Sunday, October 14, 2012

Virtual Leadership Challenges

A discussion of the key differences between leadership in a face-to-face versus a virtual environment and the challenges facing virtual leaders today.

Virtual Leadership Challenges:
Adapting From Traditional Practices
          “Gone are the days when you could work within the comfort zone of face-to-face communication and close proximity” (Kerfoot, 2010, p. 117). Regardless of one’s industry or work location, technology has impacted the way we work and communicate – everyone works virtually to one degree or another – but the pervasiveness of teams that are not co-located and work virtually instead, with little or no face-to-face interaction, demands attention be focused on how this impacts the function of leadership.
Andrew S. Grove of Intel Corporation (as cited in Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010) states: “You have no choice but to operate in a world shaped by globalization and the information revolution. There are two options: Adapt or die” (pp. 3). The problem lies in the fact that, although organizations have accepted the virtual world as a necessity, they have not adapted – meaning they have not acknowledged the nuances of this new environment and made the necessary adjustments to ensure it is not only successful, but a better alternative. It is important to understand the challenges this new environment presents. The responsibilities for leaders and the needs of team members remain the same – leaders are responsible for developing high-performance teams that are aligned with the organization’s vision; team members need to trust leadership and each other, understand their role, and contribute to the overall good of their team and the organization.
The environment where this team work takes place presents challenges. There are misconceptions assumed by an organization that leading a virtual team is the same as leading a traditional face-to-face team:  “. . . many organizations simply recycled the same guidelines and best practices they were using for their co-located teams and hoped for the best” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 4). Unfortunately this philosophy is ineffective due to the absence of relationship, face-to-face communication, group cohesiveness, individual accountability, trust, and shared vision. “. . . virtual teams may be increasingly more popular . . . but they’re not necessarily successful” (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010). It is critical, therefore, that leaders focus on the challenges virtual teams will face and accept the responsibility to adapt as needed.
There are three key challenges facing leaders and virtual teams: Communication, Trust, and Training. “. . . many companies that had made significant investments in technology and virtual teams were not performing to their full potential due to ineffective team leadership, lack of accountability among team members, lack of time to focus on the team, and lack of skill training” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, pp. Intro xx1111-xxv). Virtual teams can become the best asset for an organization, but only if these challenges are addressed, and the onus lies with the organization developing a new version of exceptional leadership – “Leadership is the fact most important to the success of virtual teams” (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010).

