Avoiding the Mire of Virtual Team Mediocrity

A star performer, Jamie worked hard to earn a promotion to become the newest appointed leader of a global, virtual product team. A team that was struggling to meet its goals. She had dreams of becoming an exceptional leader who delivers results while looking after her team’s well-being. A go-getter from the start, Jamie wanted to build trust with her team so she arduously followed the remote team leadership best practices from the company’s New Manager training. She was quick to recruit new talent and ensured people’s role descriptions were thorough and precise. Jamie gave people equally clear and exact assignments as they developed detailed plans to support the team’s objectives and inputted them into the performance management system. She also scheduled frequent team meetings, held weekly 1-1’s to discuss progress, and set aside time for virtual ‘get to know you’ break sessions. When issues on the team arose, Jamie jumped in to resolve them.

Six months into her new role, Jamie’s boss (Charlene) set up a Zoom call for her first formal performance conversation. She was excited, anticipating glowing reviews since Charlene had been consistently optimistic about the progress she was making in her new role. So, when the call ended, Jamie was disheartened at Charlene’s assessment of her work. She heard terms like “doing ok” and that her team’s performance was “better than average.” To top it all off, the next day, Jamie received her first employee engagement scores – and she was no longer disheartened; she was downright distraught. Her team’s six-month employee engagement scores were below average, even with all the effort she put in following best practices! For the first time in her career, Jamie felt that she was becoming mired in mediocrity and she couldn’t understand why.

The Mire of Mediocrity

Many team leaders will argue that – like the children of Lake Wobegon who are all above average – their team is better than most. In reality, mediocre team performance is the norm in most organizations. You only need to recognize the hundreds of billions of dollars companies spend annually on workforce innovation, leadership development, and ‘performance management’ tools to appreciate the problem’s scale. Disappointingly, the return on that massive investment in training is that most teams remain stubbornly mediocre.

People and teams get stuck around average performance for a variety of reasons, but they always share a common denominator – people behaving in ways that diminish trust. Relationships among a group, especially on hybrid and remote teams, can be complicated with hard-to-see behaviors hurting performance and well-being. Dysfunctional people dynamics make communicating, collaborating, and innovating challenging. And people don’t naturally interpret or prioritize organizational and team values the same, don’t have identical needs and aren’t motivated by the same things. When you list all the behaviors that can reduce trust and lead to disappointing team performance, it’s no surprise that mediocre is common.

The average performance of Jamie’s team provides a window into the problem, as well as insights into the solution. In her attempt to address every issue and position herself as solely responsible for team performance – Jamie sent a subtle message to her people that they aren’t collectively trusted to solve problems and deliver results. She inadvertently created a trust gap. Not feeling trusted causes a greater focus on individual needs, issues, and outcomes, opening the door to greater team friction and stress. All of which leads to underperformance. In contrast, team leaders who coach their teams to manage performance challenges among themselves and take responsibility for results experience greater trust and feel connected to a common purpose. Those teams consistently deliver better results.

The Path to Peak Performance

The key to escaping the mire of mediocrity is connecting the dots between trust and performance, which can be easier said than done. Trust is often taken for granted or considered the “soft stuff” and given little formal attention. Asking a manager if there is a high level of trust in their team typically triggers a reflexive “of course,” along with examples of trustworthy behavior. The follow-on question, “how do you actually know your team trusts you and each other” often produces a blank stare. People pay a high price for that lack of insight. At its worst, it allows toxic behaviors like bias and bullying, and low psychological safety to infect a team. More typically, paying too little attention to trust frees people to put self-interest over the group’s interests, often subconsciously. In all cases, performance suffers.

In contrast, within high-trust, high-performance cultures people understand that trust is more than a feeling or admirable individual behavior. It is an expectation that people will share values, work safely, authentically, and be fully engaged. Trust is seen as an antidote to toxic people and cultures and the foundation of strong, healthy relationships. The connection to performance may seem blindingly obvious once you think about it, but how to do that isn’t always intuitive – especially if you’re a new manager of a remote team. Few leader training programs provide actionable steps to connect the dots between trust and performance. Fewer still focus on creating and sustaining trust as an essential leadership skill.

The Power and Promise of Trust

Few people would question that trust is a valuable individual character trait and that trustworthiness is desirable behavior. But trust is also vital to organizations because it is the key to people’s collective performance and well-being. It sits at the heart of authentic, transformational leadership. People who lead with trust reinforce values, inspire motivation, and strengthen relationships. They accelerate their development as a leader while delivering superior performance and improving people’s lives at work.

At no time has trust been more tested or more valued in our leaders, teams, and each other. As organizations recover, rebuild, and position themselves for growth, there is an unprecedented opportunity to reemphasize trust’s importance.


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.