Leading remote teams? How to build trust and accountability

How do leaders in your organisation feel about leading remote based teams? Have they developed the skills and confidence to support, challenge and hold individuals accountable for their performance, despite the lack of ‘face to face’ time?

In this article, I’m drawing on my own 20 years experience of leading remote based teams as well as my more recent experience as a leadership and team development coach.

I’m going to share why I believe that trust and accountability, are critical for leading remote based teams effectively, and importantly, ‘how’ leaders can develop these behaviours in their team.
Gary McEwan

This article is split into three sections:

  1. The importance of trust and how to develop it
  2. Why accountability matters and how to achieve it
  3. How to balance trust and accountability for improved performance

The importance of trust and how to develop it

Whilst our goal is to develop high levels of both trust and accountability – it all starts with building trust. A absence of trust between employee and leader will inevitably lead to individual issues that impact performance.

Let’s look at what we mean by trust in the context of the workplace. I like the definition provided by Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

“Confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.”

  The important distinction here is that we are talking about ‘vulnerability based trust’ rather than the more common, and narrower meaning which could be described as ‘predictability based trust’. The latter means that we can predict from past behaviour that for example, we will receive a report on time, or that people will be on time for a meeting. Vulnerability based trust means that people feel they can be themselves at work, admit to weaknesses or call out mistakes – knowing that they will receive a constructive, supportive response from their team or line manager. It’s not difficult to see why vulnerability based trust is so critical, whether it supports a team member disclosing that they have mental health or personal challenges to understanding how best to develop them and support their performance. Here are three tips on how to build vulnerability based trust. The key is to show these behaviours consistently and whilst it does take time to build trust, there can be significant improvements over a short period of time.
      1. Role model vulnerability based trust. Gandhi once said “if we want to see a change we should be the one to do it first”. Of course, the idea of showing vulnerability as a leader can feel uncomfortable to most leaders as we tend to confuse this with showing weakness. The reality is that you can’t be an authentic leader without embracing vulnerability.
      2. Develop your relationships in 1 to 1 settings. This is the ideal setting to develop vulnerability based trust. It’s a chance to be more open and not just ask about your team member, but share what’s going on for you, and how you are feeling. This will demonstrate to them that it is okay for them to be open too and it will have a positive impact on the building of trust. Show that you are human and more than a job title.
      3. Use team meetings to develop the culture. Having begun developing this with individual team members, it can feel a more natural step to demonstrate and encourage vulnerability based trust in team meetings. Create a safe environment for people to share more about themselves, and also what they think and feel about work issues, in a non judgemental way.

    Why accountability matters and how to achieve it

    Having trust makes it easier to introduce challenge, set standards and build accountability. Accountability is critical for remote based teams. If handled in the right way, it motivates, challenges and helps us to perform at our best. We all need accountability.

    A view of accountability that I like is from Craig Dowden, an Executive Coach and author and it’s a great starting point.

    “Encouraging employees to take responsibility for their decisions and actions, and to accept the associated outcomes, can result in extensive benefits for organisations. However, it is crucial that such circumstances take place in a supportive environment.”

    It’s important to recognise the emphasis on ‘encouraging’ and ‘supportive’ here. The type of accountability we are trying to achieve is the constructive and healthy type, where it helps to motivate, stretch and challenge without pushing unrealistic demands on individuals resulting in unhealthy stress or anxiety.

    Leaders I work with find it helpful to be clear between the leader’s accountability and that of the team member, as it’s an area that is often blurred:

    • Primary Accountability: This sits with the individual. It is the leader’s responsibility to help create this but not to reduce or minimise it by being too ‘helpful’ or ‘controlling’. A lack of primary accountability can lead to low motivation and low performance in teams.
    • Ultimate Accountability: The leader has ultimate responsibility for the team and individual performances. However, confusion here can lead to a leader diluting primary accountability. Worries about the individuals performance and the pressure to deliver can make it tempting for the leader take over, provide ‘the answer’ or delegate the task to someone else.

    The most effective approach to building primary accountability is to use coaching style questions. Our goal is for the team to think for themselves, to generate options, state their preference, which then helps to achieve commit to action.

    Here are some examples of coaching questions that work well:

    • What is your intention this week?
    • What do you want to achieve?
    • How will you know when you have got there?
    • What might get in the way?
    • What could you do about that?
    • What support do you need?
    • What did you achieve?
    • What have you learnt?
    • What could/will you do differently next time?

    This approach can be highly effective whether it’s used with a high performing individual or with someone who is struggling. For example, a member of staff who is already performing well will feel supported and encouraged. Someone who is not taking ownership of their own performance will find these questions uncomfortable but it’s undeniably an approach that is intended to support them too.

    What is also particularly important is that they know there will be a follow up conversation and that will include being asked what they achieved, and what their approach was.

    It also provides a healthy basis for providing feedback, For example, it’s not much of a stretch to develop questions such as ‘what went well?’, ‘what have your learnt?’ to ‘can I share some of my own observations with you?’

    Balancing trust and accountability for improved performance

    Let’s bring both trust and accountability together now and look at a model that we have created to help leaders reflect on their approach.

    Trust and Accountability
    The descriptions are just examples of tendencies that we might see in these quadrants. It’s important to note that some people will be behaving or feel differently and this is not an exercise in ‘labelling’ individuals, rather helping leaders think about their approach. Our guidance is to use this to help consider your own team on the high/low trust, high/low accountability scales and then consider what action you could take.

    A useful exercise in balancing trust and accountability.

      1. Plot your team without ‘over thinking’ it. With most teams there will be a reasonable amount of differentiation. If that’s not the case, it’s worth taking a step back and asking yourself how honest you have been with this process. Remember it’s just for your benefit.
      2. Review individuals with low trust (left hand side boxes). The focus generally is to build trust and then establish accountability. So it’s worth developing a plan to focus on trust building with these individuals.
      3. Prioritise any ‘top left’ individuals. If you have anyone with high accountability but with low trust, ask yourself if you could be more pragmatic (in the short term) with accountability whilst focusing more on the relationship.
      4. Don’t neglect ‘top right’ individuals. Sometimes as leaders we have a tendency to focus on our team members who are having the issues, or are creating challenges. This is understandable but remember focussing on ‘top will help them feel more loyal and motivated, and help them be ready for more demanding roles in future.

    In summary

    • The two behaviours above all others that are critical to leading remote based teams successfully are trust and accountability. What this really means is developing vulnerability based trust and primary accountability with your team.
    • The most important action in building vulnerability based trust with your team is to role model this behaviour first. Demonstrate to your team that you have the courage to be vulnerable.
    • Coaching questions create a powerful approach to supporting your team with primary accountability. If consistently applied this will help to motivate as well as build capability and confidence. It’s a ‘win win’.
    • It’s important that trust and accountability are in balance. It is a worthwhile exercise to plot your team on the 4 box matrix. Take a personalised approach to what your team need from you as a leader.
    • In building trust and accountability in this way, remote workers will feel supported, motivated and focused on their performance and development.
    I hope that you have found this article helpful. In my experience, leading remote based teams can be more challenging than office based teams in many respects, but it helps hone leadership skills and can be hugely rewarding. If you have any questions feel free to get in touch. We are always happy to answer questions or offer support.

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