virtual leadership

Global Village: Signs of Conflict in Your Global Team

By: Sam Heiter and Mary Lou Jurgens


Working together on a project may take a village, but dealing with conflict definitely takes the whole village. So what do you do when that village is scattered across the globe?

Recognizing conflict in the virtual arena is harder than for an in-person team, but all the more necessary to diagnose. Given the distances between people, misunderstandings proliferate more easily, virtual team members have an increased chance of miscommunicating via methods such as email, and there’s a decreased chance of building trust. Further, by the time a conflict amongst virtual team members manifests itself to the team leader, the root of the problem has a long trail, which has long lain dormant. Such conflict silences valuable opinions on the project at hand, decreases job fulfillment, and hinders productivity.

Within an in-person team, you can immediately sense when someone is being ostracized, even slightly, by the body language and actions of others. There is, however, carryover of these skills to a virtual team setting. For example, in both in-person and virtual meetings, perhaps a certain member isn’t asked to participate with the same frequency as in the past; or when they do speak, other members’ eyes roll or their remarks are met with steely silence. If you are observant and aware that a change in participation habits is a red flag, you can observe that change; but what is the equivalent “virtual eye roll” in a distributed team? The virtual eye roll is highly subtle, and begins with taking note of the way your team typically interacts with one another.

A virtual team leader must be ever vigilant of nascent signs of barriers going up between team members. Signs of virtual ostracism include individuals’ names suddenly being left off of relevant group emails; or suddenly a lot of extra people being added to the “cc” section of direct email to said person.  The action of adding names to the “cc” list often indicates that the sender is putting up a barrier between themselves and the recipient of the email, and is seeking out witnesses to communications that cannot be avoided. The sender may be feeling pressured or intimidated in some way, or simply so frustrated they want to bring others into help.  Changes in emailing patterns is a red flag that virtual leaders need to be aware of, moreso than leaders of traditional teams who have the added advantage of direct observation.

As barriers develop, people tend to create new or “secret” communication paths to circumvent direct interaction with whomever this barrier is with. This could take the form of an email thread or discussion, about which the rest of the team simply isn’t informed; or when questions are asked about someone’s work indirectly instead of asking them directly. This is a red flag that often takes the village to recognize as the leader may not be privy to these paths.  It is important, however, especially as decisions are made without including all the expected and relevant participants. 

In virtual meetings, some signs of barriers are exactly the same as in face-to-face meetings — people aren’t called on as frequently as the situation warrants, or as frequently as they used to be. When the person in question finally does offer an opinion, they may be interrupted, ignored, or talked over. On the other side of the barrier, signs exist in the form of the ostrasized person talking more or less in a meeting — they may feel compelled to get everything out in a rush, or to withdraw from participating. Their tone of voice often changes, and those changes depend on the personality behind them. Some people become less confidant and softer, more questioning in tone; other become more aggressive or sarcastic. While changes in tone are relatively easy to pick up on, the tricky part in a virtual meeting is to identify when the changes in participation are deliberate and when they are due to technology. A savvy virtual leader is aware of when technology difficulties are at fault, and when the pattern of behavior is different enough to raise a red flag, and to investigate further.

Technology increases the difficulty of recognizing conflict between virtual teammates. Beyond virtual meetings, technology issues may be used to cover up sub-par work behaviors created by someone experiencing conflict; thus, a disaffected member many not follow through on commitments or deadlinesWhile we all experience technology glitches and setbacks, if these problems are cited as an excuse disproportionately often, it may be an indication of disengagement due to a conflict-driven barrier going up. 

Finally, communication is the lifeblood of any virtual team. Any communication quiet-down—or “going dark”—can be a death knell to team cohesiveness and therefore productivity. The astute virtual leader must know how to interpret people’s silence. Is silence due to deep concentration — someone immersing themselves in their task — or is it something else? Whatever the root cause, silence must be heard and understood by both the leader and the team as a whole.

In a high functioning virtual team, a team leader’s role can’t be that of a micro-manager. To combat conflict proactively, a team leader must foster a working environment that encourages open dialogue on points of disagreement; and therefore, quashes unnecessary conflict before it can take hold. Leaders must not only learn to recognize these signs themselves, but talk openly about them with the entire team. Through careful observation, the virtual leader and the virtual team will become aware of the warning signs of conflict and be better able to investigate early to determine whether there is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Question for readers: What are signs of barriers in your virtual team? What did you do to overcome?




