Sharon Hill worked as a member and leader of global virtual teams and experienced firsthand how hard it was. She got the opportunity to do research on the topic and she is now one of the leading researchers in the field. She blends academic rigor and practical relevance, but it was her passion and the warm co-leadership with Karen Wouters, friend and ex-colleague, that turned this TFLI-lab into an exciting event.
“We rely more and more on technology to work in teams and work is increasingly dispersed over several locations. At the same time, we are not good at it. Virtual teams have difficulty to share information, to manage conflicts and to build trust,” she said. The 15 participants from 12 different organisations recognized the trend and the difficulties. They easily listed one and a half flipchart with challenges they experienced in virtual team life.
Leadership is no longer the job of the team leader alone.
One conclusion of her research is that virtual teams need more leadership. “The number one success factor for virtual teams is strong leadership,” Hill clearly stated. “A lot of virtual teams believe they can manage themselves without a real leader. It’s the contrary.” Her research (Hill & Bartol, 2015) shows that particularly an empowering leadership style is helpful for virtual teams. Empowering leaders show four key behaviors: they organize participation in decision making, they show individual concern, they share information and they coach and guide.
“Empowering leaders share their power and that is critical. The way to increase leadership in a virtual team is to distribute it, to share it, to involve every team member in leadership work”, she continued. “Team members become an extra source of leadership.” Hill advanced the notion of shared leadership as alternative for single focused top down leadership. In her most recent work she also highlights e.g. the role of team sponsors to provide meaning and to align goals.
“You better get the right people on board.”
Because team members need to take actively part in coaching, information sharing, influencing, decision making… they need to be competent and have a minimum level of self-leadership. Hill emphasized three competencies, typical for virtual team work. Team members need first of all to be tech-savvy. Secondly, they need to behave in a supportive and responsive way in order to support task-based trust. Thirdly, they need to be able to respect and handle diversity.
“Is email appropriate to ask for a status report? How to give negative feedback? What to do if a local urgency interferes with virtual team planning?” These situations demand situational judgment, the capacity to understand the context and choose the right channel and behavior. Hill & Bartol (2015) prove that this competency determines individual and team performance, but only is team members get empowered and are enabled to use their competency.
Five tips for successful virtual teamwork.
1. Match technology to task
“You need to spend time and money on choosing and training the right use of the right technology. This is hard to sell, because virtual teamwork is often installed in the context of cost reduction.” Email, phone, chat, social media platforms, intranets, face to face meetings… The number of communication options is huge and teams need to adopt the right strategy in a deliberate way.
2. Keep it positive
Give people in virtual teams the benefit of the doubt. And never express negative emotions in mails. “We feel less inhibited in expressing our emotion when emailing and at the same time, as receiver, we are very sensitive to expressed emotions in emails. That’s why emails easily create negative spirals.”
3. Seek first to understand
“When in doubt, look for understanding and don’t blame coworkers.” This active curiosity is the hallmark of successful virtual teams. They care about each other. “Don’t accept silence. Silence is a killer. Reach out. Talk about the constraints. Listen.”
4. Create common ground
The participants empathized easily with this advice. Virtual teams need to invest time in the beginning to get to know each other, develop a shared model, and install a sense of belonging. It made me think of the Sabca case, where teams from all over the world spent a year together to develop shared mental models and tools, before dispersing across the globe.
5. Act to promote task-based trust
Perhaps the hardest advice to implement, is talk openly about behavioral norms. “How fast do we answer mails? How do we report to each other? How do we share information? How do we take decisions?” Trust depends on these habits that create transparency. It’s the art of disciplined collaboration.
In summary, virtual teamwork becomes more important. And yet we are not very good at it. It needs competence of the team members, a more shared leadership approach and empowering leaders to enable that. It sounds like a nice program for an effective virtual team leadership program.