Challenge #1: Communication

In a traditional situation, teams worked in the same location and there were several forms of communication, including formal meetings, informal (or social) interaction, as well as non-verbal cues – all of which developed relationship – even written communication was presented in person and included verbal discussion or details. It is no wonder, then, that “. . . communication is the primary hurdle virtual teams face” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 23). The lack of face-to-face communication results in many challenges that can negatively impact a virtual team. Leaders must be proactive in addressing this issue. They must establish a virtual community that enables members to develop relationships. They need to clearly communicate on a group and individual level, assign roles highlighting each team member’s competencies, set goals, and prioritize tasks. Since a leader is not present physically, he/she must also develop an accountability structure and be accessible to every member at all times. All of these leadership responsibilities are associated with communication and must be handled differently by the leader of a virtual team versus a co-located team.
            In an online article Derosa & Lipsinger highlight key points from their book, Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading from a Distance, and identify communication as a challenge faced by virtual teams: “. . . successful teaming depends largely on the effective interaction of team members. Virtual teams need to compensate for the inherent lack of human contact” (2010). A leader can compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction and informal communication by introducing each team member to one another virtually. “Leverage synchronous tools . . . to increase spontaneous communication” (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010). For example the leader could create a blog or forum where each member has a profile that includes professional competencies as well as hobbies – enabling members to get to know about one another. Members can then see who is assigned to which role; and, more importantly, why they are qualified (based on their expertise). They also get to know a little about the person by the hobbies they enjoy, and they can put a face to the name by including a picture. The leader can present this tool in a kick-off meeting and encourage team members to use the space to share ideas, discuss projects, give updates, or even ask for help from other team members. A kick-off meeting (preferably via video-conference) is important – the leader addresses the entire group and establishes the structure of the team: “Leaders who engage their team members as a group have an easier time keeping their teams on track and are more successful in achieving their goals” (TechSource, 2008, p. 29). The leader should also schedule times when the group will convene on a regular basis. “Virtual teams that connect their day-to-day work to the organization’s business strategy and objectives are more likely to stay committed and engaged over time” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 53).
Additional forms of informal conversation amongst team members will enrich the development of relationship for members. The leader could enable instant messaging as a source of communication for members one to another to accomplish this, which is deemed necessary as noted in a TechSource study (January, 2008) “Informal communication methods, such as IM, can create a relaxed environment in which team members can get to know one another in a natural way” (p. 29). Once trust is established amongst team members and roles are clearly established there is less ambiguity and more cohesiveness within the group.
            The leader of a virtual team must stay in constant communication with the team and clearly establish a deadline and meeting schedule from the very beginning. He/she must also communicate directly with each member individually, creating one-to-one synergy that will result in commitment to the team and a clear understanding of goals: “Teams should always have clearly defined goals . . . goals increase group identity . . . also increase job efficiency” (TechSource, 2008, p. 30). This will enable leaders to watch for warning signs of trouble within the team, Lepsinger & Derosa cite examples, such as “You may notice team members work independently and do not reach out to other team members to collaborate . . . [or] an ‘us versus them’ mentality has developed between locations or sub-groups”.  Leaders cannot let people issues take over and negatively impact team efficiency (2010).
Monitoring virtual team performance is naturally difficult, it is therefore important for leaders to establish a system for accountability – another key communication task. Leaders who “Clearly define team roles and accountabilities . . . minimize frustration and misunderstandings that can damage morale and detail productivity” (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010). This requires constant contact by the leader and an observance of non-verbal cues unique to the virtual world. “Organizations should also continually monitor, assess, and improve communication, as it’s the top skill-development need reported by team members and top characteristic needed to lead from a distance” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 48). Leaders must be flexible and accommodate the special needs of each team member while simultaneously keeping their finger on the pulse of the group and addressing issues as they arise, working with members to resolve. “If the people side of virtual organizations is not addressed, virtual leaders will not be successful” (Kerfoot, 2010, p. 118).  This links back to the need for frequent communication, one-to-one and also as a group. This is supported by Derosa, who states, “Virtual teams that connect their day-to-day work to the organization’s business strategy and objectives are more likely to stay committed and engaged over time” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 53).
            Virtual environments create a literal ‘hands-off’ approach to leadership but simultaneously require an assertive, ‘hands-on’ approach to communication by the leader. Fortunately, today’s leader is not without options regarding communication in this new virtual environment. “Traditional leadership is becoming rarer while distance or virtual leadership is more common because advancing technologies can support new models of . . . communication” (Kerfoot, 2010, p. 117).

Challenge #2: Trust
“Virtual teams that are successful ensure that team members build relationships and learn about one another early on” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 56). Learning about one another is essential in order to develop trust, an essential component for success: “Teamwork always depends on trust” (Nemiro, Beyerlein, Bradley, & Beyerlein, 2008, p. 9).  As mentioned previously, developing relationships between virtual team members is a challenge. It is, however, necessary in order to gain trust in one another – and trust is essential to teamwork. The lack of trusting relationships result in a lack of cooperation (creating an uncooperative climate), which results in lack of task cohesion. In order to identify with other team members, individuals need to trust that each member has the skills to perform their tasks and will follow through on commitments. As per Nemiro, et al. (2008), “Trust may develop more slowly among virtual teams members” (p. 9). Virtual teams, however, have a different perspective on time, which means leaders must take measures to expedite the establishment of trust between team members.

