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Why Virtual Teams Fail and Strategies for Success

By Joane Ramsey

Why Virtual Teams Fail and Strategies for Success

Virtual teams working remotely across the globe is not new but having the whole company working remotely in virtual teams is.  About 75% of virtual teams do not achieve their objectives on time and on budget.

In Episode 28 of the Strategic Insights Podcast, Joane Ramsey interviews Mary Beth Lamb to learn why virtual teams fail and strategies virtual teams can implement to save time, increase productivity, get better results for their customers, and actually have more fun while doing it.

Joane Ramsey: 00:01 Welcome to Strategic Insights Podcast. I'm Joane Ramsey, Senior Consultant with Strategic Enhancement Group. I'm joined today by Mary Beth Lamb, who has helped many businesses in more than 20 industries over five continents achieve peak performance and maximize return on worldwide business investments by developing cultural competency, virtual team acumen, and effective global communication skills. Mary Beth has lived, worked, and study on five continents where she learned German, Spanish, and Portuguese.

She is also a Professor of Practice at three U.S. graduate schools. She has taught at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Business. She's a faculty member at the Graduate School of St. Catherine University, and most recently, she's at Wake Forest School of Business. In 2009, Mary Beth was chosen as Minnesota Women of Influence because of her commitment to making a difference in the global community. She has co-authored on the acclaimed business book, "Do's and Taboos Around the World for Women in Business (John Wiley & Sons), 1998. It was issued in China in 2008. She has also contributed to "Women as Global Healers" (2010) and frequently writes and has interviewed for national media about building successful global organizations, leaders, and teams. We are so happy to have you here today, Mary Beth. Welcome.

Mary Beth Lamb: 01:31 Thank you.

Joane Ramsey: 01:33 So today, we're going to be talking about virtual teams and global teams. Based on your experience, would you share with us some of the things that cause virtual teams to fail?

Mary Beth Lamb: 01:49 Yes. Thank you so much, Joane. We have about 35 years now of experience and research on why global teams succeed and why they fail. Simply put, I think there's an assumption that working in a virtual team is just like working in a face-to-face team. A second assumption is that it's easier somehow, to work virtually because we can work 24 hours a day with colleagues around the world. We don't have to travel and we have a lot of autonomy. But what we actually know is that it is, especially in the early stages, more difficult, slower, and more expensive to work in a virtual team. It takes time to build trust face-to-face. I think our greatest assumption is that we can just go right to task when we're working in a virtual team. It is so complex to work across time zones, across space and geography, across diverse organizations, and of course, across different cultures and languages. It's one of the most complex things we can do.

So I think where virtual teams often are less successful than they would like is by simply jumping into the task and assuming that's all they need to do. We know from face-to-face team building that we have to start by building trust. We have to start with team building in order to determine how we're going to work together. And we have to make what I call the implicit explicit. We have to be much more articulate and thoughtful about what it is we're trying to accomplish and how we're going to work together to do that.

Joane Ramsey: 04:14 Isn't that interesting? And I think you bring a good point, which is communication. I think it is so critical for teams to understand and value how they are communicating. You touch on several points, but when you look at global teams or even domestic teams, if we can call it that, what are some of the things that make them successful versus the ones that will fail at having developed a good team work relationship?

Mary Beth Lamb: 04:50 Yes. There are two critical factors we need to address to compress the timeline for a virtual team to get to peak performance. The foundation is building trust, and to do that, first of all, we have to conduct team building. We have to take the time to set what I call, "Rules of the Road". How are we going to work together? Who is going to lead? How often will we meet? What technology will we use? Sometimes we assume everyone has the same tools and the same technology, and that isn't the case.

What are going to be our operating principles? Digging deeper, how will we hold each other accountable? Very often, we just assume we set a milestone and it's very clear how that will happen. But slippage in deadlines is a key issue in virtual teams because no one feels like it's really their job unless we're very clear about what those deadlines are and what will we do if we don't meet it. We need to identify the unique talents and abilities of the actual team members in our group. We need to clarify roles and responsibilities. This is all kind of boring stuff, but it's the first step in any peak performing global team.