Bridging Conflict in Global Teams

tug of war

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.communication

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.

Research Opportunity for Virtual leaders and virtual workers:  Please take a minute to help us out by taking our super-short survey (pinky promise — it’s short!)!


Finally, question for Readers: What are your experiences with conflict within the virtual team setting?

When Only a Few are Virtual


Meeting When Not All are Present

You’re at a meeting–well, virtually. You’ve dialed in to a meeting with 6 or so members of your team who work physically together. They are sitting around the conference table with the squawk box (Polycom may be the technical term for it) in the center. The meeting starts out orderly but as the meeting progresses it devolves into clamour as spirited members attempt to speak over one another. Though it may be a productive discussion for those physically present, for you as a virtual participant it’s too hard to follow who’s talking, let alone jump in, so you retreat to finishing work tasks, checking email, scanning Facebook, or playing Tetris on your phone.

This scene may seem all too familiar.

The internet is replete with tips for running in-person meetings and for running virtual meetings. So what do you do when only some of your participants are virtual — when you have both in-person and remote attendees? All too often, what happens in such a “blended meeting” is that the virtual participants struggle to keep up with those who are physically present. Once you have even one person dialing in, in order for that member to be able to participate fully, and for your meeting to successfully accomplish its goals, you must understand that your meeting needs to be approached differently. A blended meeting is neither a virtual meeting, nor an in-person meeting. These “somewhere in the middle” meetings require their own framework; otherwise, your meeting will turn into an in-person meeting with a few lost souls trapped hopelessly in the ether!

There are different schools of thought on how best to approach a blended meeting. One school dictates that colocated team members should stay at their desks and dial in, even though it may seem easier to gather together around one speaker in a conference room. This levels the playing field for all participants. However, another school of thought is that forcing in-office team members to attend virtually would ruin the “synergy” or “juju” (they’re synonyms, trust me) of the meeting; and therefore the onus is on the virtual attendees to do their best to stay engaged with the rest of the group.

Promoting a meeting environment hospitable to virtual participants requires a concerted effort from all members. The most important thing a team can do is agree together on rules of engagement AND commit to follow them. Begin with a brainstorm of what rules ought to be followed for your particular team. Below are some best practices to get you started.

 1. Alternate the meeting format

The best solution is for the blended meeting to alternate between being conducted entirely virtually and conducted with both colocated and virtual attendees. Alternate between conducting your meetings with everyone dialing in, and conducting them with only the remote people dialing in. This will help everyone to understand the difficulties of being virtual, and this understanding will improve all meetings.

2. Eliminate side conversations.

When people at a meeting indulge in a conversation of their own, one that is unrelated to the matter at hand, one that the virtual attendees cannot see, it leads to feelings of exclusion. If virtual attendees don’t understand the context of comments, there are more opportunities for misinterpretation, especially if there is not a sufficient amount of trust amongst team members or they do not yet know each other well. Furthermore, side conversations are simply distracting!

3. Say your name before saying your piece — Every time.

While it may seem tedious, especially if the team has been working together a long time and know each other well, saying your name before you speak will immensely help virtual participants keep track of the unfolding conversation. It requires a fair bit of mindfulness because, as meetings progress, participants are inclined to dispense with the formality to the detriment of those who cannot identify the speaker.

4. Work — actively — to include those not in the room.

Mindfulness is key. Be aware when virtual attendees have been silent too long and elicit their feedback. Actively call on them by name. Engage them. Leave silence and space for them to talk. Articulate what’s happening in the room for them: who’s leaving, who’s arriving. Consider sending them a picture of what is happening. 

5. Provide name tags.

Place name tents or some other sort of name tag of the virtual attendees on the conference table (with photos is ideal). This helps to remind those who are in the room that the virtual participants are there, too.

6. Revisit your rules of engagement.

Pull out those agreements every 4 to 6 weeks and see if you are really following them and if not, why not? Change them if you need to — the key is to keep the conversation going.  Working together to establish your own rules of engagement is a good thing. Consider bringing in someone from the outside to help evaluate how you are doing.

If everyone actively works to include virtual participants and elicit their thoughts, they’ll have no more excuses to shut their eyes, mute their speakers, and power nap during the meetings.

