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.
How to Create Successful Work Teams
Teamwork plays an essential role in the success of many organizations. But what factors determine whether work teams will succeed or fail?
This question is an important one for I-O psychologists, and research by Chun and Choi (2014) has provided new insights into how managers can form successful work teams by considering the role members’ needs and intragroup conflict play in overall group performance.
INDIVIDUAL NEEDS AND TEAM PERFORMANCE
Previous research has examined how different personalities interact to influence team success, but this study primarily considered the needs of employees. Needs are defined as the basic things that a person strives for.
The researchers explored three types of needs– the need for achievement (i.e. when employees have a desire to accomplish goals), the need for affiliation (when employees desire quality personal relationships), and the need for power (when employees desire to control people).
The researchers studied how these three types of needs can ultimately lead to team success or failure.
SOURCES OF TEAM CONFLICT
When team members had a high need for achievement, there was more task-related conflict, meaning healthy debate about how to solve work-related problems. These teams ultimately had higher performance. Interestingly, these results were even better when team members had similar amounts of need for achievement.
When team members had a strong need for affiliation, less relationship conflict occurred. When they were also able to communicate effectively, even less relationship conflict occurred. Unlike task conflict, the study deemed relationship conflict (refering to interpersonal squabbles that are not related to solving problems) as bad. In this study, relationship conflict was typically associated with lower team performance.
Finally, when team members had a need for power, more status conflict occurred. The study showed that status conflict is also bad, and happens when people fight for the right to control others. However, this effect was alleviated when group members had varying levels of need for power. In other words, when some people desired power and others didn’t, there was not as much conflict. Also, researchers found that teams that communicated better had less status conflict.
THE BIG PICTURE ON CREATING SUCCESSFUL WORK TEAMS
So what do these findings ultimately mean? It means that managers are capable of creating successful teams simply by paying special attention to the types of people they place on a team.
Teams composed of members with a need for achievement are especially well suited to successfully solving problems in a diplomatic way, especially when they have similar levels of this need.
Teams with members who need affiliation and communicate well are better at avoiding the interpersonal issues that sometimes hinder team performance.
And teams that have power hungry members can be expected to compete for control, but this can be mitigated by including some people who do not need as much power, and by helping to improve team communication.
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 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.
An Easy Recipe for Improving Team Performance on Creative Tasks
Leaders and I-O Psychologists are always trying to discover new ways to improve team performance. New research by Ellis, Mai, and Chrisitan (2013), has found an interesting new way to do this for creative tasks. When team members have different approaches to achieving goals, team performance may improve.
This research is rooted in goal setting theory (Locke & Latham, 1990), which asserts that people who set specific and challenging goals will outperform people who merely “try their best”. Results of the current study also support this classic I-O Psychology theory, but in this case, the researchers went one step further. They also analyzed teams which had two members who set specific, challenging goals, and two other members who were trying their best.
What happened? When the teams were asked to perform creative tasks, these mixed teams outperformed everybody. When the teams performed routine tasks, the mixed teams were not very effective. The authors explain that creative work is best accomplished when team members are able to build on top of each other’s ideas. When one team member has a novel suggestion, someone else will have to “reframe” the idea and offer a practical way of applying it to the problem at hand. This process is easiest to do when team members are approaching problems differently, which is the case when they are using different approaches to achieve goals. When work is more routine, team members will not benefit from having different approaches.
This research is practically important because it provides an easy recipe for improving team performance on creative tasks. Although creativity is naturally strengthened through diversity, the “diversity of perspective” that is suggested here may work better than “social category diversity”, which the authors note can unfortunately sometimes lead to negative outcomes.
When Powerful Leaders Hinder Team Performance
When we think of powerful leaders, we often imagine people who can get others to do what they wish. After all, power and leadership, by definition, involve the capacity to control or influence the behaviors of others. However, this study by Tost and Larrick shows that having more powerful leaders can actually harm team performance.