Trust is complex – it is often seen as an attribute an individual possesses (such as when one says another is a trustworthy person), but in actuality this trustworthiness is earned through action and is thus a behavior. In a virtual environment it is the development of trust behaviors that is essential. Brothers, and Reina & Reina (as cited in Nemiro, et al., 2008) confirm this fact: “Extensive research shows that trust is built behaviorally” (p. 156). Leaders must be aware of the complexities involved in developing and maintaining trust within their virtual team and, therefore, take a multi-faceted approach focused on the behavior of trust. A well rounded approach would include the following: leaders should make every effort to have at least one face-to-face meeting with each member, or with the team, before the team/project is launched (focus on developing or confirming trust in the leader’s abilities by team members); leaders must clearly demonstrate their confidence in each member’s ability and trustworthiness (once members trust the leader, and the organization, they will adopt the leader’s trust of other members); leaders should establish timelines with check points where accountability will lend itself to task-related trust (mutual trust is confirmed as both the leader and team members fulfill their commitments to one another and the team); leaders should utilize trust building tools in order to identify trust issues and maintain ongoing team trust (trust can be broken, it is the leader’s responsibility to nurture trusting relationships); and finally - leader’s should involve early adopters amongst the team in the training of the technologies the team will be using (member-to-member experimentation and co-learning will build relationship and trust amongst members).
Leaders should make every effort to have at least one face-to-face meeting with each team member before the team is officially launched. If possible, also having a face-to-face group meeting for the launch of the team will further solidify the foundation of trust amongst the team. Duarte & Snyder (as cited in Nemiro, et al., 2008) emphasize the importance of strategically planning face-to-face time for virtual teams, “. . . studies have shown that project teams that meet at least once face-to-face at the beginning of their project have a much higher success rate than teams that initiate projects at the purely virtual level” (p. 634). Such meetings enable the leader to develop a relationship with each team member, which establishes trust in the leader (and thereby, the organization) by each member – a foundation upon which a fountain of trust within the team can spring.
It is the responsibility of leadership to clearly communicate why each member was chosen for the team, what skills and experience each member brings to the table that makes them ideally suited to perform their role on the team, and emphasizing the equal importance of every member to the team. Creating profiles (or identities) for each member within the team’s online community (a team blog, for example) can speed up this process and is an important factor for virtual teams. Kimble et al. (as cited in Nemior et al, 2008) states: “Identity plays a crucial role . . . because knowledge of those with whom one works and communicates is necessary for understanding and interpreting interaction styles” (p. 9). A leader must clearly demonstrate the trust the organization has in each member. This will result in members (who already have a trusting relationship foundation with the leader) adopting the organization’s trust in one another, building upon the team’s foundation of trust. This is known as “institutional-based trust”, as per Scott (as cited in Nemiro, et al., 2008), who states: “It is really the other forms of trust, however, that explain how we are able to trust those with whom we have never had any prior experience or knowledge. Institutional-based trust reflects an individual’s trust in the organization with which the other members are affiliated” (p. 111).
Although trust can initially be established by members adopting the leader’s trust in team members through institutional-based trust, long-term trust ensues as a result of members identifying with one another and from their experiences as they rely on one another for task completion. How the manager assigns and manages tasks becomes very important, as reported by Nemiro, et al. (2008), “Trust in virtual teams . . . can be developed from positive, ongoing experiences among members of the team . . . This means that a key to virtual team success is members’ keeping their commitments to each other and therefore making only commitments they can and will keep” (p. 10). This statement is reiterated by Lepsinger & Derosa (2010) in the following statement: “Task-based trust is one of the factors that differentiated top performing teams. In virtual teams trust seems to develop more readily at the task level than at the interpersonal level” (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010). Derosa & Lepsinger recommend task-based trust as well and convey that “trust is a big concept” and that it is “important to start with small steps” such as individual tasks (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 56). Leaders who hold members accountable – who establish timelines and deadlines – create a framework for task-based, mutual trust, and confirm the initial gift of adopted trust, as both members and the leader fulfill commitments and earn the right to be considered trustworthy.