The second step is we need to develop what I like to call, "Remote Teaming Skills" or "Virtual Team Acumen" is kind of a sexy way to describe that. We need to make sure the team members know how to adapt to each other, that they have the understanding of how to use virtual technology effectively. When do I use email? When do I pick up the old fashioned phone and talk to you? When is a webcast a better tool?

For example, we know that email is a great tool for confirming information, for sharing data. Email is a terrible tool for building relationships. What would be a better tool? An example would be a webcast where I can actually see you, where you can hear me, where you can observe my behavior. You can see when I'm smiling, when I'm looking puzzled or confused. How do we get smarter about which technology we use when?

Another example would be Zoom. In these last few months, we've all had what we call Zoom fatigue and one of the reasons for that is everyone is using Zoom for everything on a remote call. Zoom is good for certain things. For example, it's excellent for sharing information, for ideation, or coming up with creative ideas. It is not a good communication medium for some other tasks. So those two factors, building the team through team building and then secondly, helping people develop the critical remote skills, the virtual technology skills, the emotional intelligence skills, and in any cross-cultural team, what I call the, "Cultural Intelligence Skills".

How do I work more effectively with people from different cultures, from different backgrounds, from different races, genders, ethnicities? There are practical skills and tools I can use to understand what someone who is different from me needs so I can quickly adapt to them and then we can get things done more effectively.

Mary Beth Lamb: 08:53 An example of a company that skipped these steps and was not very effective is a global team I worked with a few years ago. They had launched a major initiative to determine how they were going to work more remotely around the world, and this is several years ago. They had team members all over the world. The leader simply said, "Identify how you're going to do this in your part of the world, and come back and give us your recommendation, and we'll make it happen." For a year and a half, these regional teams went back and forth and back and forth. They had meetings, they emailed each other, they even got together and they had complete gridlock because they did no team building. They had no idea really what their mandate was, who was going to get it done, how they were going to resolve their differences. They did not trust each other, the conflict soared. Finally after a year and a half, the team leader just got fed up and he said, "All right, this is what I've decided based on your input and we're going to launch this." About two thirds of the team said, "Absolutely not." Some of them said it very directly right to the leader. Some of them said nothing at all, and it never got implemented.

This project cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in team time and millions of dollars in onsite costs because they could not reduce their facilities where people were working. Some of the team members said, "Look, we'll even pay for our building's rent. You cannot move us out of this facility. It's too critical that our clients can come and visit us in a building. Not just expect us to work remotely." Some of the other team members never said anything, but they didn't have the ability to work at home at that time. They were maybe at home with 10 or 12 other people in the same home, so it was virtually impossible, no pun intended. That cost them millions of dollars, but worse than this, there was such animosity amongst team members on this project that several of the most important people actually left the organization. So this is the danger. We slow down. We stop each other. It wouldn't have taken them that much time in the beginning to conduct that team building, to build trust, and to give people the tools to be able to flex their style under conflict.

In contrast, a team that was very successful was actually led by a German leader. He had global teams all over the world. He was a remote team expert, but he was frustrated with the amount of time it took for these teams to get to peak performance. A very simple step, I encouraged him to actually bring his next team together and launch together, and ask one question before their online launch meeting, and that was, "What is the unique talent or ability that you bring to this team, that you think could be most effectively applied to help the team be successful?" He thought that question was kind of crazy, but my point was this, have these team members ever worked together before? Do they know each other? Do they actually understand what unique talents could be leveraged in this team?

We're not the same. We have unique gifts. So he said, "Okay, I'll try it Mary Beth." The team got together and he said some of the people could answer that question in 45 seconds. This is my unique talent. This is how our team can use it and this is what I'd like to offer. Other team members, it took them up to 20 minutes. Some even up to 45 minutes to sort of really explain in a way that was comfortable for them. He said he had to hold onto the chair and prevent himself from interrupting and saying, "I think we've got it."

