Successful leadership for virtual teams is becoming an increasingly important issue in the workplace. Due to increasingly sophisticated technologies, organizational globalization and flexible work structures, virtual teams are steadily growing in popularity, and more traditional leadership research may have somewhat limited application.
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.
LEADERSHIP THEORIES: TRANSFORMATIONAL LEADERSHIP AND “LMX”
There are two prominent leadership theories in this context that have been shown to positively affect performance: transformational leadership and leader member exchange (LMX). The researchers argued that supervisor career mentoring also related to various positive outcomes. These three concepts made up the 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.
WHAT IS SHARED LEADERSHIP?
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.
WHAT ARE STRUCTURAL SUPPORTS?
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 and 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.
Hoch, J. E., & Kozlowski, S. W. (2014). Leading virtual teams: Hierarchical leadership, structural supports, and shared team leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 390-403. doi:10.1037/a0030264