Virtual Team Leadership is Different
By: Sam Heiter, Mary Lou Jurgens, Stefanie Heiter
Is a virtual conflict still a conflict? If it is only there virtually it is easier to ignore. Ignoring virtual conflict, however, makes it all the more insidious and more necessary for leaders to recognize and address. Conflict in any team decreases morale but on a virtual team, it also leads to barriers between teammates and these barriers lead to lowered productivity. Our globalized world has led to many advances but the increased presence of virtual work can also lead to greater potential conflict among team members. Today’s leader must understand the fundamental differences between leading a traditional team and leading a virtual team and adjust their methods accordingly.
Managing conflict is especially difficult for virtual teams because of the differences in geography, culture, and context. Differences in culture and the problems brought on by physical distance between team members compounds the problems teams already face. For example, communication is inherently less frequent and less effective across large distances, and therefore, team relationships form weaker ties. As technology often dehumanizes relationships, leaders of virtual teams must actively work to re-humanize them, and help team members to overcome the barriers distance puts up.
When team members are scattered across many different time zones it makes synchronous discussions significantly more difficult, as everyone has their own “normal” office hours that frequently don’t match up with others’. More importantly, however, distance removes a sense of shared context so team members are less aware of issues their coworkers are having. While it is far easier to ignore this distance and the subsequent barriers, successful virtual leaders know that communication efforts need to be redoubled and team members need to be encouraged to spend the time to get to know their virtual teammates.
What is context? Context is the extent to which the team environment and structure supports the “how” of working together. It includes having the right people on the team; clarifying roles; trust; shared sense of vision; and purposeful inclusion of every team member. Context is the glue that holds every kind of team together, and without which, a virtual team cannot sustain alignment or productivity. As in-person team often shares and understands its fundamental context on a subconscious level. The process of osmosis enables people to adjust their own work and vision according to the work and vision of the people around them. A shared context is not possible on a virtual team without deliberate and purposeful attention from the leader.
Context and conflict are partners in crime in the virtual team setting.
An astute virtual leader must approach virtual leadership differently. Virtual team members need to be able to articulate their specific roles and need to stay formally aligned. Leaders must pay attention because conflict is not necessarily brought to attention in a virtual environment. Once a conflict does manifest itself the underlying causes will have been festering long before the outbreak.
When conflict does rather inevitably arise and come to the attention of the leader there is a three-fold approach towards conflict resolution, which has worked for our leadership clients in the past: First, perform triage: assess the problems and determine which ones take priority and actions to resolve it. Second, analyze the current conflict and establish a “lessons learned.” What went wrong in the first place? What have we learned from this? Third, after the underlying problems are understood, steps can be taken to address what can be done better in the future to mitigate conflict. For example, if your team was out of alignment because each person had a different vision of what the end-goal was, establish frequent check-in times to be sure that everyone shares the same vision as time goes on.
Virtual teams, when properly led, can feel just as close as the next office away, but leaders must be attentive to potential points of conflict. Good virtual leaders need to adjust their methods to managing the sometimes sensitive needs of a virtual team.
Next week we’ll take a closer look at recognizing conflict in virtual teams.
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Finally, question for Readers: What are your experiences with conflict within the virtual team setting?