P.S.  And just don’t rustle papers in front of the microphone!


Question for readers:  What suggestions do you have for running good blended meetings?


Virtual Leadership: Knowing When to Step Back


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?

Getting Off Your Virtual Island


Creating the “Human Moment” in Virtual Teams

As the poet, John Donne wrote, “no man is an island… every man is a part of the main.”  If you are part of a virtual team, you likely know the feeling of being an island adrift within your organization.

Virtual teams are everywhere.  Technology makes it possible for us to work together from wherever we are located.  Corporations benefit from hiring specific talent, regardless of geography.

But some things get lost in this “virtual environment.”  Increasingly, we are becoming islands as we enter into the virtual work force; or become part of a virtual team.

One of the usual first casualties of a virtual team is the “human connection” with one another.  We see our teammates’ names in our inboxes, we may hear and see them at our audio and video meetings, but too often, they remain disconnected and somehow “not real” to us.  We don’t really know them, and they don’t really know us. This lack of human connection hinders creativity, innovation, satisfaction, and performance — all the things critical to achieving professional success.

Traditionally,  co-located teams fostered “water cooler moments” (informal communications) through careful design — communal break rooms; couches; hanging out after work; going for lunch; and in those early-meeting moments before things got down to business.

The challenge becomes — how do we transpose that same purposeful design into the virtual workplace? What, exactly, is needed from leadership, to encourage and foster the human connection in virtual teams?  Read on!

Thoughtful Virtual Design that Creates the “Human Moment”


1.  Encourage Teammates to Communicate Spontaneously

This requires everyone being aware of each other’s availability.  The most successful type of spontaneous conversation are through some form of instant messaging.  Every platform has some kind of team chat function, even though you may have to dig to find it.  Set everyone up.  Encourage people to share their coffee cups, the view from their windows, the weather, their breakfast, etc.. Research indicates that as virtual teams develop patterns of communication, new communicative behavior emerges that often exceeds the value of face to face communications.

2.  It Must be Easy to Use

“Behavioral cost” must be low.  This is just a fancy way of saying “the amount of effort required to initiate and conduct” a conversation must be minimal in order for people to keep doing it.  Let’s just say it needs to be easy or people won’t use it.

3.  Leverage Technology’s Uniqueness

People on virtual teams will initiate conversation regardless of the receiver’s ability to respond.  Unlike face to face, where people use visual cues to know whether to initiate or not, technology makes starting a conversation easier.  Just now, I broadcast a “Happy Thursday” across my virtual team chat.. we will see who responds!

As unlikely as it sounds, document sharing has proven to be helpful in both initiating and maintaining virtual conversations. I think it just gives everyone “permission” to chat about something that is centered on a task, with acceptable digressions into chit chat.

4. Give Permission

The most important factor to creating and maintaining that human connection in our technology-laden world is the express “permission” by leadership for everyone to take the time to engage with one another in non-task related conversation.

Encourage your team, take the reins in initiating essential human moments between yourself and your team, and your team with one another. Watch as your virtual team gels together and establishes behaviors that lead to increased team performance and satisfaction. Be the bridge that connects your islands.



Question for readers:  Do you feel comfortable engaging in informal conversation with your virtual teammates? Why or why not?

Stop Wasting My Time!

simplify meetings

Simplify Your Meetings

Meetings waste time.  This is not an opinion, this is a fact.  The statistics for the average knowledge worker in the US are shocking:

  • 62 meetings / month
  • 50% of time wasted in each one
  • 31 hours of productivity time per month per person
  • 4 working days wasted per month, per person.

Look at your team.  Look at your own schedule.  Ouch.  How do we break this cycle of loss? The obvious advice of simply “having less meetings” and encouraging people to work independently is a good start, but meetings are inevitable in most organizations.

Here’s how to take the next step to turn those inevitable meetings into something meaningful, productive worthwhile.

Invite the Right People – and Only the Right People

Ask Yourself:  Who needs to be involved?

Create a list of the people who are key to the task at hand (not anyone who is simply interested or to whom the task is important — just those who are critical).   Trust us — you aren’t going to offend someone for not inviting them to a meeting they don’t belong at.  You are doing them a favor by not wasting their time.  And, incidentally, you will have a better meeting without them. (If they are offended, then you have a different sort of problem that needs your leadership direction.)