Afterwards, he was shocked. Several of the team members called him or got on a Zoom with him and said, "In my 20 years with this very powerful high tech company, that's the first time any team leader has asked me that question. I often feel like I'm just another widget in our organization. Thank you. I was going to leave the company because I feel so useless until you asked me that question." We actually compared that team to six of his other remote teams. Within three months that team was achieving their goals faster, they were more creative. On every metric we came up with they were more engaged. Within six months, they were way ahead of the other teams that he was working with. One year out, that was a team that was awarded one of the most high performing global teams in the organization. Sometimes, it isn't difficult to take a step back to ask our own team members, "What do you have to offer? How can you help us?" Instead of assuming that as a leader, it's all on our backs.

Joane Ramsey: 14:53 It's incredible because I think you touch on several points that are so critical in today's world and the phase we're all living. To understand how to work remotely, especially now that we're working in teams more because we're all trying to figure out where we're going to go from here.

When we look at that, what would you say would be some of the critical success factors for a virtual team to succeed? What I mean by that is two to five things that absolutely must take place in order for the team to succeed when they are coming together.

Mary Beth Lamb: 15:32 We do have three decades of research that's helped us identify what the most successful remote teams do. Ironically, the number one critical success factor, if you want to compress the amount of time that it takes a remote team to get to peak performance, the number one critical success factor would be to launch face-to-face. In this time of COVID when people cannot launch face-to-face, that doesn't mean remote teams can't be effective, but I think if we think about it, it makes sense. We know from the way people communicate that we build trust and we also motivate each other, mostly through the eyes and the mouth. Now Zoom can help. I can see you, but I can't have these sort of subtle interactions that I would have in a face-to-face environment in the coffee break, after we leave and take an evening dinner together. That's why the face-to-face is probably the fastest way to launch. At that team launch, that's when you do the team building, that's when you create those operating principles.

When I work with remote teams that can't launch face-to-face right now, that's why it's imperative that we use tools like Zoom, or Adobe Connect, or Microsoft Teams and we use every interactive tool that is available to us by the technology to keep the team absolutely engaged in that team building practice and not looking at their email or doing something else at the same time.

A few other critical best factors.

Build that team charter. Have everyone agreed on what our rules of the road are. Very often, a leader will think, "It's my job to tell everyone how we're going to work together," but that doesn't build engagement and often, remote teams are fighting internally saying, "Why are we doing it this way? That doesn't make sense to me." Or, "Why is it this specific tasks that we're supposed to do first? That doesn't impact my part of the world we work in at all." That's the second critical factor.

A third critical factor is to find an active team sponsor. A leader in the organization that is really pushing your specific objective forward, giving it high visibility, linking it to the critical strategic imperatives of the organization. Often, we set up remote teams on a specific project and then the organization kind of loses sight of what they're doing. People think, "What are you even doing anymore? I don't even think this relates." So, you must have a very active high level team sponsor.

Number four, perhaps what I think is the one we missed the most, set realistic expectations. A virtual team will have to go slow initially to then go fast. It's going to take more time at the beginning because we do have to set those operating principles, build trust, get to know each other, determine really how we're going to work before we can dive into the work. The biggest mistake most teams make is they just go right to task. They ignore everything we know about any high performing global team. Which is to go slow, to go fast, and it's more complex in a virtual environment. It doesn't mean you can't be successful. You can be extremely successful, but it needs to be a thoughtful process.

Mary Beth Lamb: 19:34 Another critical success factor is make sure you have measurable progress and you're communicating that to your leaders and the organization. Set specific tangible objectives and celebrate those successes. So often when I work with virtual teams, they say to me, "We feel like we're not making any progress at all. We're going backwards, not forwards." We have to celebrate the small successes. That may sound kind of touchy feely. It isn't. In a virtual environment we need to set tangible objectives and do little things like get together on a Zoom call and celebrate that we actually got that done. Have everybody bring a gift when somebody has a birthday and hold it up so everybody can see that. These are things that matter.

