9 Steps to Get Dysfunctional Virtual Teams Back on Track
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted January 02, 2011

When you’re part of a virtual team, you develop a sixth sense for knowing a when a team has started to become dysfunctional. You notice that people have started making excuses for missing the weekly con calls, or they don’t even bother to RSVP. When people do show up, they grunt monosyllabic responses as they pound away on their keyboards. Conversations that take place are often stilted and terse, with little real interaction. When people commit to deliverables, they sometimes renege without warning. When you try to discover what’s wrong, you’re politely told that everything is just fine.

It’s tough enough to lead a dysfunctional team when you can see the members and speak openly eye-to-eye. But when you’re leading a virtual team that’s become disengaged and dispirited, it takes special skills and approaches to re-engage and motivate those who have drifted away. Here are some practical steps that I use to get remote teams back on track.

  1. State your observations with examples and express your concerns. Start by sending an email with a strongly-worded header to implore people to attend the next team meeting. Describe the team’s behavior. For example: “I have noticed that many people have dropped off of our calls. Some of you are reneging on promises, and others are declining to pitch in to help others as you used to. As a result, I feel like the team is falling apart. I am asking that all of you fully participate in our next meeting so that we can explore the real issues and decide what we can do to get ourselves back on track.” Follow up with a phone call to make sure people have read your message and plan to attend.
  2. Once on the call, describe in more detail the kind of behavior you’re noticing that’s causing the team to deflate. Listen intently; leave room for silence and reflection. If no one responds after awhile, ask for validation. Are they seeing things the same way? Is there something you are not seeing? You may start by acknowledging some of your own issues (for example, you haven’t had enough time to provide thoughtful feedback to everyone lately, or you have a new manager who is pulling you in multiple directions). By sharing your own perspective, you can encourage others to discuss their own barriers to participation.
  3. Create a safe discussion space. Consider opening up an anonymous conference to precede, augment, or follow up on a real-time phone discussion. Craft some carefully-worded questions to elicit honest responses without inhibition. Include a variety of questions such as: “On a scale of 1-10, how energized do you feel to be part of this team today? One of the toughest challenges I face in fully participating on this team is (BLANK). One of the greatest rewards of being on this team is (BLANK)”. Providing an avenue for anonymous written comments may help create a level playing field among different cultural or personality types.
  4. Crystallize the underlying problems. Your team has identified the symptoms that are preventing real collaboration. Now it’s time to name the real problems that are causing the behavior. You can try doing this on a team call, especially if your team had demonstrated a high degree of trust for each other, and for you, in the past. You might also try using a web conference tool to enable anonymous input, either synchronously or asynchronously. Alternately, you can ask someone who is not part of your team to interview team members in confidence. As a team, set priorities for problem-solving, starting with problems that have the greatest impact on the team’s performance.
  5. Collaborate on the best solutions. Once the team has developed a deeper understanding about the dysfunctional behaviors and the underlying problems, it’s time to brainstorm solutions. Generate ideas for at least a few quick hits right away, such as arranging a meeting time more convenient to all, or setting up a team portal for easier document sharing. Tackle the tougher issues next, such as reducing the amount of rework required when the organization shifts direction—again—or identifying resources outside of the team who can be tapped to help in certain circumstances. Document the related actions and responsible people, and keep the team updated as to your collective progress. Try using an interactive meeting tool to elicit an impressive array of ideas in a short time.
  6. Seek commitments to be part of the change. Elicit from each team member specific actions s/he will take to lead to more successful collaboration. These commitments should be made to the entire team. For example, a team member who habitually skips the weekly team meeting might make a commitment to be present at least 75% of the time. Or the person who multitasks her way through every call might promise to clear her desk and calendar and be fully present at future meetings. The person who says yes to everything but fails to deliver almost every time might promise to be honest about what he can take on, and will alert everyone ASAP if he was being unrealistic about what he could deliver.
  7. Take the team’s temperature often. If a team has been allowed to drift apart for any length of time, it may take many attempts to get them back on course. Find a variety of ways to check in, both as a team and with individuals. Try a simple periodic phone call to each member to check in. Or ask for feedback on a call. You can also try using some sort of online tool that allows all members to provide a few quick responses, the results of which can be later shared with the team. Of course, observing the team’s performance against agreed-upon measurements may be the best indicator as to whether the team is collaborating successfully.
  8. Reach out to disaffected individuals personally. Some people will be harder to turn around than others. In some cases, you may have to let go of those whose behaviors are toxic to effective remote collaboration. Take the time and energy to reach out personally with greater frequency for those whose active participation is vital. Make calls, send emails, or meet them face-to-face if possible. Express your concern, lend your support, and provide honest feedback. You want to be honest about your frustration or disappointment, emphasizing the impact to the work of the team. At the same time, you need to praise their knowledge and skills so critical for the team to achieve its goals.
  9. Consciously model best practices behavior. Treat team calls as the most important event on your calendar. Let people know what’s expected of them in advance. Come prepared with an agenda and stick to it. Check in to see how people are doing. Project enthusiasm and energy. Applaud team and individual achievements both large and small. Make team meetings engaging and productive. Use technology wisely when it can accelerate results, elicit needed input, or otherwise increase the effectiveness and efficiency of each meeting. Respond promptly to emails with insightful information. Admit when you feel you’re falling short of expectations, and explain why.

The best way to overcome dysfunctional behavior of remote teams is to nip it in the bud. To do this, you need to develop antenna sensitive enough to alert you to the first sign of trouble. Diagnosing team problems without benefit of nonverbal behavior is difficult. But applying remedies that can help an ailing remote team get back on track is harder still. Avoid problems altogether by checking in early and often.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy