Leading Virtual Teams: An Investigation of Leadership and Structural Supports
Due to increasingly sophisticated technologies, organizational globalization and flexible work structures, virtual teams are steadily growing in popularity.
By definition, virtual teams are those that work remotely or, even if in a similar vicinity, communicate via largely electronic means. These teams never, or very rarely, have face-to-face meetings.
There are varying degrees of virtuality, which can be increased by distance and culture differences. The researchers behind a new study on Leading Virtual Teams wanted to understand how leadership and structural factors lead to better performance as virtuality increases.
There are two prominent leadership theories in this context that have been shown to positively affect performance– Transformational Leadership and Leader Member Exchange. The researchers argued that Supervisor Career Mentoring also related to various positive outcomes. These three constructs comprised the hierarchal leadership model the researchers set out to investigate.
The study found that as virtuality increased, the impact of hierarchal leadership on team performance decreased, because practicing these forms of leadership proved harder in virtual formats. It was at this point that the researchers formulated their opinion that supplementing virtual team leadership with various structural supports could help enhance overall performance.
The researchers were interested in examining how shared leadership and structural supports might affect the overall performance of virtual teams when hierarchical leadership proved difficult.
Shared leadership is the idea that various members of the team engage in leadership-type behaviors. Although not necessarily the same as the supervisor’s actions, these team members promote behaviors that facilitate cohesion and team process, which are critical for high performance.
Shared leadership has been shown to enhance the cognitive, affective and behavioral functioning of teams. So when trust and cohesion are difficult due to the virtual nature of the team, such shared leadership behaviors can enhance positive team dynamics.
Structural supports are more indirect means of influencing a team. They deal with leadership substitutes through organizational and task structures, and can compensate for (or add value to) different leadership styles/models.
Due to the fact that working in virtual teams can be wrought with uncertainty and constant change, the researchers decided to explore the positive effect that structural support could have when hierarchical leadership falls short within a virtual context.
The structural supports of primary interest included proper rewards, communication and information management, each of which was found to help increase performance as virtuality increased.
TAKEAWAYS ON LEADING VIRTUAL TEAMS
The study found that, while leading virtual teams brings with it certain unique challenges, these challenges can be overcome by choosing alternative methods to traditional hierarchical leadership.
In short, management and leaders who want to mitigate their loss of positive influence due to the virtual nature of the team can supplement with various structural supports and encourage shared leadership for best results.
The Secret Recipe for Good Workplace Conflict
The term “Workplace Conflict” sounds ominous. It conjures up images of yelling, screaming, finger pointing and, in rare cases, hunkering down under makeshift table forts and lobbing used Styrofoam cups at rival camps.
But can workplace conflict occasionally be good? New research by Todorova, Bear, and Weingart (2014) has found that, under the right circumstances, frequent workplace conflict can lead to an exchange of valuable information and, eventually, to higher job satisfaction.
TYPES OF WORKPLACE CONFLICT
Employees who express differing opinions about how work should be done are engaging in “task conflict.”
There are two different ways they can do this. When intense conflict occurs, employees “clash and argue,” and typically spend more time defending their own opinions than listening to the other side. Naturally, this doesn’t often lead to any good outcomes.
But employees can also engage in mild conflict, which is characterized by “debating and expressing.” In this scenario, employees are still arguing, but they are also listening to the other side in an honest attempt to solve the problem. This type of conflict can lead to more positive results.
HOW MILD WORKPLACE CONFLICT LEADS TO INFORMATION
The current study found that frequent mild task conflict provides employees with new information that will ultimately help them succeed at their jobs. For example, after debating about the best way to file records, a secretary may learn a more efficient way of doing his or her job.
And what happens when people get better at their jobs? The researchers found that they are more likely to feel active, energized, interested and excited. These positive emotions about work lead to higher overall job satisfaction.
The positive effects of frequent mild task conflict are stronger in two different circumstances.
The first is when conflict occurs in an active learning environment, which is when employees experiment, reflect and use feedback in an attempt to discuss results and improve work processes. This learning environment communicates to employees that conflict is meant to be constructive, helping them learn to improve at their jobs. Accordingly, employees respond well and feel good about learning new information.
Secondly, when mild task conflict occurs between people who work in different functions, more novel information is shared and employees respond better. The study found that, when task conflict occurs between people who work in the same job, there is simply not as much new information to be gained.
GOOD WORKPLACE CONFLICT
This article helps leaders understand how to use workplace conflict to the benefit of both their employees and the workplace. Here’s a simple guide to having more productive workplace conflict:
- Conflict should be task-related and about how to do work, and not interpersonal.
- Conflict should be kept to mild expressions of debate, and not intense arguing.
- Conflict works best in a learning environment, which is when employees are actively engaged in discussing and improving work processes.
- Conflict provides best results when it is between people who have very different organizational functions.
The Pitfalls of Inconsistent Leader Behavior
Bad boss alert! Let’s say your supervisor was incensed with the results of yesterday’s baseball or football game. As a result, today he’s been condescending, hypercritical, and an all-around sourpuss. Can he make up for it by being extra nice and helpful to you tomorrow?
When your boss behaves in a way that makes your job difficult (like being overly critical or short-tempered), it’s called supervisor undermining, which can negatively impact employee health and well-being. After a good night’s sleep, the boss feels bad about the inappropriate behavior and poor management, and tries to make it up to you by providing extra assistance at a later time.
New research by Nahum-Shani, Lim, Henderson, and Vinokur (2014) has found two situations in which Inconsistent Leader Behavior can work well, and two others in which this approach can backfire and make things even worse.
INCONSISTENT LEADER BEHAVIOR
When supervisors undermine their employees and then try to make up for it by being extra helpful, the inconsistent behavior creates uncertainty for the employees.
Three bad things can happen as a result. First, employees will lack a coherent picture of how well they are doing at their job, which can be confusing and/or frustrating. Second, employees will lose a sense of control over their work environment. And third, employees will have doubts about the quality of their relationship with their supervisor.
But the current study shows that, if the employees can overcome these three obstacles, the supervisor’s strategy can actually work.
EMPLOYEES WHO CAN OVERCOME INCONSISTENT LEADER BEHAVIOR
The researchers found that two types of employees can overcome the challenges associated with supervisor inconsistency: Those with high self-esteem and those who perceive a high “quality of work life.” High quality work life occurs when the resources, relationships, and outcomes of their work satisfy the employee’s needs.
The study found that when high self-esteem and high quality of work life employees were exposed to inconsistent leader behavior, they used coping skills to mitigate its harmful effects. When supervisors tried to rectify poor behavior with considerate behavior, these employees benefited from the turnaround, experiencing better health and fewer job strains.
On the other hand, employees who had low self-esteem or experienced poor quality of work life didn’t have the coping skills to deal with inconsistent leader behavior. With this group, bosses who tried to rectify poor behavior with considerate behavior actually created more problems by being inconsistent. These employees experienced worse health and more job strains.
Oftentimes managers are trained to provide careful attention and consideration to their employees, especially when they know they have previously messed up.
But this study warns against this one-size-fits-all approach, suggesting the strategy only works if employees can handle the negative effects of inconsistent supervision. If they can’t handle it, managers are only making things worse.
New research like this is helping I-O psychologists determine how to maximize the benefits to all employees by recognizing that employees are unique and don’t all respond the same way.
Breaking the Mold: How Challenging Gender Stereotypes Reduces Bias
As the result of a recent study, researchers in the United Kingdom have some intriguing news for women interested in organizational leadership roles. Their core message is, “Don’t conform to gender stereotypes!”
CHALLENGING GENDER STEREOTYPES
The three experiments– which were conducted by Carola Leicht, Georgina Randsley de Moura and Richard J. Crisp– suggested that being exposed to people who defy gender stereotypes makes it much harder to fall back on stereotyping in order to make decisions about leadership. Their study focused specifically on women who defy feminine stereotypes, such as a female engineer, for example.
WHY “GOING AGAINST TYPE” WORKS
The study found that job candidates who did not fit the mold of “the typical woman” were generally viewed more objectively. This resulted in more fair decisions during the selection process, and a general reduction in gender bias.
After being exposed to counter-stereotype individuals, snap judgments about the applicant became less clear. As a result, hiring managers tended to treat these applicants as unique individuals rather than using preconceptions based on their gender.
Most intriguingly, this effect meant that these game-changing women were more likely to be chosen for leadership roles and generally encouraged less bias in the evaluation of their leadership abilities.
POSSIBLE APPLICATIONS IN THE WORKPLACE
There are a number of key takeaways from this study. First and foremost, organizations should clearly encourage objectivity and cognitive flexibility rather than relying on stereotypes to make judgments about others.
The research suggests that more effective diversity training can lead to innovation and change, and that exposure to those that break the stereotypical mold can provide inspiration for other women. It also provides a deeper understanding to the difficult issue of the “glass cliff,” wherein women are selected as leaders primarily in times of crisis.
Lastly, it suggests that effective executive coaching can (and should) encourage women who seek leadership roles to challenge expectations in order to decrease the use of stereotyping in leadership selection.
Leadership Self-Efficacy: The Key to Leaders’ Reactions to Challenging Experiences
Many researchers believe that leadership is a skill learned through experience—specifically, through overcoming challenging experiences.
Studies show that challenging leaders is beneficial, because it causes them to demonstrate more engagement, skill, motivation, and transformational leadership behaviors.
However, the fact is that leaders occasionally respond negatively to challenges. But this outcome is rarely studied within the usual theories of leader development.
According to the authors of a new study on how developmental challenge differentially impacts leader behavior, Leadership Self-Efficacy helps determine whether leaders will respond to challenges positively or negatively.
When leaders believe that they are capable of responding to challenges– that is, when they have high Leadership Self-Efficacy– they tend to cope successfully. This, in turn, promotes more engagement and effective behaviors, such as those associated with transformational leadership.
On the other hand, leaders who have low Leadership Self-Efficacy, and don’t believe that they can respond effectively to challenges, exhibit more signs of emotional exhaustion, avoidance, and disengagement. These are the behaviors typically associated with laissez-faire leadership.
ENGAGEMENT VS. EXHAUSTION
The authors of the study tested their hypotheses on junior and mid-level managers from a Fortune 500 financial services company over the course of four months.
They found that challenging jobs related to both engagement and exhaustion. When leaders were engaged, they reported a greater number of transformational leadership behaviors. But when leaders were emotionally exhausted, they reported a greater number of laissez-faire leadership behaviors.
Leadership Self-Efficacy didn’t seem to play a role when the challenges were met constructively. However, those with low Leadership Self-Efficacy who responded negatively to challenging situations were much more likely to report greater emotional exhaustion and a numerous laissez-faire leadership behaviors.
THE BIG PICTURE TAKEAWAY
The results of this study suggest that challenging assignments are useful as leader development tools, particularly for leaders who have high Leadership Self-Efficacy.
But there is also an inherent risk: Leaders who are unsure of their abilities may not benefit from tackling challenging assignments. Instead, the challenge may lead to emotional exhaustion and more laissez-faire behaviors—results which could negatively affect the organization by leading to poor performance, burnout, high turnover, and other problems.
However, providing coaching or mentoring programs designed to improve leaders’ self-efficacy may help low-Leadership Self-Efficacy leaders gain the coping skills they need in order to grow from challenging experiences.
How Shared Leadership Impacts Team Effectiveness
Understanding the relationship between leadership and team effectiveness in the workplace has always been important. Recently, a new type of leadership known as Shared Leadership has become more widely used.
WHAT IS SHARED LEADERSHIP?
Shared leadership refers to two or more people who share both their influence and responsibilities, rather than having just one person leading a team.
Although shared leadership is becoming much more common, “A meta-analysis of shared leadership and team effectiveness” is the first in-depth article to examine whether it matters what the leaders are sharing, and if this can impact the overall effectiveness of the team.
Shared leadership is compared in this article to another type of leadership, which is known as vertical leadership. The approaches differ somewhat, in that shared leadership consists only of a downward influence from the leaders, whereas vertical leadership includes influences from upward, downward, or even from other peers.
DIFFERENT LEADERSHIP STYLES
The article analyzed 42 different studies measuring the impact of shared leadership on team effectiveness. The main focus was on examining three different categories of leadership styles: new-genre, traditional, and cumulative.
New-genre leadership can be thought of as a visionary type of leading, where traits such as empowering and charismatic traits are the focus. Traditional leadership is more transactional, focused on supportive leading and an initiating structure. Finally, cumulative leadership is when all the various leadership styles are molded together.
This article found that using new-genre leadership or cumulative leadership generally has a more positive impact on team effectiveness than traditional leadership styles.
THE BIG PICTURE
The big picture takeaway from this article is that the more complex a team’s work is, the stronger the effects of shared leadership will be. In other words, if a team is working on an incredibly difficult task, the shared leadership style will have a more significant impact on their effectiveness in tackling that task.
In short, if a team is working on a complex task, it is ideal to use either a new-genre or a cumulative style of shared leadership, rather than a traditional style.
How Organizations Can Fast-Track Transitioning Leaders
New job roles can be a daunting prospect for anyone. There are contrasts with old responsibilities, new expectations, and all sorts of surprises that pop up along the way. Adjusting quickly to the demands of a new position is important for productivity. But how can organizations fast-track transitioning leaders to help them gain the knowledge and skills they need?
In “Show and Tell: How Supervisors Facilitate Leader Development Among Transitioning Leaders,” authors L. Dragoni, H. Park, J. Soltis and S. Forte-Trammell suggest that supervisors can play a key role in leadership development.
The study points towards the need for supervisors and mentors to not only tell transitioning employees how to lead effectively, but to show them how effective leadership looks in practice. This increases the chance of a smooth transition, and frees individuals up to focus on leading others.
“Telling” deals with effectively communicating the knowledge-based components of the job, which include areas of responsibility, reporting channels and the like.
By giving transitioning leaders this necessary information up front, you can reduce the potential for future mistakes and free them up to focus on other important aspects of the job.
The study suggests that leaving them to figure these things out on their own, through trial and error, will impact their overall job efficiency in the initial stages, as well as the quality of their leadership over others.
The study also suggests that the “showing” aspect of helping to develop new leaders is critical in their success.
Employees who have been lucky enough to work with a great leader may require less “show and tell.” When new leaders who have had this benefit in the past are paired with supervisors who don’t put in the proper time and effort in training, they bounce back better than those who haven’t ever worked with great leaders.
But don’t be despondent if the person you’re training has not had this benefit of working with a great leader before. The research shows that these employees often see the greatest gains from working with a “show and tell” supervisor.
WALK THE TALK
In conclusion, training that provides both showing and telling gives transitioning leaders the greatest chance for success. Showing without telling leaves the new leader navigating the occasionally rough waters of organizational structures and processes alone. Telling without showing often leaves the new leader struggling to figure out appropriate behavioral responses to organizational situations.
If you’re involved in training and developing leaders for a new role, the big take-away is that you need to spend time telling them the ins and outs of the job and showing them effective leadership in context. Be the leader you want them to be, and give them a head start by telling them inside information that will help them navigate their new job role. It will save everyone time, and allow them to focus their attention on the people they’re leading.
How Positive Events Can Impact Work-Related Stress
Work-related stress is a problem that most (if not all) of us face. Daily events often affect our stress levels, which in turn can affect our health.
Has a doctor ever told you that you should reduce your stress level in order to lower your blood pressure, lessen your pain, or reduce your exhaustion? If so, the results of a recent study on work-related stress may be of great interest to you.
In “Building positive resources: Effects of positive events and positive reflection on work stress and health,” Joyce Bono and her colleagues were interested in how positive events and a positive reflection intervention impacted people dealing with work-related stress on a number of physical and mental levels.
The researchers found that positive events (such as a compliment from a supervisor, accomplishing a goal, etc.) directly reduced stress and improved overall health. Their study also found additional support for the negative effects of negative events on people dealing with work-related stress.
In addition, the researchers implemented an intervention in which participants were asked to report three positive things that happened each day, as well as their reasoning behind why these good things occurred. As a result of this intervention, the participants generally had better physical and mental outcomes (though not a reduction in blood pressure). These results suggest the important role of positive events and positive reflection in reducing work-related stress and improving overall health. While many organizations (and meetings) tend to focus on what has gone wrong, this study suggests that positive events should also be discussed.
Maybe you could start your meetings by talking about some recent team accomplishment, expressing gratitude for employee effort, or acknowledging a positive event. Who knows? You might actually be improving your own health in the process.
Organizational Attachment: An Outcome of Social Satisfaction and Relationships
Previous studies on organizational attachment have looked at the role of positive relationships on the attitudes of employees. But, for the most part, they have ignored the impact negative relationships can have.
To examine the influence of negative relationships, authors Venkataramani, Labianca, & Grosser (2012) conducted a study on employees in a midsize manufacturing company and a product development firm.
In these samples, they found that both negative and positive connections impact workplace relationship satisfaction. This level of satisfaction, in turn, influenced employee feelings of attachment to the organization. The article also found that positive networks became increasingly important to worker satisfaction when negative relationships were more central.
The relationships found in this study existed regardless of the employee’s age, gender, part-time or full-time status, education, ethnicity, years worked at the company, location, or number of required work ties. Additionally, the emotions employees often experienced did not affect the findings in the study, and neither did whether or not a leadership position was held.
To maintain employee satisfaction, the study suggests that companies should encourage positive employee relationships and lessen negative ones. Doing so can ensure that employees will stick around, as satisfaction leads to higher job satisfaction and feelings of commitment.
To aid employee satisfaction, the authors suggest managers should:
- Support informal get-togethers among co-workers.
- Proactively resolve employee differences early on to decrease the occurrence of negative exchanges in workgroups.
- Form a climate of open communication to promote trust and relationship building.
- Adjust the workflow and communication arrangements in workgroups so that workers with negative relationships do not work together.
The authors also propose ways for employees to increase their own satisfaction levels:
- Work on fostering positive connections as opposed to socially withdrawing when negative relationships exist.
- Stop negative relationships when they begin to form, and before they affect promotion and other growth-related opportunities.
- Use negative relationships as feedback to bring about personal change.
How Power Distance Agreement Improves Performance in the Workplace
Research in I-O psychology suggests that, when leaders and their employees share similar attitudes about how work should be done, it creates positive outcomes in the workplace.
A recent study by Cole, Carter, and Zhang (2013) has found that agreement on the appropriate amount of power distance– the disparity in control between employees and their supervisors– can play an especially significant role in workplace harmony, leading to improved performance.
When people expect leaders to assume complete authority and make all decisions, the company’s culture is said to be high on the power distance index. When those leaders are expected to make decisions democratically, using employee input, and employees are assumed to be on equal footing, the culture is said to be low on the power distance index.
As part of the study, researchers examined the extent to which leaders and their employees agreed on power distance expectations. When this agreement was higher, two positive outcomes were usually found: Team performance improved, as did organizational citizen behaviors (when employees go beyond their formal job descriptions to benefit the organization).
But why did this happen? The authors found that, when leaders and employees had similar expectations regarding power distance, there was agreement as to who should be making the decisions. For example, when high power distance was expected, all parties agreed that the leader should be making decisions unilaterally.
This type of agreement leads to a perception of procedural justice, or the feeling that employees are being treated fairly. In our example, the employees do not expect to make decisions, and perceive it as fair when they are not asked to do so. Procedural justice was ultimately associated with higher job performance and organizational citizenship behaviors.
The authors concluded that organizations should find ways to discover the power distance expectations of leaders and their employees. When agreement is low, the organization can then take steps to help correct the mismatch and train leaders to better suit their followers. Ultimately, this knowledge of team members’ preferences can be an important step towards improving overall team performance.