And finally, a really critical success factor that few teams do thoughtfully is to create what I call, "Boundary Spanners". Especially in cross cultural teams, we need to identify at least one person for every eight members of a team that is actively building bridges among the team builders and the team members. We need to actively find Boundary Spanners. Boundary Spanners are people who have a high level of emotional and cultural competence. Their job is to be the glue in the team.

So Joane, if you and I had a challenge with each other, we could go to a third team member and say, "You know, this happened with my team member. I don't know. Maybe it's a cultural difference. Maybe it's a style difference. I'm not sure, but I know you know Joane, and I'd like to share the situation with you. Do you think you could provide me a little coaching?"

These team members are the glue. They help the team to function more effectively. Not everyone in a team is going to be highly culturally competent and that's okay. But we know that these people are always present in the most high performing global teams. They are worth their weight in gold. We need to identify them. We need to reward them. We need to recognize them. This is part of their job.

Joane Ramsey: 22:08 You touch on so many important points here, and the bottom line is they all come back to, we're human beings, right? We need that reassurance. We need clear expectations. We need boundaries. We need to make sure that we understand them. I think sometimes, we lose sight of it because of the task, where organizations tend to be so focused on task and how the task will ensure that we achieve results. We forget that all of these little elements of humanity if you will, need to be in place and touch on them at some point in order to do what you just said. Start slow to be able to go fast and get the results you need. So Mary Beth, when we look at all of this, what would you say would be one thing to improve their performance and what would that be?

Mary Beth Lamb: 23:07 From my perspective in 30 years of working with multicultural teams all over the world, the key to me is to lead with empathy. How do I put myself in your shoes and see the world through your eyes? Empathy is deeper than that though. It's not only how do I see the world through your eyes, but how do I feel what you feel? When people feel that we understand their world, they will work harder than you can ever anticipate. We are human beings and in these extremely challenging times, it's always a tension between the task, getting it done on time, in time. Of course we have to do that, but what is the best way to get the task done. For so many people around the world, it starts with building a relationship.

I work with teams on building cultural competency. I believe if you can increase your cultural competency, you can be more effective working in any situation, and especially in remote teams where we are at a distance from each other. It starts with being aware that people think, act, behave, and communicate differently around the world and also within the U.S. It then moves to having an acceptance of these differences. Often in our heart of hearts, I think we truly believe that, "If I could just find the right words, I could convince you that my way is better," but what we know is that there are at least 13 key ways that we work very differently around the world.

When I work with remote teams, I like to share five. They are five of the most critical differences that we encounter every single day when we're working in multicultural teams in the U.S. or in global teams around the world. Those five differences are how people actually manage time and build relationships. Do I start with the task or do I start with the relationship? Fundamentally, that is a 180 degree difference in how we get things done more quickly. Are you credible by doing the task? Are you credible because I trust you? What do I need to start with in order to compress the amount of time it takes us to be effective?

The second key difference is how do I view power within the team? Do I think we're all the same? Do I want everybody to be treated equally? Or, do I believe it's more effective to work within a hierarchy, to have a leader at the top that kind of sets the course for us and tells us the best way to approach it, and then we all work together? What is a good leader? A good leader in some cultures is a person who says, "I want to empower you. I want to make it easy for all of you to do your job because you're all experts." A good leader in two thirds of the world's cultures is someone who says, "I am the leader. Here is our process. Here is how we're going to work together and that's what we do." That's a fundamentally different approach in how we want to work together in a team and how we want to be led.

The third difference is the one that I think is the most toxic to remote teams because we can't see it as easily, we can't feel it. I call it the poison pen of global teams and that is, how do we deal with change? How do we make decisions differently around the world and within the U.S? Some people are very much, let's just get it done. You're risk oriented, 80% go, and we'll figure it out along the way. Other people around the world and within our teams are what we call, "Risk Averse." I need to know that this is going to be successful before I take on this task. I need to know there's a backup plan. I need more details. Fundamentally, this difference is the one teams will fight on until the end of time or it will completely destroy the team. An example would be often when I see cross-cultural teams try to innovate, this is where they're fighting. Some people say, "We've just got to go for it. We've got a window to get that product or the service out on the market," and other members of the team are saying, "Wait a minute, what's the plan? How are we sure this is going to be successful?" By fighting each other and not recognizing the difference, they actually miss the window of opportunity in the marketplace.

