Building credibility and trust in virtual teams: Give ‘em the benefit of the doubt

What I have discovered over the years is that a leader is only as good as her team. And, the quality of the teamwork will depend on how the leader manages. It’s a big responsibility, but it’s also a big opportunity. I’ve learned a lot from working with teams that are dispersed all over the world. This isn’t just for leaders, however, it’s really an approach that anyone can use. It’s way of creating an atmosphere that fosters the very best performance from everyone around us.


This may sound simplistic, but I assume everyone I meet is a potential friend until they prove themselves otherwise. In his book, The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander explains how his students all start on day one with perfect A’s. From the moment they come to class, that grade is theirs to lose. It’s the student’s responsibility to do the work to maintain it. I love this approach and have adopted it as a great virtual collaboration tool. I assume you are going to be a great colleague; that you share my interest in doing a good job and you are smart and capable. I give you an A at the start.

Is this a risky approach? For me, it’s a calculated risk. More often than not, individuals rise to the occasion. Virtual professionals are successful because they can self-direct and hold themselves accountable. The alternative is to assume the worst and act with suspicion without actual cause. Not a great way to build an open working relationship and downright annoying if you are on the receiving end. Of course, there are exceptions and sometimes colleagues let you down. If that happens, deal with the individual accordingly. Avoid blaming all for the transgressions of the one.


I come to every relationship assuming we have something in common, I just haven’t discovered what it is yet. Even in international teams which span across time zones, continents and hemispheres, we all need to eat, sleep and breathe to live. Parents love their children, holidays are something to celebrate and everyone dreams. It’s up to me to find that connection. Virtual professionals who cultivate a genuine curiosity about the people in their networks make the extra effort to research/learn about the cultures, regions and customs that influence them. It’s never been easier and you can have a lot of fun doing it.

It’s a deep sign of respect to acknowledge someone’s culture and history. It’s also practical. If you are working with Asian colleagues, understanding the importance of the Spring Festival celebration is a big deal. It means you can schedule work deadlines around the holiday so they aren’t impacted by the three week shut down that happens every year during the celebration.


Even though I assume the best, I also assume you are new to working with me and I need to state my expectations right away so there are no misunderstandings. I do this respectfully – “I know this is our first time working together so let me share a little bit about my working style, communication protocols and such. Here’s what you can expect from me, what are your preferences?” If I am leading the project/team, I take more of a directed approach – “Here’s my expectation for the team”. If I am member of the team, I’m more informative – “Here’s my natural style and how I normally work, what are your preferences?”

By stating this stuff up front, I find it starts a dialog and also a necessary negotiation as to work flow. It also gives me a chance to negotiate schedule/availability parameters – something that is extremely important when you are working with international teams spanning multiple time zones.

I’m not naïve, just because you set them doesn’t mean everyone will honor them. However, by setting expectations right away, I can gauge other people’s work preferences and their willingness to accommodate my requests and I have a chance to show I am trustworthy when I accommodate theirs. Just be careful. Once you set expectations, you need to live up to them AND hold others accountable to them in a thoughtful/professional way if you want your team to trust you long term.


People are messy business; emotional, illogical and often self-centered in their thinking. Disagreements and misunderstandings between even the most well-meaning people are inevitable. Expect them and prepare to deal with them professionally when they arise. This is important for several reasons:

  1. By holding people accountable, you will establish a reputation as someone who isn’t afraid to speak up.
  2. Difficult people are less likely to push boundaries if they know you will hold them to account.
  3. The really capable professionals will appreciate working with you; making you a desirable colleague for future projects

When you experience problems, deal with them objectively, privately and as fast as possible. Tackle issues when they are small and easy to discuss. Address the behavior professionally. Be honest and specific with your feedback – the deadline was missed, the status update was poorly presented or the unprofessional tone of voice used in the conference call was inappropriate. Everyone has bad days sometimes – even you. So give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume they are unaware of the impact of their behavior or they are having problems of which you are unaware.

I realize it can be hard for some folks to deliver this type of feedback but things could get worse quickly if you don’t. Delivering productive feedback is a skill – you can learn it and with practice, get pretty good at it. Take a class; ask someone you trust for help. Practice giving good feedback, too, as this will help you get the hang of it before you have to deal with a negative situation.

Hear me when I tell you that feedback of this nature needs to be delivered by phone or video call, NOT via electronic channels. Emails, IMs and text messages can be taken out of context, shared with others and turn into an ugly situation very, very quickly. Trust me on this one….make the call.

Finally, once an issue is dealt with successfully; forgive, forget but follow-up. Avoid holding grudges. Learn to let things go while continuing to practice accountability for yourself and your colleagues.

Featured image by Perry Grone