Refine Your List:  Go through it again with the goal of simplifying and reducing further.

Ask:  who will have an active role in this meeting? Who is essential to the purpose of the meeting?  And that’s it.  There’s your list.  Stick to it and see how productivity and creativity soars when small groups of the right people work together (read this compelling story of one person’s experience with meetings at Apple).

Make “OPTIONAL” optional!

Be sure people know that “TO” means come and “OPTIONAL” means it’s optional.  Actually optional.  As in, you aren’t needed in the meeting, but maybe you need to know that the meeting is happening, or you just need the results, not the process of getting the result. Feel free to opt out without so much as a single stink-eye from anyone.

Communicate expectations.

In addition to understanding why YOU want each person at the meeting, make sure that THEY know why they are coming & what you expect them to contribute.

Keep your meetings small.  Each person you add decreases the effectiveness of your meeting and the overall productivity of your team and organization.  Small groups will accomplish greater things when they aren’t bogged down by those that don’t belong.  And, those that don’t belong at your meeting belong somewhere else where they are essential.

Photo credit:  LeadershipFreak
What are your experiences with inviting fewer people to meetings or attending meetings that you simply didn’t beong at?

Virtual Team Fairness


Virtual Teams — The Future of Work

We work in a rapidly evolving environment.  Gone are the days in which everyone worked within the same building; gathered around the same whiteboard; and decided important things around the water cooler.

Today, nearly all knowledge-based workforces span the globe.

It is a tragic misstep to believe that simply replacing traditional in-person communications with equally synchronous virtual communications will yield the same results.  The challenge for leadership is to resist the old, yet comfortable and familiar ways of leading and assessing global teams.  Methods that rely heavily upon subjective, anecdotal, and observational means simply don’t work across distance.

There are aspects of your virtual team that are undoubtedly unique.  Each company, each industry, each team develops in its own quirky way.  Generally speaking, however, our experience has shown us that there are several key areas in which virtual team management commonly differs from in-house teams.  We’ll share one of them here:

Perception of Fairness Between Virtual and in-house Teams

Most teams are a blend of people located with you and those located remotely.  Our experience has shown time and time again that those far away perceive a preference for those located with the leader.  There may or may not be an actual preference, but they will think there is, and that’s an insidious feeling that you need to address.

Leaders often respond with a knee-jerk denial of this possibility.  They would “know” if their team felt dissatisfied.  In the past, that might be true — you would be able to look around the room and sense the unease within your team.  Short of having some  superhero ability that allows you to peek into your virtual team’s office when the cameras are off, you probably don’t know.

What you can do

1.  Make all meetings virtualglobal_meeting

Even for those located with you!  Having all attendees participating in the same way sends a subtle, but powerful message, that leadership holds all “teams” in equal standing, regardless of location.  Participating virtually when others are co-located is like watching a party through a window. It looks great and you feel left out.

2.  Send thanks to your team

Thanksgiving is a  uniquely North American holiday, but everyone appreciates being recognized for their contributions, and this holiday is a perfect example of an opportunity to do so, regardless of which part of the globe your team resides in.

Don’t limit this to your virtual team.  Thank everyone who works for you.  You will be amazed at how powerful this is for you as a leader and for all of those who work for you.

3. Thipastriesnk of your virtual team at holiday time

If you are planning an office holiday party, ask yourself how you could include the remote team.  Some possibilities:

    • Send every member of the virtual team a gift certificate to take their family out to dinner.
    • Provide a budget for a virtual team holiday party and designate someone local to create a party that is on par with your own.

4. Every now and then, send muffins

Or bagels, or donuts, or anything yummy to say “good morning, thinking of you.”  Everyone loves it when someone else brings in the decadent breakfast goodies.  Be that someone.


Question for readers:  What do you do to ensure your virtual team members feel included?

Managing Expectations of Your Virtual Team

steak expectations

Projects fail and discord occurs when someone’s expectations are not met. Yours, your team, your larger organization, or your customer.

The challenge becomes — were those expectations known?

When you go to a restaurant and order a steak, you have the expectation that the steak will be cooked to your specifications, let’s say medium-rare. This is your expectation. To the waiter this is a requirement. To the chef this is a requirement. But there is another, unspoken expectation — a process expectation — that you will get your steak within a reasonable amount of time, not tomorrow or even two hours from placing the order.

