and overcome tough challenges – standing up a new line of business, for example, or dealing with a crisis.
To briefly review each quadrant, the upper right quadrant is where high focus and trust prevail. In the lower right quadrant, the team has high focus, but low trust. In the upper left quadrant, there’s a strong sense of “family,” but little in the way of team accomplishments. And the lower left quadrant is a recipe for team failure.
First, it’s important to keep clarifying what success will look like. What are the strategic goals and how do they translate into the team’s priorities? Perhaps the larger goal is to increase sales, or equitably distribute benefits, or expand geographically. Whatever the goal, the team needs to understand what it needs to achieve, with specific milestones. What does it absolutely need to get done in the next month? The next quarter? The next year? What will be metrics of progress? While that sounds easy, it can be complex, especially in organizations where higher-level leadership isn’t clear or has conflicting goals. And in some cases, the metrics may be difficult to track objectively (e.g. customer satisfaction).
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Shifting our attention to the second dimension of trust, what are key strategies for building trust within a virtual team? Trust is essentially based on feelings of fairness – that people are being treated equitably. Trust takes time to build. And it can break down very quickly.
To build trust, the leader should be viewed as a support, not a threat, someone genuinely interested in the lives of each team member. In the virtual world, the best practice is to check in with people every day or every other day via phone or online meeting. These should be real-time 1:1 meetings, separate from group or team meetings (or online chats).
During these sessions, remember to show appreciation for what people are doing. Find out what successes and challenges they are experiencing. Provide time for an emotional check-in – “how are you feeling today?” Listen carefully and show you’re actively listening by playing back what you hear. Remember that “listening” is different from “problem solving.” Just because someone has mentioned a problem they’re facing doesn’t mean they want you to offer advice.
What behaviors erode trust? Inequitable treatment will erode trust. If the team experiences too many “surprises,” or if information is not shared equally, or if people feel that their leader doesn’t appreciate the team’s efforts, trust will suffer.
In conclusion, focus and trust are the two axes of healthy, high-performing teams. When the levels of focus and trust are high, so too are the levels of morale, productivity, and collaboration. Leaders and managers who spend time on these two dimensions are doing exactly the right things.
For more than 20 years, LRI has provided management consulting to public agencies, non-profits, and corporations in the United States and beyond.