Trust results in unity within the team. “Teams that know they can rely on each other to get the job done will have more cohesiveness and be more efficient”, therefore the leader should “ . . . help the team create good practices . . . [which] soon become routine”, once this trust is established, “. . . members can all help to keep each other accountable to the team’s shared expectations” (TechSource, 2008, p. 30). Lipsinger and Derosa indicate that leaders must watch out for warning signs – such as members using “I” instead of “we” – indicating they don’t appear to know one another very well or trust one another. If members are openly negative and don’t view others as credible the leader needs to work out the trust issues that are apparent (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010). They are careful to recommend, however, that leaders “. . . don’t micromanage – [instead they] empower members to make and act on decisions . . . help people manage conflicts, not avoid them . . . [and] model and reinforce positive behaviors”; they continue by noting the results of proactive and supportive leader behavior: “Eliminate these pitfalls and a team’s chances for success greatly increase” (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010).
There are tools available that leader’s can utilize to keep a finger on the pulse of the team and identify changes in the trust relationship amongst members. Nemiro, et al., (2008) identify “The Reina Trust and Betrayal Model” as a useful tool for leaders in establishing virtual team trust (p. 156-160). The Reina Trust and Betrayal Model focuses not only on establishing trust, but on identifying and working through trust betrayal as an essential function of virtual leadership. The three elements described in the [Reina] model help simplify the complexity of trust, and include: Transactional trust . . . [which is] reciprocal in nature . . . and created incrementally. There are three factors of transactional trust: contractual, [which] involves mutual understanding between people; communication, in an environment with strong communication trust, people feel safe to ask questions, honestly speak their minds, challenge assumptions, raise issues, give and receive feedback, or acknowledge that they do not understand and ask for help; and competence trust, [which] influences the ability to perform job responsibilities (Nemiro, et al., 2008, pp. 157-159). Leader’s who adhere to the principles of the Reina model help develop “transactional trust as the foundation for virtual collaboration”:
Contractual trust sets the tone and direction, shapes roles and responsibilities, and helps make expectations clear. Communication trust helps establish norms for information flow and standards for how people talk with one another, share information, provide feedback, and work with mistakes that have been made. Competence trust allows individuals to leverage and further develop skills, abilities, and knowledge, particularly those required for virtual collaboration. (Nemiro, et al., 2008, p. 159)
The conclusion, per Nemiro, et al. (2008), is that high trust tends to make both communication and collaboration easier (p. 156).
            The final point is actually related to the third challenge as it involves experimentation of the technology tools, which results in a collaborative form of self-training by members. This training, however, is independent of the more formal training outlined in the following section – and focuses on members who are perceived as the early adopters of the group. Rouse defines an early adopter as, “a person who embraces new technology before most people do” (2007).  Encouraging early adopters to teach others empowers all the employees (TechSource, 2008, p. 28). As early adopters experiment with the available technological tools presented for use by the team, they can aide in the selection of the most appropriate tools as well as in peer-to-peer experimentation (training) along the way. This communication and open discussion among team members (which is supported but separate from leadership involvement) helps build camaraderie and cohesion amongst team members. The TechSource article, Best Practices for Working in a Virtual Team Environment, states: “Studies have shown that organizations in which knowledge is shared across the organization, not simply from top to bottom, have more successful virtual teams than those in which it is not” (2008, p. 29).
Challenge #3: Tools & Training
There are ample tools available that can be used by virtual teams, and a TechSource report indicates that, “A good team leader will use a variety of tools to facilitate the work of the group and to encourage its members” (TechSource, 2008, p. 29). New technologies are often very complex so it is wise to “Choose the tool that gets the job done with as small a learning curve for your employees as possible” (TechSource, 2008, p. 28), and select the right tools for the team and the task. Then it is important to make sure everyone (especially the leader) is trained in the use of those tools. Investing in proper preparation can make all the difference in a virtual team’s success, but this isn’t always understood: “Despite the strong link between training and virtual team performance, many organizations do not make this investment” (Lepsinger & Derosa, 2010). It becomes the leader’s responsibility, therefore, to make sure that he/she is competent and that they can train team members, as needed, so the tools in use are a help instead of a hindrance to the team. Nemiro, et al., confirm the necessity for training:
Effective use of the new media requires insight into their richness and presence limitations, the ability to compensate for these, and the ability to agree on and adopt rules for their use. When teams are able to overcome the complexity and invisibility dynamics and build norms to use technology well, the new media can be used to support highly focused, effective processes. Working productively in this new environment, and particularly working together, requires new or improved competencies and behaviors, which have to be learned. (Nemiro, Beyerlein, Bradley, & Beyerlein, 2008, p. 350)