Mary Beth Lamb: 28:25 The fourth difference is the most permanent of all because we learn this by about the age of three, before we even have memory. We learn from our environment, our surroundings, our family, our leaders. Am I motivated? Do I identify most as an individual or do I identify more as a member of a group, a team, a community, even a country? 80% of the world's population identifies as a member of a group of a nation. You can even see this in how we're approaching COVID now. I'll give you an example.

In China, the approach from the beginning was to look at it as a nation, how are we going to address this all together? The team, the country had one plan. If you look at the United States, we are the most individualistic country in the world, based on all research. So, we have very different ideas about how we should address COVID and we can see that this is creating a tension. One way is not right or wrong, good or bad. They're just very, very different.

This fourth dimension, what we call these "Dimensions of Difference," because we can be all along a continuum of how we want to work together, but this really impacts how we want to be motivated, how we want to be rewarded, how we want to be recognized. And again, that's why that team building is important. How would you be the most engaged in this team? Do you want to be individually recognized? Do you want the CEO to stand up in front of the whole company and give you applause? Or, do you want our team to be recognized? Do you want to work together? In this time that we're in now, so much of our work is individualistic. For 80% of the world, this is extremely difficult. How can we work remotely, even in a team? We can get on Zoom calls. We can use webinars to work together, not just assume that we all want to go off in our individual houses and do things alone.

Finally, the fifth dimension of difference is perhaps the most challenging of all. That's about, what do we think effective communication looks like? In some cultures and in some individuals, we prefer communication that's direct, express, short, to the point, factual. That you just say it, and you're done. In many other cultures and for many other individuals, that's not effective communication. That's ineffective communication. Our preference is to be more indirect, to kind of go around the point, and eventually, the meaning is made clear. "Why would anyone want to do that?" We often think, especially in the U.S. where our preference is usually quite direct. Well, because the primary value underlying that is to maintain the relationship. I don't want to damage our relationship.

If I don't think your idea is a good one, I may not say, "Joane, that's a terrible idea." I may say, "That's interesting," or I may say nothing at all and you assume that therefore, I agree with you, but actually I don't agree. I think in my head, "This will never work in my country," but you're going to have to mine for that information to find out what's really going on with me. We're going to have to have a high level of trust before I might share with you.

These five differences are critical for us to understand. When I work with remote teams, what I try to do is help people understand what are national preferences, organizational preferences, but then most critically, what Joane, is your, what I call cultural map? How do you like to work on these five dimensions? How do I like to work on these five dimensions of difference? We can create a kind of map that will show my preferences versus your preferences. That way we don't stereotype each other and say, "Oh, because you're Brazilian Joane, you must behave this way" and, "Oh, Mary Beth, because you're U.S. American, you must behave that way." I'm looking at you as an individual, you're looking at me as an individual, and then we both have a choice. How do we want to adapt to each other in a specific situation to get better results?

Joane Ramsey: 33:15 That's wonderful. I think you made such incredible points on how we need to behave, and again, I think it goes back to our humanity and how we behave. The point on empathy that leaders need to, more than ever now, be thinking about, "How do I show and demonstrate empathy for my teams?" Because everyone is feeling the pressures, the isolation for some people. Understanding those nuances and how to work with them, I think are really critical to make sure that we're evolving as a team and making it successful. When we look at that, any final words on how a team, a virtual team can perform better together?

