High-performing teams don’t just happen by accident. They’re carefully and meticulously developed, and that requires a two-pronged approach of both horizontal and vertical development.

Horizontal development is building skills, expertise, knowledge and competencies. This is what most employee training or onboarding programs are designed to do, and manager support complements this development. Vertical development transforms leaders by shifting their mindset, challenging their beliefs, increasing wisdom and expanding their consciousness. It ultimately builds a leader’s capacity to interpret, relate and lead. It’s focused on the strategic and adaptive application of skills and knowledge in a dynamic and ever-changing work environment. Leaders need both horizontal and vertical development to lead high-performing teams.

There has been a lot of research and study done on this topic. American author Patrick Lencioni is well recognized for identifying the essential elements leaders need to drive high-performing teams. In a time when teams are adapting to a virtual or hybrid work environment, it’s even more critical to focus on the essential team building blocks.

At the heart of Lencioni’s model, high-functioning teams must have trust in one another, which people build by being open and genuine about their mistakes and challenges. Leaders can also build trust by challenging people. This can be challenging even under ideal working conditions, so doing this within a virtual or hybrid environment compounds things. Therefore, it’s critical to invest in relationship building as part of getting work done, since it’s through relationships that leaders have impact.

Building a sense of trust and collegiality in teams can take time, likely more so in a virtual or hybrid work environment. So, it may take a while to get teams to a point where they can engage in healthy dialogue and debate about work, as this requires people with diverse perspectives work through differences in perspective without personalizing things. When leaders make an extra effort to build trust among their teams, healthy debate can take place, and the team becomes more invested and committed to the work. This increases accountability and ultimately leads to better results.

While a leader might have a team of people who know how to execute their jobs, it takes effort from the leader in a virtual or hybrid environment to hold their team to the vertical development needed to engage with one another in a high-functioning way. Without care, virtual or hybrid work environments can leave people feeling disconnected or siloed, which is why many organizations have doubled down on connection and relationship development in the workplace. It’s a good move. If organizations invest more in these areas, positive dynamics that contribute to high-performance in teams will become more prevalent than in organizations that just focus on work.

Leadership Behaviors That Build High-performing Teams

Leadership behaviors, such as creating psychological safety, can promote experimentation and learning, which help individuals to resolve differences and eliminate tension in a supportive and collaborative manner. These dynamics contribute to a higher functioning team.

The roadblock for some virtual and hybrid teams is that they’ve never had to deal with these aspects of relationship building before, some of which include:

  • Learning how to build work relationships through virtual technology or channels.
  • Maintaining relationships or connection to colleagues in a virtual environment.
  • Navigating conflict when you aren’t in person.
  • Engaging in collaboration and experimentation in different ways through technology.

For example, some might argue that their teams performed better when they were in an office because people could talk face to face, in real-time, to resolve differences in a supportive and collaborative way that built trust. That’s more challenging, at least initially, in a virtual context, when people might only interact with each other in more formal meeting settings, where the risk of being vulnerable is higher or more public. It makes sense, therefore, that talent leaders in organizations that see higher levels of performance in virtual or hybrid work environments invest to support their employees and their leaders in figuring out how to maintain relationship development in these evolved work spaces.

Developing Leaders Who Inspire Trust in High-performing Teams

Leadership coaches can play a pivotal role in helping leaders build trust, connection, and relationships among their virtual or hybrid teams. They can help individuals shift their mindsets and thinking to understand and appreciate the value and impact it will have for their teams to invest in things like connection exercises, virtual team-building activities, or periodic in-person gatherings as foundational building blocks that lead to high-performing teams.

For many organizations currently in virtual or hybrid teaming structures, building relationships simply isn’t as organic as it was in person. These virtual or hybrid equivalents to potlucks, team lunches or team building exercises for in-person teams, require leaders to deploy more creativity and integration to meaningfully build these spaces for a virtual or hybrid team. So, leaders may need coaching to help people understand why investing in relationships matters to achieve the business outcomes they want — and what behaviors are most likely to model and surface trust among the team.

When relationships and trust exist, teams can more easily navigate the nuanced interpersonal dynamics that come with hybrid or virtual work, including conflict. It might involve using different strategies than they’ve used in the past, and that might require them to think about work relationships – and how to maintain them – differently.

Further, at the heart of team building you’ll find skilled leaders. Leaders of high functioning teams are vulnerable first, modeling the way they want their team to operate with one another by being open about the unknowns or uncertainties they’re facing. In a virtual or hybrid work environment, this might mean naming the dynamics they face as a team, or ensuring they include virtual and in-person teammates equitably, for example.

Coaching Leaders for High Performing Teams

Becoming a leader who can effectively lead virtual or hybrid teams may require close examination of current in-person team leadership practices and letting go of what won’t work for the new teaming structure. It requires a shift in the leader’s mindset and reworking assumptions about what it takes to achieve results with their team.

Coaching can support leaders in building leadership mindsets and practices that can more quickly lead to higher functioning, higher performing teams. For instance, it could help leaders who tend to micromanage develop a sense of trust, and guide them how to promote independence and space for people to be productive and innovative while still holding them accountable for necessary outcomes. However, it’s important to note that how leaders build connections and relationships depends on what their organization values. Organizations have to innovate, and leaders may have to learn how to model optimal virtual or hybrid behaviors for their teams, and do it in ways that work best for their company culture.