virtual leader

Virtual Leadership: Knowing When to Step Back

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People don’t work for a company, they work for a person. Therefore, great care must be taken to foster interpersonal relationships between leaders and team members. In the virtual world that can be especially difficult because of the physical distance and the lessened ability to fully observe body language. Leaders must be able to engender trust between team members such that they can be trusted to work independently. Once trust can be firmly established between teams, a team leader will be able to step back with full confidence in his or her team.

Trust has several forms: “Transactional trust,” based on actions and deeds, can be developed by a good leader who follows through with tasks and commitments, thus encouraging team members to do so as well. “Relational trust,” based on interpersonal relationships, is harder to foster in the virtual environment, but is nonetheless important in creating a cohesive team.

In the virtual arena especially, leaders must accept that you don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, there are more variables and unknowns when dealing with global teams whose habits, customs, or expectations may be counter to yours. You may be surprised by the multitude of reactions that arise among team members from different cultures and backgrounds. A good leader knows which issues to address and which to step back from. For example, how important is it to be copied on every email sent? Or do you just need to know the end result?

So what is a virtual leader to do to bridge this distance and form the trusting bonds necessary to create a dynamic team?

1.  Know Thyself

Fundamentally, a virtual leader must live by the phrase “know thyself.” Good leadership requires introspection: in order to be an effective leader you have to understand your leadership style. Are you a micromanager? In a virtual environment you will have a hard time looking over your employees’ shoulders. Or, is your style more laissez-faire? While this may appear more suited to virtual leadership, you have to able to read what your team needs in order to know when to step in.

Knowing thyself entails knowing your values and what you want out of your team. Once you know what you want, you are more likely to express it clearly to them.

A good leader will practice what they preach: make yourself trustworthy so you can expect it from others.

2.  Know Thy People

In virtual conferences, check-in questions will help you get to know each team member on a human level, thus bridging the geographical distance separating you, while establishing relational trust. Knowing your team members on a personal level will help you understand better how to interact with them: giving direction, eliciting feedback, motivating them, etc. and will aid in establishing transactional trust. Furthermore, knowing your people is knowing what skills they bring to the table, helping you to lead them in a more advantageous manner.

Have your team earn your trust. Once your expectations have been made clear to them, they will be able to work to your specifications with greater success.

In order to work virtually there must be a large amount of reciprocal trust, which you as a leader are responsible for initiating.

3.  Know Thy Resources

You must accept that you can’t control everything: you have to embrace the differences between a virtual and co-located team. A virtual leader’s role is more to guide things, not control them. You are a resource to your team but not the sole resource. Ask yourself: have I done an adequate job of equipping my team? Do they know whom to reach out to when issues inevitably arise? This is even more important in the individually-driven virtual environment.

Often your role as a leader is knowing when to step back and allow your team to learn independence, knowing you’ve equipped them properly. Allow your team to risk failing. When you learn to step back it will allow your team members to learn and grow and become more independent. You may find that the adage “we learn wisdom from failure much more than from success” to be true.

When trust is well established between a team and their leader, the leader should be able to step back comfortably, trusting in his management of his team and in his team itself. Virtually, the best leader–having an understanding of his team and their abilities–will know when his leadership is needed or not. If you can rest assured that your team is capable and equipped from a skill and research perspective, your job as a leader will go a long way to being fulfilled.

Question for Readers: How do you know when to step back and when to step in when leading your virtual team?