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Joyce A. Thompsen, Ph.D.  |  09/01/2000

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Leading Virtual Teams

Five essential skills will help you lead any project— no matter how distant

Efficient participation in today's economy demands high reliance on effective leadership of technical and support teams whose members are scattered across many geographic boundaries. There are unique and distinctive requirements for leadership attention in the virtual project team or remote management situation, where individuals who share responsibilities for common goals reside in geographically dispersed locations.

Key findings from both research and best practices across many industries reveal that effective distance leadership includes the typical fundamentals for leading people and managing resources in a traditional office environment.

However, difficulties in the traditional environment can be significantly magnified in the virtual or remote situation. Difficulty with communicating; working together; and producing high-quality, on-time results is typically heightened by distance. Effective leaders need to quickly, confidently and competently diagnose such issues and take deliberate actions to keep project team relationships, productivity and outcomes on track. There is even more emphasis on the use of appropriate communications skills to fit the needs of the people and the situation.

There are five core categories of effective leadership skills in virtual project team or distance-management situations:

  • Communicating effectively and using technology that fits the situation
  • Building community, based on mutual trust, respect, fairness and affiliation, among project team members
  • Establishing clear and inspiring shared goals, expectations, purpose and vision
  • Leading by example with a focus on visible, measurable results
  • Coordinating/collaborating across organizational boundaries

Research also reveals a profile for employees who operate well in virtual project team situations. When possible, it's advisable to select team members who already demonstrate these characteristics or who are willing and able to develop them quickly. Employees tend to be more comfortable and effective if they are capable of performing the core tasks for their roles; self-disciplined; goal-directed; flexible; collaborative; willing to share and exchange information; open to feedback, change, differences in people and culture, ways of thinking, other discipline models or signature skills, and alternative approaches to processes; committed and connected to the business; and competent in using technology required for their roles.

Communicating effectively

Communicating effectively is the key with virtual project teams. In distance situations, effective communication requires careful attention to listening, presenting one's own thoughts and ideas as clearly as possible, focusing on conveying positive and constructive intent, choosing the right technology to quickly and sensitively express a clear message, and taking extra care to respectfully ensure understanding and expectations for action. It includes important feedback loops and networking and often requires daily contact during especially fast-changing times.

Effectively communicating in a virtual project team also necessitates careful diagnosis of any given situation to discern not only the task or work objective in question but also the emotional content (obvious or hidden) within the situation. It requires deliberate attention to the needs of the project team members and their desire for action or a remedy in a timely and sensitive manner. An especially effective technique is establishing ground rules that meet the needs of the project team and its leader.

The following are observable leadership actions for communicating effectively with a virtual project team:

  • Modeling the organization's values and members' ground rules in all communications
  • Choosing a method of communication that best fits the mutual needs of members and the situation
  • Applying a communication technology that best fits the needs of the situation
  • Helping all members apply available communication technology with confidence
  • Formulating specific objectives and an organized delivery plan for communications
  • Linking messages to the members' shared purpose, goals and performance contributions to results
  • Encouraging all members of a conversation to participate fully
  • Engaging in proactive listening
  • Verifying team members' understanding of the message and expectations for action
  • Guiding communications to achieve a positive and constructive outcome
  • Conducting coaching and feedback in ways that convey respect and support

Communication within a virtual project team setting requires careful consideration of two factors. First, the effective leader determines which communication method is appropriate for the situation and adheres to the project team's ground rules. Then, the leader chooses the technology form (if any) that fits best or is preferred by the team members.

Effective skills for leading from a distance emphasize the importance of strategically using face-to-face communication. This is an especially important choice when the project team needs to establish and build trust. It's also an important choice when particularly sensitive news or feedback needs to be delivered to an individual or the project team.

Face-to-face communication can be used as an antidote to anxiety, loss of group cohesion, self-doubt, over-sensitivity to an issue, under-performance, alienation from other members, restlessness, distrust, dissatisfaction, paranoia, indecision, confusion, worry, disconnection, mental fatigue, ambiguity, burnout and social isolation. In addition, face-to-face communication can be very helpful in developing sensitivity to diversity of all types. It's important for social contracting, bonding and realizing the benefits of human contact on performance. In all of these cases, there is high emotional content. Face-to-face communication, when properly positioned and managed, can build community and connections to the business.

Building community

Another key for effectively leading from a distance is building community among the members of the project team. A sense of community includes demonstration of sensitivity to differences, establishing and adhering to ground rules, project team etiquette or agreement among the members for how the team will work together.

