Global Virtual Teams and Their Dramas – Five Tough Steps to Start Working Together

We have become accustomed to drama everywhere and we are used to arguing in meetings for the sake of positioning ourselves. Sometimes you just want to win over the other person’s view. It’s about who knows (insert random topic here) better than the other. On the surface. What is this really about though?
Have you ever considered that you jump into an argument easily not because you want to move forward the team and “think further and outside the box” but just because you like power? Have you considered that you are worried about losing power when you treat your team members with respect and listen to them instead of thinking that you know best of all?
I revisited the “Seven Habits of highly effective People” by Stephen Covey through this video recently. I was lucky to “win” access to one of Stephen’s talks around 13 years ago in Frankfurt. I was very impressed with him especially when he made a the full concert hall of around 5000 managers stand up, close their eyes, turn around several times and then point towards “North”. There were around 35 different options to show North.
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I really liked to see that one of his principles was to think “win-win” and while this often sounds a bit cliché nowadays it is still the best tactic ever.
When drama is missing from our lives this could be a sign that we have made significant progress in our inner development. Maybe we have grown up and started to take responsibility for our actions.
This is the balance we need in order to lead ourselves. If we cannot lead ourselves yet it is hard to lead others. I admire leaders who are calm and chose their actions and words deliberately.
In the corporate world I’ve seen a lot of the opposite. Department meetings often are kindergarden. After a while you can foresee the games colleagues play with each other. You can see the subtle and overt aggression they would show in their argumentation.
Many times you can see if you listen to the tone of voice rather than content that most discussions in meetings are either about ego or about relationship between two members of the group. I often hear “We argue for the sake of the company, vision or cause.” I am not sure this is true.
When you have clear roles and responsibilities, a team of grown-ups and a good leader, team members usually discuss how they can support each other get the job done. This takes trust and in my experience at least two years of relationship work.
In task-oriented cultures such as Switzerland, the relationship work is often neglected in the name of “efficiency”. It would be better to kill the term “efficiency” from your vocabulary if you work across cultures and with people with a diverse set of cultural and personal backgrounds.
If you want to become effective as a team you need to invest in the relationship level of the team members. You need to create the framework for a supportive atmosphere in which every team members feels valued and can share her view in a way that is appropriate to them.
You probably now wonder “Ok, I know that but it easier said than done.” and as so often you are hoping for the quick fix, the recipe or the shortcut to global virtual team productivity. May I take your delusions from you?
There are no shortcuts in life. Someone will always suffer if you try the quick fixes, the formula or the recipes that might work for others. You will first of all need to work on yourself. Once you are ready to be a “rounded” leader who can set aside ego and nurture a team then you can read the five tough steps to start working together.

1) Confront your fears and find a place of self-awareness within you

That is the hardest part of self-development. Often our ego is strong and demands that we nurture it daily. It is like the flesh-eating plant in “Little Shop of Horrors”. The ego needs fodder. We have built ways of showing to ourselves that we are worthy. It could be the new certificate that you have to attain, the endorsements on LinkedIn or the positive feedback you expect in your performance reviews and your 360-evaluation. You behavior is driven by optimizing your evaluation, turnover and other KPIs. How will you learn to be self-sufficient without depending on numbers that prove you are a superhero?

2) Identify the formal roles and responsibilities of your team members

While every team needs formal roles and responsibilities most conflicts occur at the handover points. In a fully functioning and high performing team everyone also supports the other team member when they sense that the other team member is overloaded or when they feel that they have capacity. The more dispersed and virtual the team works, the harder it is to see how much capacity everyone has. It is your job as the leader to identify the gaps and to build a feedback loop where team members can openly communicate when they feel overloaded or when they do not have enough challenging work. You probably understand that every team member needs a healthy mix of challenges and routine tasks in order to be satisfied at work.

3) Unmask the informal roles of your team members

In your team you will find informal roles too. In a flatter hierarchy you might have an opinion leader who does not necessarily agree with you. You might find this team member challenging but this team member could be your greatest ally and supporter if you understood how this person needs to be led or managed. Maybe they need more encouragement, maybe they need more informal exchanges of ideas or maybe they need more structure and deadlines. You need to learn to read your team members and the informal roles they play and then adapt your management style accordingly.

4) Find out the areas of support for the team members

In my management and coaching experience I learnt that every member of a team has needs. It sometimes took me up to two years to drive a team to high performance and great collaboration. When you understand the gaps and learning steps the team member has to go through to get to the next level you will also understand how you can lead this person to success. Instead of asking them to work on projects that are way out of their capabilities you can give them small success experiences so they can grow in small steps and keep their self-confidence in tact. I have seen many good team members in other teams who were crushed and did not believe in their competencies anymore because their manager was incompetent or over confident.

5) Ensure every team member has a voice

In any intercultural team but also monocultural team you will have more introverted team members. They will not always speak up in meetings and voice their opinions. Others might just feel it is not worth to discuss further and shut up. You can use various tools and methods to give your quieter team members a voice. It also helps if you ask a neutral facilitator to support your annual kick-off meetings or other team building exercises. You might not see yourself how you hinder certain team members from voicing their opinion. Be aware of your assumptions too. When a team member is very engaged but not necessarily of the same view as you are it could be a good point to consider.
These are five tough ways to improve your collaboration in global virtual teams. In my experience this process is easier when you have a facilitator on your side. Let me know if you have any questions.

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