This example has the stated expectation / requirement of how the steak is cooked AND the unstated expectation that it be done in a reasonable amount of time, and presented to you beautifully.

Both expectations are end-products. Both are “project” requirements. A deficiency in either one is going to lead to frustration and disappointment.

Consider your own current project. What are the stated requirements? What are the unstated requirements? If you are not managing these expectations, you are reacting and running your team on a wing and a prayer.

Ask yourself — what are the issues that are currently driving you nuts? More than likely, there are several unspoken expectations that are not being met. They seem obvious to you, but clearly not to others. Chances are, other people have different unspoken expectations that you aren’t meeting and are driving them nuts over, too.

Happens all the time. But it doesn’t have to, or, at least, we can strive to make it less.


Think about it. Talk about it.

Discuss with your team and develop a plan for the HOW aspect of working together. Having these “process” discussions early on in the project can save you valuable time and frustration as the project moves forward.

Specifically, on a virtual team, many of these unspoken expectations revolve around the frequency and quality of communications


  • Do all team members have the same understanding of how quickly an email response is required?
  • Do all team members have access and use some form of instant messaging?
  • How available for phone calls is your team?
  • Does everyone have the ability to “meet” with one other independantly via video whenever they feel the need to?

You, as a leader, have the expectation that your question will be answered.  Do you have an unspoken expectation of how quickly or through which medium that answer will be delivered?

When you are co-located with your team, many of these expectations are fulfilled as you pass each other by at work.  When you work virtually, these unspoken expectations have the potential to ript your team apart.

If there is something YOU truly need from someone, it is YOUR responsibility to speak up.

If there are things that your team needs from you, encourage them to bring it up with you.

Have you had this type of discussion with your team?  What has worked well for you?


3 Evidence-based Ways to Improve Virtual Team Leadership

Leading a team is hard.

Leading a team that is geographically scattered is way harder.

Everyone who has lead a distributed teams knows this.  Traditional, top-down, single-leader hierarchical leadership model diminishes in its effectiveness as distance increases.

Specifically, critical leadership functions, such as motivation, inspiration, and managing team dynamics become significantly more difficult as teams become more virtual.  Distance creates barriers to a leader’s ability to influence and supervise.

Today’s leader needs to figure out quickly how to overcome these barriers in order to lead effective virtual teams.

Thankfully, a recent large-scale study has figured this out for you.

Researchers from Michigan State University measured “team virtuality” along three scales:

    • Geographical distance
    • Level of media-based communications;
    • Cultural differences.

As each of these scales (or distances) grow, the effectiveness of traditional top-down leadership diminishes.

They theorized that structural supports would increase leadership influence and that shifting the leadership model to one of shared leadership would also improve team productivity.

Here’s what they found.


Structural Supports

Structural supports are the routines and policies that substitute for direct leadership influence to assist in regulating team dynamics and behaviors.  Researchers did not anticipate the increased impact these supports would have. The study revealed that “structural supports were more strongly related with team performance under increasing levels of team virtuality.”

In other words, the more virtual your team is — the more it is separated by geography, electronics, and culture — the more valuable these structural supports are in increasing leadership effectiveness as it relates to team performance.

There are two specific structural supports that mitigate diminishing leadership effectiveness across distance.  They are:

1.  Structural Supports — Reward System

A common structural support in any team is a reward system.  In virtual teams, the reward system takes on additional importance as virtual team members often feel anonymous and isolated from their virtual teammates.  These feelings of anonymity and isolation are frequently demotivating for virtual team members.

One clear way to counteract these feelings is to establish a transparent and fair reward system that provides open acknowledgment for people’s time and effort, as well as their final contribution to the the virtual team project.  Since most people work on more than one project at a time, this type of reward system has been proven to motivate people to put more into their virtual team project.

It is important to call out that the reward system must be both fair and transparent to all virtual team members in order for it to have a positive, motivating effect on virtual team performance.

2.  Structural Supports — Communications & Information Management Systems

Communications and information management systems impact the perception of distance between people.  Most virtual teams are comprised of knowledge-based workers.  The flow of communication and information is critical to each person’s ability to perform their job.  When knowledge is shared and teams are comprised of the necessary experts and they each have easy access to each other, performance increases.