It's essential to begin establishing mutual trust between members at the beginning of a work relationship. Trust is fragile, and it requires clarity of intent. Over time, actions that fulfill any commitments tend to solidify the trust. This is especially important for virtual project team members who have diverse signature skills or represent different technical disciplines. While people with differing modes of thinking are now frequently chosen for accelerated product development teams to stimulate creative tension and produce heightened creativity and innovation, the effective leader should consider an initial face-to-face meeting to purposefully orient the members toward a constructive intent built on community and trust.

For example, an international, privately held software development firm with multiple virtual product development and project support teams began to miss critical development deadlines with key customers. Management uncovered and addressed specific roadblocks to their mutual sense of community and trust and quickly helped the teams get back on schedule.

Trust is also essential to social contracting, especially among knowledge workers. It often begins or grows when knowledge is willingly shared. It requires reciprocity (i.e., mutual trust.) Consistent, positive and respectful interactions among the members can create a strong bond of trust that unites the community.

The perception of fairness is another important element. As members observe day-to-day activity, they naturally form opinions about the fairness of any given situation. An action or situation that prompts members to perceive unfairness can directly affect their desire to contribute effort and support to the project team and its goals. If there is a perceived hint of bias, cultural insensitivity or unethical or unbalanced treatment of others, the typical reaction is to skeptically with- hold or reserve full effort and creativity.

The need for affiliation in building community is also essential. The strong human need for belonging, identifying with a respected group, pursuing a worthy objective or noble purpose with colleagues, and cultivating some level of bonding is important for overcoming social isolation, alienation and disconnection.

All of these elements are typically portrayed in the unique ground rules or rules of etiquette that a virtual project team establishes for itself. These rules demonstrate attention to community-building. They often include keeping commitments, providing feedback in preferred ways, giving everyone an equal voice, sharing important information, and acknowledging preferences for type and frequency of communications and other unique points for how the project team wants to harmoniously work together.

Here are the observable actions that promote and build community:

  • Modeling the behaviors expected of all members
  • Maintaining the self-confidence and self-esteem of others
  • Demonstrating respect for all members and their opinions
  • Encouraging all members to participate fully
  • Focusing on the situation, issue or behavior, not on the person
  • Confronting issues with others directly
  • Taking initiative to make things better
  • Keeping confidences
  • Maintaining constructive relationships
  • Keeping commitments
  • Admitting mistakes
  • Establishing a purpose

The importance of establishing a clear and inspiring shared purpose, a common vision and accompanying goals and expectations for performance has received a great deal of attention in recent years. This category of leadership skills constitutes another essential area that requires deliberate attention in effectively leading from a distance. It requires taking initiative to ensure that all members are involved in creating or understanding the purpose and vision of the group or a specific project. It's important for all members to have sufficient opportunity to voice their respective opinions.

This full involvement in creating a shared purpose or common vision serves as a foundation for unified project team commitment. When coupled with clear expectations for contributions and measurable performance, this combination of elements can be an effective driving force for self-discipline and motivation. Combined with a sense of community, there can be a reduced need for continuous monitoring and control mechanisms in order to achieve team goals. This category can become one of the effective secrets for shifting from control to member self- management. Day-to-day, moment-to-moment and transaction-to-transaction, the members can self-coach on the organization's vision; the project team's vision; and the team's sense of purpose, specific goals and expectations for contribution. This common vision is essential for virtual project teams that are purposefully undertaking highly creative or innovative approaches.

The observable leadership actions for this category include:

  • Sharing information about the organization's mission, vision, strategies and goals
  • Clarifying the rationale and intent of strategies and goals
  • Providing clear expectations for contributions and measurable results
  • Ensuring that members are involved in decisions that affect their work
  • Seeking ideas and opinions from all members
  • Ensuring consideration for the needs of customers in planning work
  • Using the organization's core values to guide the members' planning, decisions and actions
  • Promoting creativity and innovation in undertaking new goals or opportunities
  • Helping members develop positive approaches to the needs of the organization
  • Challenging assumptions that may inhibit progress
  • Demonstrating flexibility in adapting to changes in goals and expectations
  • Leading by example

The leadership skill of leading by example with a focus on visible, measurable results is a natural extension of the previous category. The clear and inspiring shared purpose, the vision, and the resulting project team's goals and expectations become the targets for establishing individual and team contributions. The important distinction for virtual project teams is the need to make "out of sight" contributions as visible as possible. The individual members need to know how their roles and tasks directly contribute to the achievement of the group and organizational goals. They need to understand how the needs of the customers are met by their contributions. On a day-to-day basis, they need to self-direct and self-discipline their work on clear priorities. They need to deliver visible, measurable outputs, transactions or next steps in key processes. Preferably, they are able to self-track their contributions and measurable progress toward specific goals.