Consider two reasons this could be the case. First, leaders who overestimate their own power or who depend too much on their personal power may be less understanding of others’ perspectives, being likely to stereotype, less likely to listen, and more likely to objectify others. Alternately, true collaboration, which involves creative problem solving, idea sharing, and blending of team member viewpoints, happens over time and cannot be commanded as a simple exercise of a leader’s power. These reasons provide a potential explanation as to why too powerful a leader can harm team performance.
This study had several key findings. First, formal leaders (those who hold a specific role in a social hierarchy) who perceive themselves as having a high sense of power spend more time talking in team meetings. As a result, their teams communicate less and performance more poorly than teams whose leaders perceive their own power neutrally. Specifically, formal leads who feel powerful talk more, which discourages open team communication and hinders team performance.
Interestingly, these trends only appear among formal leaders who hold positions of authority, and their level of authority affects these relationships. Explicitly, the more authority a leader holds, the more deference they receive from their team members, and the more they tend to talk in group meetings. When leaders monopolize the floor in meetings, open team communication withers. Unfortunately for these powerful leaders and their teams, open team communication directly influences team performance. So, by talking and not listening, these leaders measureably reduce their teams’ effectiveness. Fortunately, there is a way to correct this troubling behavior. The study found that these effects were eliminated when a leader was reminded that their team members could also make important contributions.
To help decrease the problem of powerful leaders hindering team performance, the authors suggest that organizations should:
- Encourage flat organizational structures and egalitarian cultures, which lessen leaders’ perceptions of their own power.
- Train leaders to be open in their authority and to encourage team communication.
- Promote practices and policies designed to remind leaders of the potential for important contributions from their followers.
- Urge members to stand up to leaders who take a dominating approach during social interactions.
These steps could help discourage leaders from using their power in ways that are counterproductive, thus resulting in happier, more productive teams.
Step Aside Extroverts! Introverts and Neurotics Comin’ Through
Currently, the I/O community seems to be abuzz dispelling myths and commonly held misperceptions about individual differences as they relate to “the Big Five” personality dimensions. The recent release of Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has now made it cooler than ever to be an introvert, and I/Os are stepping up their efforts to provide emperical proof that introverts indeed “have got it goin’ on.”
The present research by Bendersky & Shah (2013) not only builds on research regarding ‘the dark sides of extraversion,’ but also adds to existing literature on “the bright sides of neuroticism.” Yes. You read that correctly. For all of you highly emotional, anxious people out there, this one’s for you.
As we all know, extroverts crave attention, exude confidence, and love to dominate conversations, which often earns them high status within their workgroups and election to leadership positions. Neurotics on the other hand tend to be anxious, emotionally volatile and withdrawn at times, which earns them lower status within their groups and makes them considerably less likely to emerge as group leaders.
However, Bendersky & Shah (2013) found that in the long term, the qualities that make extroverts, well extroverts, make them poor team players. As a result, they often fail to meet group expectations and ultimately lose some of their hierarchical status. On the other hand, the bar is usually set pretty low for those with a high level of neuroticism, so there’s really nowhere for them to go but up. Neurotics’ anxious tendencies and concerns about how they are perceived by fellow group members make them prepare more for and persist longer at tasks, enabling them to exceed group expectations and earn respect and greater status within the group hierarchy over time.
Turns out being a bit neurotic may not be as bad as we once thought!
Empowering Leaders vs. Directive Leaders: Which is more effective?
Team building is one of the hottest and most studied topics in the world of I/O psychology today. More and more organizations are beginning to realize and benefit from the synergies that result when people pool their knowledge, skills, resources, and creative efforts to achieve a common goal. What’s the secret to building effective work teams? Well, as anyone who has ever worked in a group setting will tell you, a team is only as good as its leader.
The current research by Lorinkova et al. (2013) compares the benefits of empowering and directive leadership in teams, and clears up some uncertainty about the impact of these leadership styles on team performance. In their study, they found that teams led by directive leaders, who actively provide direction and clear expectations of their subordinates, had higher initial performance than teams led by empowering leaders, who promoted their subordinates’ autonomy and responsibility. However, teams led by empowering leaders had a long-term advantage, and made greater performance improvements over time than teams led by directive leaders.
The researchers also found four important factors affected empowering leader’s influence on improving performance. These were team learning, empowerment, coordination of effective behaviors, and team mental models.
So what are the key takeaways for making the most of your work team? Well, when leading teams tasked with a short-term project its best to take a directive leadership approach. But, if team members are going to be working together for an extended period of time, they’ll achieve better results in the long run if led by an empowering leader.
Negotiating as a Team or Alone: Which is more effective?
In our globalized economy, business negotiations often involve people from different cultures. Consequently, researchers have begun to study the effects of culture on negotiation. In their study, Gelfand et al. look at negotiations by Americans and Taiwanese.
Previous research showed that Americans negotiating as a team are more effective than Americans negotiating as individuals. Building upon this previous bit of research, the authors compared the efficacy of Taiwanese who negotiated as a team to Taiwanese who negotiated individually. Perhaps surprisingly, in contrast to American negotiators, Taiwanese who negotiated as a team were less effective than Taiwanese who negotiated individually. In explaining these results, the authors suggest that collectivist cultures such as that of Taiwan are more focused on community well being and harmony than individualistic cultures such as America’s where greater importance is placed on the individual.
When people are in groups, cultural tendencies tend to get amplified. Americans are more individualistic when surrounded by other Americans, while a Taiwanese person in a group of Taiwanese becomes less individualistic and more concerned about the group. But what does that mean when it comes to deciding who to send to negotiate the big contract? Consider the cultural tendencies of those involved and what outcomes you would like to see. An individual from a collectivist culture may be more aggressive when solo, more accommodating in a group, while someone from an individualist country, like America, may be more demanding and independent when teamed with other individualists.
Have you ever been part of a multi-national team and how did that effect negotiations? We’d love to read your insights in our comment section below.
Holding Leaders Accountable: Does it Work?
We can all agree that leaders are more effective when they engage in behavior that benefits the team, instead of self-serving behavior that benefits nobody but themselves. How do we inspire the leadership behavior that we desire? One popular way to curb self-serving leadership behavior is by increasing accountability, or the extent to which leaders will have their actions made public, and will be required to stand behind these actions. New research (Giessner, van Knippenberg, van Ginkel, & Sleebos, 2013) shows that this approach may lead to mixed results.
The researchers conducted two experiments, one lab study and one field study, and concluded that accountability is more likely to lead to team-benefiting behavior when the leaders do not fit the organization’s prototype. This means that the characteristics that define the group are noticeably different from the characteristics of the leader. This situation makes leaders feel insecure. In order to counter this insecurity, leaders are motivated to behave in ways that benefit the group, especially when they are held accountable for their actions.
However, when leaders fit the group prototype, or group characteristics are similar to leader characteristics, leaders feel more secure with their standing and do not feel a strong need to compensate with team-benefiting behavior. In this situation, accountability for actions has little effect on whether or not leaders will actually engage in team-benefiting behavior.
Further, while the researchers found that accountability may influence non-prototypical leaders to engage in team-benefiting behavior, they also found that this happens more specifically when leaders identify with and consider themselves a member of the team. This is a different consideration from whether or not a leader fits the group prototype. Leaders can identify with and feel part of a team whether or not they fit the group prototype.
What does this mean for us? When we come across leaders who do not fit the group prototype, holding them accountable may be a way of encouraging these leaders to engage in team-benefiting behavior. Still, we need to make sure that these leaders are first able to identify with the team. The authors say that organizations should encourage leaders to view themselves as team-members as well as team-leaders.