Communications and Information Management systems facilitate:

  • Connectivity between virtual team members
  • Organization of information
  • Accessibility of information

Together, these supports diminish the naturally occurring reduced feelings of trust in virtual teams, as well as feelings of being anonymous, and feelings of low social interaction.

The research showed that as levels of virtuality increased, the importance of these structural supports also increased.  In other words — the more “virtual” your team — the more it is separated by distance, electronics, and culture, the more valuable these structural supports are in increasing leadership effectiveness and team performance.

3. Shared Leadership

Shared leadership is the extent to which team members behave in ways to prompt the team processes that underlie team performance.  In other words, when the burden of leadership is shared among team members, the team performs better as a whole.

Researchers anticipated that adjusting leadership style from top-down to shared would improve team performance.  The surprising finding was that the improvement occurred regardless of the degree of virtuality.

Shared leadership increased the stability of positive team performance regardless of the degree of distance involved.

This surprising lack of scalability indicates that this simple shift in leadership style will have a powerful, positive impact on teams with low levels of distance between members.


  1. Structural supports are the strongest mitigating factor in diminishing leadership effectiveness across virtual teams.  As virtuality increases, so does the importance and impact of structural supports.
  2. Structural supports that make a difference are:
    1. Reward systems that are both fair and transparent.
    2. Communications and Information Management systems that are reliable and transparent.
  3. Shared leadership contributes positively to team performance, regardless of degree of team virtuality.  It provides a consistent degree of performance improvement in all kinds of virtual teams.
Leading Virtual Teams: Hierarchial Leadership, Structural Supports, and Shared Team Leadersip.  Julia E. Hoch and Steve W.J. Kozlowski, Michigan State University, Journal of Applied Psychology, 2014, Vol. 99, No 3, 390-403.

Electronic Body Language — Beyond Etiquette!


When most of us hear the term “Electronic Body Language”, we think about being polite, clear, and concise in our electronic communications so that each message is received as intended. We think about email etiquette.

While this certainly matters, the bigger picture is the underlying assumptions that people make about YOU based on your virtual behaviors.  As technology replaces many face-to-face interactions, the ability to accurately interpret virtual behaviors is quickly becoming an essential workplace skill.  And yet, we tend to interact with others through virtual communications without much awareness (or concern) of the impressions we are making.

Our Electronic Body Language is our virtual presence – the judgements about competence and credibility we make about others, and vise versa, based on virtual habits.

The opportunities for misinterpretation transcend email etiquette. Consider the following:

  • What assumptions do we make about someone who doesn’t reply to an email, or who doesn’t capitalize or spell check?
  • What does it say about someone who shouts into a speaker-phone during a teleconference meeting (or who can’t seem to figure out how to “mute” and “unmute” properly?)
  • What happens to our confidence in a leader who can’t facilitate a virtual meeting well?
  • Does knowing highly personal information posted on social media sites about a colleague impact how you work together or your expectations about what that person can accomplish?

There are two distinct viewpoints to consider when setting out to align your true professional self and your projected virtual self.

  1. You must understand your audience and the associated distances between you and them with regards to geography, generation, culture, and job position.
  2. You must develop excellent virtual work skills and habits to avoid behaviors that impede the projection of your true self.

For example, if you are leading an offshore engineering team based in India, you must understand the different power structure in order to effectively communicate critical information like project scheduling.  Culturally, in India, people are highly deferential to authority and are unlikely to challenge your schedule, even if they see problems with it.  Knowing how to effectively communicate virtually with this team will be critical to the success of your project.  You may be aware of this distance in a theoretical manner, but you must also learn how to apply it in your day-to-day virtual communications.

When you lead a team that meets virtually and you are constantly scrambling for call-in information, or are constantly sending incorrect information because your team is spread out over time zones, then you are presenting yourself as disorganized (at best), or lacking commitment or competency (at worst).  On a more subtle level, if you do not know how to interpret and manage silence in a virtual meeting, your meeting is not going to be a productive as it should be and, again, you are going to project an image that is not flattering.

You are the right person for the task at hand, and the best candidate for the leadership role you aspire to (or have).  When you develop and maintain solid virtual behaviors then your Electronic Body Language will accurately reflect how amazing you are, and will be an asset to your overall career development.

Consider your own Electronic Body Language.  What is something you have noticed or changed that could help someone else?