Please Put On Pants: Gaining Team Trust in a Virtual World

JD Supra Perspectives

How do teams stay connected or realign on goals in order to get back to operating at the highest level today?

For most of us, our teams have been operating virtually for the past several months. Some may be looking forward to being back in the office to escape the homestead distractions. Others may know their remote situation will remain in place for the rest of the year. Perhaps you are entering into a hybrid version of remote and in-office time.

Regardless, in this inconstant environment, once again we are forced to reexamine the team dynamic.

To understand the key components of a cohesive team, look at the pitfalls that cause breakdowns within them. Shining a light on risks helps teams to seek corrections and grow. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni discusses an interrelated model of the five dysfunctions, making susceptibility to even one of them potentially lethal for the success of a team. In his theory, teamwork will wither if even a single dysfunction can flourish.

Trust is the foundation of all teams

This is not predictive trust. The core of this type of trust requires genuine openness and vulnerability within the team. Vulnerability is a tough notion since it can be considered a sign of weakness, especially for a team leader.

We’ve all seen the hilarious virtual meeting memes, gifs and videos of accidental goofs and silly behaviors that we have potentially seen ourselves in online team meetings. Now we are supposed to be vulnerable on a virtual platform, but how? Lencioni says that you really just need to be human, be honest and go first in showing vulnerability.

Being vulnerable does not mean you dress from the waist up and risk being seen in your skivvys. No one is listening to what you have to say when all they can see is your lack of commitment to finishing the job of simply getting dressed for a meeting, let alone on a team project.

Being vulnerable is enormously powerful and can really change the dynamic on your team...

Instead, showing vulnerability means you must have the capability to say things to all team members like, “I am sorry”, “I was wrong”, “I don’t know the answer”, “I need help”, “I am bad at this or that”. Be human and real. I know we are not taught to do that so it will take some effort to go ‘against the grain’ for the sake of your own team. If just one member cannot be vulnerable it will spread, and vice versa when everyone can. Being vulnerable is enormously powerful and can really change the dynamic on your team.

When the bulk of the world was thrust into working from home many of us uncovered that some of the tough or more difficult people to work with on teams became seemingly more tender given their home environment. It suddenly became difficult to conceal any weaknesses that are easily hidden behind an in-office desk. When their child pops into view to show off their latest drawing, a significant other walks by with breakfast, their dog barks at the doorbell or their cat jumps into view mid-deposition, it is impossible to not relate, because we can easily see or sense the honesty and sincerity that comes with having a ‘fly on the wall’ look into someone’s life that you might normally have never seen.

This sort of unplanned vulnerability has strengthened a lot of team cohesion during and since the pandemic. I have personally witnessed this on teams with very strong individuals that never found their rhythm before. Without having had this time to connect in a more personalized way they were never going to be as strong as their individual parts and this new environment helped foster that unity for them.

Great relationships are built on the ability to disagree, even passionately...

Without vulnerability-based trust, conflict becomes a control strategy based on winning. Healthy team ideological conflict, even in meetings, is a good thing. Great relationships are built on the ability to disagree, even passionately. From a leader perspective, confronting problems and issues quickly is important to solving them with practical solutions. Brené Brown suggests a great way to do that, "The best thing to do when you're arguing is to not focus on winning, but instead to listen to the other person's story and address what he or she thinks is the source of the original conflict.”

This likely resonates with so many of us right now. It is seemingly impossible to segment personal and work conflict because of the complex reality we all now find ourselves in, and in this country. If you conflict on personal ideals, albeit in the workplace, but don’t foster a safe space to have those tough conversations, you will start to see it impact member commitment – which is the next dysfunction – and so on effecting accountability and results. It is also incredibly important to recognize when societal conflicts spill over into work, good leaders embrace those moments and aren’t afraid to have those tough conversations and listen.

Clearly, now is not the time to shy away from saying you care and that you want to hear from all your team members.

These team dynamics can be applied to any of your circles: your place of worship, your work team, sports team or your household. The easiest place to start is to evaluate where your groups are fostering safe internal dialogues. What are you or your firm’s currently doing to address having a safe space? What has worked well, what has not? When you continually examine your team cohesion and work through any destructive behaviors, collaboration and helpfulness really thrive and in time become normalized.

When positive behaviors are normalized, everyone spends less time navigating the negative and more time on problem resolution, brainstorming processes for improvement and achievement of tasks.

Lead by example and show your commitment, be vulnerable and trustworthy and above all, please, put on pants for every one of your meetings! It is a simple act to maintain team trust in a post Coronavirus world.

Here are some (other) great starting points depending where on the spectrum your team breakdowns are taking place:

1. Create safe spaces - give people a place where they can share their ideas without fear of repercussions and live their identity without facing discrimination or harm. A great example from my coworker Shannon Blackwell is to host Talk to Me Tuesdays where you set time for team members to talk to you about anything.

2. Trust building exercises - Go first! Encourage all to be vulnerable and showcase how to do it. Some ideas include:

  • personal histories exercise
  • team effectiveness exercise
  • personality and behavioral preference profiles
  • 360-degree feedback
  • experiential team exercise

3. Foster healthy conflict engagement - Mine conflict!

  • acknowledge that conflict is productive and do not shy away from it.
  • to ‘mine conflict’ requires one to extract buried disagreements within the team and shed light on them.
  • ensure you have a degree of objectivity.
  • stay with the conflict until it is resolved.
  • encourage healthy debate by reminding team member in times of conflict what they are doing is necessary for the good of the team.
  • demonstrate restraint when your people are engaging in conflict and allow resolution to occur naturally.


Melissa Delaney is the Director of Strategic Marketing at Society 54. She is an organizational psychologist and focuses on team development.

Some of you may already be having discussions about the events of the past few days/weeks/months within your team, some may be preparing to. I always love to hear how you or your organizations are fostering safe dialogues within your own teams. What is being done to build internal trust? If you have been able to successfully mine conflict to avoid artificial harmony? What was your ‘ah ha’ moment? What has worked well, what has not? Please feel free to reach out with any insight you are willing to share

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