With more and more companies working seamlessly across cultures and time zones I am often asked by clients what the secret is to building an effective virtual team.

The answer is simple: fresh bagels.

OK, it’s really building trust, but we’ll get to the bagels in a minute.

The challenge of course is that it is much tougher to build trust when your team is split across time zones and continents than it is when you’re able to have a friendly chat across the water cooler every day.

So perhaps a second step needs to be added to help trust develop: getting together.

I appreciate that there may be logistical and financial challenges for some organizations in getting together, but it is almost certainly a cost less painful than the missing financial targets due to a poorly functioning global team.

Here’s a perfect example. A client of mine, a team leader in a global IT company, asked me to help improve the performance of his project team. He told me: “My team members are all respected experts in their fields and perform to an outstanding level individually, but I don’t understand why they miss their targets as a team by some 75%?”

My client was British and based in Singapore; his team members were based in China, South Korea, South Africa, Japan, and Holland. We talked about team-building and he added: “But that’s a lot of culture and time zones to navigate just to build a team!”

We went back to basics. I interviewed every member of his team. It quickly became apparent that they didn’t trust each other and, as a result, were holding back from sharing information and collaborating with each other.

What I found was that, right from the beginning, a few cultural miscues and misunderstandings had spiraled out of control and resulted in a very fractured and dysfunctional team.

At the first few team conference calls, the Dutch and South African members had led most of the discussions. Hearing no questions or objections from the rest of the group, it was assumed that everyone was in agreement with their proposed plan.

As time went on, it became painfully apparent that not everyone was on the same page. Deadlines were missed, tasks weren’t completed and, seemingly, much of the inaction came from the team members from Asia who hadn’t spoken up at the group meetings.

The South African and Dutch team members were frustrated and told me: “I thought we all agreed on the plan! But some team members didn’t keep their commitments. They seemed incompetent. I am not sure I can trust them again.”

On the other hand, Asian team members were equally frustrated: “We never agreed with the decision. They dominated the meeting and didn’t ask us for our input. We need more time to process the information and reach our own conclusions. We felt excluded!”

 Worked in Silos

Photo by Justus Menke

Over the next year, as the project continued, they communicated less and less with each other and worked in silos. What communication they did by emails and conference calls often led to finger pointing on both sides as the divide between the various groups grew wider and wider.

Hardly any effort was made to establish positive relationships among the team members, to better understand the various cultures at play within the group, or to resolve the conflicts in a constructive way. For example, if the South African and Dutch team members had spent some time understanding Asian culture, they would have recognized that the fact that their Asian colleagues were quiet during the meeting was not necessarily acquiescence or tacit approval. It was much more likely that the Asian team members were taking the time to process the information due to language barriers or they simply disagreed with the decision but were too polite to challenge it.

On the other hand, if the Asian members had realized that many from western cultures are more direct and require more active involvement, they could have asked more questions and made more of an effort to make their feelings known.

In the absence of any genuine bonding, along with misunderstandings due to cultural differences and language barriers, the group had each built up assumptions about other members of the team and were jumping to conclusions about each other’s motives. It was like a cancer growing within the team that my client simply couldn’t stem.

I worked with my client to bring them together for three days – not only to work on their challenges but also to rebuild the trust.

On the first day we talked openly about what each of them needed from the others in order to build better teamwork and the responsibilities each of them had to the others.

What was striking was that their needs were really quite straightforward. They all consistently asked of each other: be respectful; don’t interrupt; listen; say ‘thank you’; and apologize if you’re wrong. In other words, act with consideration and kindness, the basic human building blocks of trust. Somehow these ideals had gotten lost along the way because there was no rapport among the group.

They worked out what their top 5 behavioral rules would be for future team interactions to ensure their new-found team spirit didn’t evaporate again. The team leader turned this into a slide which would always appear at the start of every meeting to remind them of their commitment to each other.

They rounded off the three days with a memorable night out eating Singapore’s famous Black Pepper Crab, drinking ice cold Tiger beer and returned to their countries reinvigorated. One year on the team leader called me with the news that his team had just hit 89% of their targets.

The importance of not forgetting the basics can be seen in other ways too. I heard recently of a global virtual team which takes turns, once a quarter, to send local food from their country to other team members around the globe so that they can all share breakfast or snacks together during their regular conference calls. At a recent team video conference, the U.S. colleagues sent a box of fresh bagels and ground coffee to introduce team members in the Philippines to an all-American breakfast. This simple idea has transformed their calls into something that is the highlight of their meeting and the call is now a vibrant and effective communications forum.

Another US-based client was struggling to connect with a member of his new team, based in Mexico City, who seemed very slow to respond to email requests.

Hiding his growing irritation he asked other colleagues, “What’s she like?”

It transpired that the lady had recently had a baby and was balancing work and new motherhood, which explained the sporadic responses. He immediately emailed her, congratulating her on her new arrival and sharing the news that he had become a grandparent around the same time. He even attached a photo of his grandson. Within minutes she responded with a picture of her daughter, starting a dialogue that helped them to quickly build an effective working relationship.

In the latest in my series of 100 success factors for global leaders, here are my five top tips for building a virtual team that trusts each other and works as well together thousands of miles apart as if they say in the same room:

1. Keep your commitments. Do what you say you are going to do. Keep your promises. This may sound obvious, but keeping your word is absolutely essential to earn trust with other team members.

2. Share information equally, transparently, and timely. Make sure everyone, particularly team members in remote locations, are not left out in the communication loop.

3. Give feedback in a culturally appropriate way. Give positive feedback in public and negative feedback in private. Be culturally sensitive when delivering feedback so you don’t damage relationships and trust.

4. Don’t jump to conclusions. Check your assumptions first. Make sure your understanding is in tune with other team members’ cultural tendencies. Listen to everyone’s opinion. Check back to confirm that you understand their point of view. Ask open-ended questions to make sure you are all on the same page. Always take a step back to understand the other person’s perspective and pressures and give them benefit of the doubt.

5. Help other team members without being asked. Maybe you’ve heard of the Pay it Forward principle? Doing something kind and helpful, without being asked, is both a simple act of kindness and powerful way to build trust and rapport. It will also probably make their day!

These are the first five of 100 success factors for leaders and they are unarguably the most important, as they provide a mindset that underpins everything that is required of the modern global business leader and encourages a style of leadership that is honest, compelling, and inspiring. You can find more about the development of these essential steps to thinking globally in my book, Global Leadership – The Next Generation.