Virtual Team Leadership
by Mark Sivy
Virtual team leadership skills are a useful, if not necessary, asset that many leaders may overlook developing or may not effectively execute. The increased globalization of people, services and economic activity that is being facilitated by the rapid development of Internet communication and collaboration technologies has led to an exponential increase in the need for functional virtual teams and organizations (Caulat, 2006; Zhang, Fjermestad, & Tremaine, 2005). This encroachment of virtual activities into the workplace and markets necessitates that leaders understand and embrace it.
Boje and Rhodes (2005) stated that due to mass media, leaders and leadership that are not directly seen can become virtualized and the virtual leader becomes a construct in the minds of those who follow or are impacted by the leader. To employees, clients, teachers, students, and other virtual community members who do not encounter a leader face-to-face, the leader takes on a distinct character based upon the information they receive. The leader’s persona is created from the individual perceptions and interpretations of virtually exhibited leader variables such as mannerisms, gestures, tones, words, actions, reactions, and styles. For this reason, it is important for leaders to mitigate misperceptions and incorrect beliefs by being careful, clear, intentional and communicative.
Being perceived in a desired way can be made more intimidating by the fact that the virtual environment can be subject to the following unique barriers and challenges that have been identified by leaders of virtual teams (DeRosa 2009):
- Having infrequent face-to-face contact as a team
- Lacking necessary resources
- Building a collaborative atmosphere
- Lacking time to focus on leading the team
- Evolving and shifting team and organizational priorities
- Having more work than the team can handle
- Managing poor performers
- Experiencing situations in which team members can dedicate only a portion of their time to the team (p. 10)
These challenges are not insurmountable and can be addressed by developing leaders to have the necessary capacities and capabilities to perform effectively in their specific environment and conditions.
Just as with different face-to-face work structures and environments, there are specific best practices and techniques that can be more or less effective in a virtual setting. Duarte and Tennant-Snyder (1999) recognize seven basic types of unique virtual teams with members who work across distance, time, and organizational boundaries. These team types are:
- Networked teams – diffuse, fluid, and sometimes dissociated members collaborate to achieve a common goal
- Parallel teams – a short-term working team with a distinct membership which makes recommendations concerning a special function or task
- Project or product development teams – a decision-making team which exists for a defined period of time to produce a specific outcome
- Work or production teams – these are usually recognized as organizational units which have a specific regular and ongoing work function
- Service teams – these consist of multiple teams which function to provide around-the-clock operations
- Management teams – members are located globally but work collaboratively to lead an organization
- Action teams – members of these teams provide immediate responses when needed, often in emergency situations or short-term times of need (pp. 2-5)
It’s important regardless of the type of team that virtual team members are aware of, are prepared for, and understand the challenges that each situation and work dynamic presents. It is the leader’s responsibility to identify the type of teams they have, need, or want and to proceed accordingly.
Reflection Point – “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” ~ Babe Ruth
Boje, D. & Rhodes, C. (2005). The virtual leader construct: The mass mediatization and simulation of transformational leadership. Leadership, 1, 407-428.
Caulat, G. (2006, August). Virtual leadership. The Ashridge Journal.
DeRosa, D. (2009). Virtual success: The keys to effectiveness in leading from a distance. Leadership in Action, 28(6), 9-11.
Duarte, D. & Tennant-Snyder, N. (1999). Mastering virtual teams: Strategies, tools, and techniques that succeed.
Zhang, S., Fjermestad, J., & Tremaine, M. (2005). Leadership styles in virtual team context: Limitations, solutions and propositions. Proceeding of the 38th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.