Traditionally, leaders have been at the center of a community, be it work, church, or social groups. In these communities, face-to-face meetings and close personal interaction have dominated the way leaders interact with their members. However, with the advent of the internet and the host of communication tools that followed, teams today are becoming increasingly dispersed and diverse. Studies are now being done to understand how leadership has or should evolve in order to meet the changing needs and demands of these new and different communities.
When a new virtual team is created, it typically begins as nothing more than a collection of
individuals. The leader’s role from the start is to develop these individuals into a coherent and well integrated work unit that provides the capability for the team to self manage itself. To achieve this, leaders must create a team orientation, which includes motivational and team bonding factors such as establishing a common goal, creating ground rules and shaping perceptions.
Challenges for a Virtual Leader
- Lack of Trust. Team members are likely to share less about themselves through electronic channels. The more personal the information, the more likely they are to share it through only face-to-face channels. This is because people seek out the non-verbal cues that are associated with in-person communication. These losses also complicate the rebuilding of trust. Leaders that incorporate a significant “getting to know you” component and, if possible, a face-to-meeting, can also help establish swift trust by connecting everyone at the start of a project. When this isn’t possible, the incorporation of pictures and/or biographies can help (e.g. background, hobbies, childhood aspiration, greatest accomplishment).
- Increased Diversity. Virtual teams present greater complexity due to expanded geographies, time zones, cultures, languages, laws, regulations, and business processes. Different communication methods and project strategies may be required when working across geographical borders.
- Blurred Line between “Work” and “Life”. Having team members spread across time zones requires significant planning and may include early morning or late night conference calls. The leader needs to seek an optimum way of making sure work gets done without over-compromising on life outside of his work.
Competencies of a Virtual Leader
- Communication. Cultivating relationships is a top managerial competency. The ability to communicate effectively is a core competency for any leader, but especially critical for a virtual leader who is limited to communication through technology. Minute details such as frequency of communication and a leader’s responsiveness to problems is central to effective communication. Virtual leaders must also be able to provide crystal clear goals and objectives that their team members can understand. These will enhance individual self regulation and allow team members to monitor and evaluate their own performance on a regular basis. Providing such clarity is definitely more difficult in a virtual setting and thus a more significant challenge for virtual team leaders.
- Listener. Popular leaders are said to be good listeners, understanding and sensitive to schedules and team opinions. They have the ability to listen and hear what cannot be seen. This includes an acute awareness of the team, its overall mission, its strengths, weakness, and group dynamics. Not only do leaders need to have this awareness but they also need to create awareness in the team. A lack of awareness in virtual team members can lead to ineffective outcomes and a loss of group synergies. Virtual leaders must be able to carefully assess group dynamics and make management adjustments based on observation, listening and regular assessment of group dynamics. This process is once again made challenging through the need to gather the information through limited virtual communication tools.
- Tech-savvy. An effective virtual leader needs to be able to utilize the latest technology available, and, when necessary, to educate the team on their proper uses. Leadership in virtual teams is expressed through technology. Which tools a leaders chooses to use will have a large impact on the team’s performance, team relationships, and team efficiency.
- Open-minded. Open-mindedness, flexibility, interest in and sensitivity toward other cultures, ability to deal with complexity, resilience, optimism, energy, and honesty are all qualities that allow virtual leaders to continue to work well in complex and unique environments where change is constant and probably more common-place than for traditional co-located teams. Global leaders must be able to deal with such complexity and be prepared to make strategic decisions in constantly evolving environments.These characteristics also allows them to work in a variety of settings, with diverse types of people and with a willingness to listen to new ideas from their team members. Global leaders also need to display an interest and sensitivity in new cultures. A healthy curiosity about people, their lives and work that is void of judgment will allow them to be empathetic and get along well with others.
- International. A global leader that has substantial experience in multiple countries and cultures during the early stages of their career will be able to relate much better to their team members that are geographically diverse.
Read our other blogs on this study:
Part 3: Virtual Leadership