Often, this means that the project team needs to ponder the critical path for the achievement of a specific goal. Deliberate attention is focused on how each member contributes content and/or key process transactions each step of the way. Particular attention is paid to the interdependencies among members' contributions. There are detailed discussions about what information or output needs to be delivered by when and in what condition in order for the next member to take action. One way of describing this activity is managing intersections of mutual accountability or handoffs.

In adopting this approach for day-to-day activity, the members of the group engage in goal-directed self-discipline for completing essential tasks and making those visible, measurable contributions to results. In essence, control subtly shifts from the traditional manager role to the members of the group. Personal responsibility and ownership for results set in, and members tend to deliver more energy, creativity, and innovation and even greater achievement.

For example, a virtual project team possessing a variety of signature skills was brought together for the first time to turn around a disappointing situation with a major customer. Each member needed a clear understanding of performance expectations and how their respective contributions fit into a complex, critical path of product development activity. The project team leader decided to set even more aggressive schedules to renew the confidence of the customer and provided more frequent opportunities for the team to come together electronically with the customer to demonstrate progress. The actions were akin to joint innovation to restore the business relationship while meeting the product requirements.

In this category of effective leadership, each opportunity for communication on an individual or a project team basis includes clear focus on the visible, measurable contributions that produce results with high impact. Effective leaders inspire the members to reach and exceed the expectations for performance. They understand the capabilities required for such achievement and ensure that all members have the skills and knowledge necessary. They also ensure that the team members have the equipment and tools to make their critical contributions.

Effective leading from a distance also means asking the right questions, staying alert for early opportunities to coach the members, providing constructive feedback and reinforcing contributions. The observable leadership actions for this category include:

  • Linking work contributions to the organization's goals
  • Ensuring that all members know how their contributions affect customers
  • Helping all members understand their roles and responsibilities
  • Emphasizing verifiable goal-setting and the identification of visible contributions
  • Tracking contributions and measurable progress on goals
  • Ensuring that members complete appropriate planning to achieve results
  • Inspiring members to reach or exceed expectations for performance and results
  • Emphasizing the need for goal-directed self-discipline in completing daily work
  • Using performance contributions and results to guide communications and agendas
  • Seeking opportunities to recognize members' contributions to results
  • Coordinating and collaborating across boundaries

Coordinating and collaborating across boundaries includes extending the same level of mutual trust and respect, teamwork and collaboration, and focus on visible contributions that appears within your own project team to other individuals or groups anywhere else within your organization, as well as to customers and suppliers. This set of behaviors includes the smooth coordination of a key process or a project that may cross a number of natural organizational boundaries. Information or technical assistance outside the project team's capabilities may be needed.

While such coordination and collaboration across boundaries can be uncomfortable or difficult in the traditional organizational structure, this condition can once more become magnified when complicated by distance. In many cases, a project team leader needs to remove protective "firewalls" that have been constructed at those boundaries. There is also often a need to diagnose and handle differences, challenge assumptions, and defuse the potential for conflict.

 Effective observable actions for coordinating and collaborating across boundaries are as follows:

  • Seeking ways to build teamwork and collaboration across groups and functions
  • Establishing mutual involvement in situations that cross organizational boundaries
  • Linking the need for coordination and collaboration to the needs of the organization and its customers
  • Helping members identify opportunities for improvement in projects and processes that cross organizational boundaries
  • Helping members plan, coordinate and implement projects and processes across boundaries
  • Helping members diagnose and solve problems
  • Helping members track progress in projects and processes across boundaries
  • Promoting sharing of information in situations of mutual interest
  • Asking for specific support you will need and what you will do in return
  • Challenging unnecessary barriers to collaboration across boundaries
  • Helping members constructively move from conflict to collaboration
  • A model for leading from a distance

Leading effectively from a distance or with a virtual project team is much like operating a camera with a telephoto lens. To secure a clear, focused image of a far-off situation, effective leaders adjust their communications and technology.

Leaders of virtual project teams typically receive a series of brief snapshots of situations by means of voice mail, e-mail or pager messages. Effective leaders need to quickly and skillfully diagnose what is happening, determine a course of action, and adjust their means of communication and the technology they use to achieve the desired results.


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About The Author

Joyce A. Thompsen, Ph.D.’s default image

Joyce A. Thompsen, Ph.D.

Joyce A. Thompsen, Ph.D., is consulting practice leader for leadership and management development with AchieveGlobal (www.achieveglobal.com). Clients include the White House, NASA, GTE, Dell, Ericsson, Qualcomm, Shell Chemical, Anthem and the Department of Justice. Before joining AchieveGlobal, Thompsen was vice president of an engineering and manufacturing company.

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