Leading Virtual Teams during Crisis

Virtual Teams or virtual team members have been a business reality for many years, however during the current crisis, with stay-at-home orders, the need to lead has increased. As I coach senior leaders to navigate this current storm, I’m often asked for strategies to effectively lead a virtual team and so here are Seven of my best.

With each member of a team remotely located and no opportunity for a face-to-face meeting, there are both challenges and opportunities for the new or established team leader. We have a new ‘level playing field’ where everyone is working and communicating virtually. Gone is the proximity bias, where those in the same location could network face-to-face and build collaboration. Finally, those that have been working in remote hubs have an advantage, in that they are already acclimated to remote technology and communication.

With the crisis creating a ‘reset’, there is an opportunity for leadership to harness the ‘power of the team’, rather than just manage a work group.

What is a Team Anyway?

In sports, the concept of a team is well-defined. Players have specific roles, such as forward, back, or goalkeeper, and the team has one goal, to score more points than the opposition in a specific time period, and win matches to achieve the championship. Each player is part of the team, and their individual efforts and their support of each other contribute to the team’s results.

The sporting metaphor is used in business to describe teams, but the structure of a business team is often more like an axle with spokes than a sports team. This is a workgroup and is distinct from a team. The key difference is that in a workgroup, you have a leader/manager, forming an ‘axle’, who has individuals of similar or different roles (reports) directly reporting to them, creating the ‘spokes’. There is little communication/collaboration between the reports or from the reports back to the leader.

With an effective face-to-face or virtual team, there is this interdependent communication and collaboration. To achieve this, the leader needs to engage in 'Transformational Leadership'.

Transactional to Transformational Leadership

Transformational Leadership Theory (James MacGregor Burns, 1978 and Bernard M. Bass 1985), focuses on how leaders can create valuable and positive change in their followers.

Virtual Communication can easily default to being transactional, which is focused on outcomes and rewarding or punishing non-compliance. In contrast, Transformational Leadership is about creating a vision and culture through inspiration and executing the change in tandem with committed members of a team.

Leading a Virtual Team

To lead a Virtual Team, the leader must see each member of the team as an individual, with different motivations and strengths, who is part of an interconnected whole that is moving towards a collective goal (winning the match) and a vision (winning the championship).

The virtual leader therefore must:

1. Connect Team Members' Individual Identities to the Team Identity

Hollywood has done a great job of depicting the sports coach bringing together individual characters to forge a team, all wearing the same jersey and fighting for the same goal. The inspirational locker room speech where the coach implores players to put aside petty differences and play for the team.

For the virtual team leader, the locker room is likely a Zoom Call or a Google hangout, but the principle is the same. The effective virtual team member will have connected with each team member privately to understand their identity and motivations and then, on a team video call, inspired everyone to see how a goal cannot be achieved individually but collectively.

2. The Virtual Team Leader must ‘Walk the Talk’ in terms of their Leadership Style

You can’t lead others unless you can first lead yourself, is my maxim for Self-leadership. This is particularly true in times of crisis. The leader must have self-awareness of their intentions and leadership style as well as self-management of their emotions and behaviors. This can be tough when the leader themselves is facing uncertainty.

Imagine being on a plane, and there is a large bang, the aircraft shake violently, and the oxygen masks drop from the ceiling. The Captain comes out of the cockpit looking visibly shaken and says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a bit of a problem, I’d like you to create focus groups and brainstorm what our options are”. You would be terrified because your expectation is that the Captain will make key decisions in a crisis. As a Virtual Team Leader, whilst you want to encourage as much participation as possible during plain sailing, during a storm, you must be the Captain, or the people will perish. As a Virtual Team Leader, whilst you want to encourage as much participation as possible during plain sailing, during a storm, you must be the Captain, or the people will perish.

3. Provide belief to enhance performance

Cast your mind back to school or college. Was there one teacher that believed in you, resulting in your achieving more than you would have thought possible? The Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect is a well-documented phenomenon, in which the belief of one person improves the performance of another.

The effective Virtual Team Leader is motivational by communicating their belief to individuals and the team as a whole.

4. Promoting Social Bonding

A sports team typically has social bonding activities, such as going for Pizza after the game. This bonding is important for managing stress and enhancing communication as players get used to non-verbal cues.

Social bonding is possible in a virtual environment and I have recently seen some creative examples of this, from virtual happy hour to quiz competitions. Encouraging but not necessarily leading these events will serve the virtual team leader to build cohesion and collaboration.

5. Set clear expectations

In over 20 years of coaching management and leadership teams, the number one reason I have seen for sub-par performance is unclear expectations. The leader has been unclear in communicating expected targets and unclear about the process to achieve those targets.

The Virtual Team Leader must be constantly communicating,

“What does success look like, and what behaviors are required to get there?”

6. Encourage Ownership of Ideas

A Transformational Leader encourages their followers to think for themselves. Be creative and innovative, but also open to new ideas from the team. You must create ‘psychological safety' so that ideas can be voiced without fear of being ‘shot down’. This also means being tolerant of team members’ mistakes (providing they aren’t repetitive). This leadership style creates learning opportunities and the ability to abandon obsolete practices.

7. Celebrate the Wins

Working virtually can be lonely, so public acknowledgment through a group call or joint communication is even more important to maintain morale and encourage peak performance. The effective Team Virtual Team leader will get creative in finding ways to acknowledge both individual and team performance.

Whilst this list of seven strategies is not exhaustive, when implemented makes a significant improvement in virtual team morale and performance. 

In Conclusion

My signature keynote speech, "Driving Accelerated Results through Self-leadership" is based on 'The New Leadership Playbook: Being Human Whilst Delivering Accelerated Results. The titles tell the story, we need to be human if we want to drive accelerated results, and that requires self-leadership.





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