Mary Beth Lamb: 34:11 Yes. I think it's really not as complex as perhaps this discussion has been. If we want to work together, two things. One, conduct team building. Set your operating principles, how you're going to work together first. And then secondly, build cultural competence in your organization and virtual acumen. So, cultural competence again, the ability to recognize that people think, act, behave, communicate, and so critical for successful remote teamwork, are motivated differently. Then, once I'm aware, I accept the differences and then finally, I have tools to help me adapt my behavior. If you like me, you're going to want to work with me. If you want to work with me, you're going to answer my email first. In a world where people are getting hundreds of emails today, seven different kinds of social media platforms, we're all fighting for mind share. Cultural competence helps us get results quicker, but I have to recognize my own preferences. I have to understand yours and then I can only change my behavior. How am I going to adapt to you specifically in a situation to make you more comfortable? Because if you're more comfortable, you're going to like working with me. If you like working with me, you're going to put my project towards the top of your list.

This is where remote teamwork gets really fun. So three questions we can ask when we start working with someone new in a remote team. "How would you like to see this go?" And then we need to listen. Instead of just diving in and assuming fast happens just automatically, we need to step back. We need to listen. We need to be a little humble and say, "I really don't know what your situation is. Can you tell me a little bit about what else is on your business plate? What else do I need to know about your country so that I can be more effective with you?"

Second question. "What would make this work for you?" And then again, we need to listen. We need to not interrupt. We need not to correct the other person. We need to listen deeply.

The third and final question is what I learned from a Chinese leader many years ago, a very famous and well known Chinese woman leader, and I think about it all the time. Her question was simply this. "Is there anything else?" And then she just paused. She calmed her body language on zoom. She maintained her focus because for about two thirds of the world's population, those first two questions are pretty direct. Especially, if I don't know you. What do you want? How does it work for you? I may not feel comfortable with such a direct question. So, this third question is a more indirect way to ask the same thing. I write that and I put it in front of my computer screen when I'm talking to people, that third question. Usually, that's where I get the most helpful information. It may come out in a story. It may come out in a parable, something I think that has no relationship to what we're talking about, but if you listen deeply, all of the answers are in that story or in that parable.

So empathy, humbleness, compassion. When we sense that from our colleagues, we are willing to go anywhere with them. When we don't, it's often that that leads us back to a lack of trust, to create conflict, to create tension that slows down the team, that minimizes the results, that makes this feel like we're always pushing a rock up the hill.

Joane Ramsey: 38:51 I think those are such wise words and such a great way to finish this podcast in terms of the wisdom that you have brought to us today. At the end of the day, it really boils down to respect, empathy, humility, compassion, collaboration. If we pay attention to those things, and we put ourselves in somebody else's shoes, and we listen. I think that's a key word. We listen to what people are sharing with us and if we listened with the intent of learning, we can go that extra mile and we really can move teams forward, gaining that faster speed that all the companies are wishing for right now. So, in that spirit, any other words of wisdom for us before we say goodbye, Mary Beth?

Mary Beth Lamb: 39:49 I would like to conclude by saying I think remote teamwork can be the most fulfilling work we do. That may sound counterintuitive after we've had a long discussion about the challenges, the complexities, but I'd like to cut right to the chase. This doesn't have to be complex. Like any business task, if we help people build this awareness, we give them the skills and the tools, and a chance to practice. We can be successful. The dirty little secret of remote teams is that about 75% of them don't achieve their objectives on time and on budget. That's a shocking statistic. That doesn't have to happen. We know what works. You and I have just discussed it. If we give people the time, and the expertise, and the confidence to practice, they can be more successful. They can save time, increase productivity, get better results for their customers, and actually have more fun doing it.

Joane Ramsey: 41:00 Thank you so much Mary Beth for joining us here today. We've learned so much about virtual teams and I think this has been such a beneficial conversation for our listeners. If you would like additional information, please contact us at

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Published: July 30, 2020

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Joane Ramsey

Senior Performance Improvement Consultant

A native of Brazil, Joane first came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student with AFS. She returned to Brazil where she successfully ran and sold two different businesses. Returning to the US in 1992, Joane put her business ownership experience to work with a small manufacturing company running the day-to-day operations and facilitating sales with South American companies. She joined SEG in 1999, where her experience has helped her clients get the results they desired. Joane has a B.S. degree in business management from North Central College, where she majored in international business and Spanish.

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