There is a learning curve when adapting to the virtual environment. Leaders cannot make assumptions and must include training time in the team’s schedule. The research of Kerfoot (2010) echoes this: “It is a difficult adjustment for some leaders to move from traditional leadership modalities to the skills necessary for virtual leadership” (p. 117).  It is a matter of restructuring the system by which one leads, which is different in the virtual environment where leaders have to cross many different boundaries “. . . traditional leaders work in the system but, by contrast, boundary managers work on the system” (Kerfoot, 2010, p. 117).
            In their book, Derosa & Lipsinger (2010) have a lot to say about technologies, the need to determine the correct tools for the task/team, and the necessity for appropriate training. They indicate that poor planning and implementation by the organization and team leader will result in low-performance teams. “. . . many organizations launch virtual teams without providing the necessary training to support them” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 23). Derosa continues by illustrating how organizations and leaders make the mistake of trying to utilize every tool that they can find thinking that more is better, instead of selecting the tools that are best for the task and  team, then training extensively:
. . . low-performing teams are more likely to suffer from technology overload or using too many different technologies, which leads to communication problems and hinders performance . . . [leaders must] match the technology to the task. . . . technology should be viewed as a catalyst for virtual team performance improvement not an automatic remedy . . . simply using the technology because you have it will not immediately solve your virtual team performance problems. You have to know how to use the right mix of technologies for your specific team.” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 22)
Conversely, organizations and leaders who match technology to the task and team, provide proper training, appoint leaders who have adapted for the virtual environment, and provide continued technical and emotional support, will result in dynamic and successful team communities that exceed expectations. Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (as cited in Kerfoot, 2010) coin the phrase “communities of practice” in reference to a “. . . model [that] supports the connection of isolated pockets of expertise across an organization and supports interactions, relationships, and sharing of ideas and opportunities across boundaries and geography that will help virtual communities discover and create their own fire” (Kerfoot, 2010, p. 118).  Technology alone will not translate to successful virtual teams – as originally noted, effective leadership is critical. “Although technology is the foundation that enables effective virtual collaboration, it doesn’t guarantee successful virtual teams. Success requires using that technology to communicate effectively” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 19).
“The top skill-development needs for those working in virtual teams are communication and interpersonal skills. After that, teams selected collaboration skills, action planning, problem solving, and decision making” (Derosa & Lepsinger, 2010, p. 22) – add to this utilization of the best technological tools for task and team (and proper training). Derosa & Lepsinger (2010) findings indicate that a significant number of virtual teams are not effective, and perhaps more importantly, that there is a gap in how team effectiveness is perceived that often goes undetected . . . gaps in the perception of team effectiveness [means] . . . many organizations are not even aware that their virtual teams are performing poorly (p. 6). It is important for leaders, then, to adapt to this new virtual environment and devise techniques for assessing virtual team productivity and effectiveness.
Today’s leader cannot ignore the virtual environment and must, therefore, adapt by incorporating new techniques of leadership. “Successful virtual leaders learn how to cross time, space, and culture barriers to make improvements across small and large entities” (Kerfoot, 2010, p. 117). Leaders must focus on effective ways to communicate within a virtual team in order for relationships to develop, resulting in trust and cohesiveness amongst the team. Combine this with proper utilization and training of technological tools that work for the specific task and team and not only will the virtual team be more successful, their effectiveness can truly exceed that of traditional co-located teams, becoming a successful, and better, alternative.



Balthazard, P. A., Waldman, D. A., & Warren, J. E. (2009, June 8). Predictors of the emergence of transformational leadership in virtual decision teams. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(5), 651-663. Retrieved September 29, 2012
Derosa, D., & Lepsinger, R. (2010). Virtual Team Success: A Practical Guide for Working and Leading From a Distance. Jossey-Bass / A Wiley Imprint. Retrieved October 2012
Kerfoot, K. M. (2010, March-April). Listening to See: The Key to Virtual Leadership. Nursing Economics, 28(2), pp. 117-119. Retrieved September 28, 2012
Lepsinger, R., & Derosa, D. (2010, December 7). Virtual Teams Really are Different: 6 Lessons for Creating Successful Virtual Teams. Retrieved Oct 2, 2012, from RP News Wire:
Nemiro, J., Beyerlein, M., Bradley, L., & Beyerlein, S. (2008). The Handbook Of High-Performance Virtual Teams: A Toolkit Fro Collaborating Across Boundaries (First ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Rouse, M. (2007). Early Adopter. Retrieved Oct 14, 2012, from Search Server Virtualization:
TechSource. (2008). Best Practices for Working in a Virtual Team Environment. Library Technology Reports. Retrieved Sept 28, 2012, from


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