Yikes. How do I lead a virtual team?


The topic of leadership in virtual teams is increasingly popular, so this conversation requires a few definitions. Leadership can be defined as the act of influencing others through socially acceptable behaviors that encourage desired behavior and the pursuit of a common goal. Virtual teams can be defined as (1) physically dispersed people, (2) using some digital connectivity process or software, (3) with a shared task or outcome, and (4) some groupware, hardware or computer-mediated communication (CMC).  An example would be four authors collaborating to design a website. The focus of this conversation topic is an exploration of leadership in virtual teams.


Research findings

Leading virtual teams has become a popular topic, with research focused on  how virtual teams differ from face-to-face teams in terms of coordination, communication and collaboration (Malhotra, Majchrzak & Rosen, 2007). Special consideration  has been placed on communication technologies needed to facilitate virtual work and knowledge sharing; however, the skills required to lead teams that have both geographic dispersion and innovation problem-solving challenges have received little research attention to date.

Researchers tend to agree that leaders of all teams, whether geographically dispersed or collocated, need to be engaged.  Virtual teams are required to solve problems, adopt a range of responsibilities, including articulating a vision for the team, communicating that vision with passion, setting the executive plan and forming coalitions (Malhotra et al, 2007). Hence, leaders of virtual teams face some of the same issues as leaders of collocated teams. All teams struggle to maintain engagement levels when solving problems. However, leaders of collocated teams have the advantage of physical observation and can correct ineffective behaviors, or detect when the team needs a direct meeting to rebuild momentum, or when teams need to redirect resources; virtual team leaders do not have the same power of physical observation (Malhotra et al, 2007).

Virtual team leaders must establish norms, overcome team member feelings of isolation, build cohesion and motivate team members to make a major commitment to the team’s mission.  Malhotra et al, 2007 recommend six practices for effective virtual team leaders, which are: (1) establish and maintain trust through the use of communication technology, (2) ensure that diversity in the team is understood, appreciated and leveraged, (3) manage virtual work cycle and meetings, (4) monitor team progress through the use of technology, (5) enhance external visibility of the team and its members and (6) ensure individuals benefit from participating in virtual teams.

Kayworth and Leidner (2002) identify effective virtual leaders as those who demonstrate the capability to deal with paradox and contradiction by performing multiple leadership roles simultaneously while demonstrating a high degree of empathy toward team members. They also state that highly effective virtual team leaders should adopt a mentoring role and assert their authority without being overbearing or inflexible (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002). Finally, an effective virtual team leader must be efficient at providing regular, detailed and prompt communication with subordinates and peers when articulating role relationships among the virtual team. One conclusion from this research is the critical need for virtual leaders to model engagement in the work process, as well as optimism that the team members can complete the tasks as required.


Gaps in the research

A notable gap in the research to date is the ability of leaders to develop and maintain engagement for members in virtual teams. Most team members are familiar with direct face-to-face contact, direct relationship building, trust development and subsequent knowledge sharing.  Virtual team processes and technology may be less familiar to many team members.  Several studies have examined the role of knowledge sharing and the impact of IT on the engagement of virtual team members, but the studies to date have focused on the dichotomy of virtual teams communicating through technology versus collocated teams not utilizing technology as their primary form of communication. The field would benefit from further examination into the leadership styles, competencies and activities that develop and support engagement and knowledge sharing in virtual teams on a continuous (e.g., what type of IT, frequency of use, level of use, level of user training, level of IT support, availability of technical assistance) rather than dichotomous (e.g., have or have not) basis.


Practical application

  1.  Engagement surveys. Multiple vendors and researchers have validated engagement surveys that help to assess engagement levels within teams. Examples include pulse surveys, exit surveys, customer engagement surveys, employee satisfaction surveys. It is imperative that leadership is fully engaged in the team, and both expects and nurtures engaged team members. For details for additional consulting, please contact any of the authors of this blog.
  2.  Executive coaching. All leaders need to periodically objectively review their strengths, leadership behaviors and their derailers – the behaviors that prevent them from being effective leaders. Most organizations now expect managers to coach direct reports, which sometimes leads to a conflict of interest and lack of confidentiality. The advantage of internal coaches is cost effectiveness and alignment with organizational goals. The advantage of external coaches is objectivity, best practice knowledge from global clients and the capacity for global scale. All leaders need to invest in and be active practitioners of their leadership skills.

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Kayworth, T. R., & Leidner, D. E. (2002). Leadership effectiveness in global virtual teams. Journal of Management Information Systems, 18(3), 7-40.


Malhotra, A., Majchrzak, A., & Rosen, B. (2007). Leading virtual teams. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 21(1), 60-70.