How To Lead a High-Performing Virtual Team

Five attributes and how to cultivate and live them

Vy Luu
Vy Luu
Jul 9 · 8 min read
Photo by Matthieu Joannon on Unsplash

I was a candidate for a promotion to manager in 2003. It didn’t happen. The vote was not unanimous. Disappointed with the rejection and tired from years of extra-long working days, I went home and bawled.

The next day, I asked how I could be ready the next time. The answer? Build more relationships. So work on the relationships I did. And it paid off. I talked, participated, and smiled more. It was a year of working outside of my comfort zone that paid off in improved relationships and resulted in a promotion.

Relationship building continues to be the skill I lean on for leading high-performing virtual teams.

What Characteristics Influence Virtual Teams?

The virtual team makeup is growing as companies reach for talent that would otherwise not be accessible. How teams that are distributed across cultures, regions, and time zones work together is fascinating. Researchers posit relationship building with in-person teams happens organically. In virtual teams, leaders have to guide them proactively.

Studies are ongoing to test traditional leadership styles for modern workplaces. One conventional framework is the big five.

What are Good Virtual Leadership Traits?

Five distinctive attributes for leading high performing virtual teams

Buffer: How the big five can help you build a more effective team

1. Emotional stability (Neuroticism)

An emotionally stable leader (low in neuroticism) is more comfortable in these scenarios:

  • Resolves conflicts in high-pressure environments
  • Remains calm in persisting changing circumstances

Virtual teams need coordination, communication, and energy, which can be stressful. A leader who is less affected by stressors may manage adverse and dynamic situations more calmly.

2. Extraversion

One approach asks us to not label ourselves. Instead, focus on the characteristics that work for each unique situation. I buy into that. With people I’m not intimidated by, I can be talkative and friendly without feeling drained.

High energy, forming relationships, participating with others, and communicating are often extravert tendencies. An energetic and personable leader is the type of manager I like to work for.

Virtual leaders face the challenge of developing trust. It is harder in an environment with fewer opportunities to speak with colleagues daily. A leader with extraverted qualities, more social and communicative leader is likely to reach out and sustain relations with virtual team members. Other benefits described by high extraversion are:

  • Accepts new opinions and, as a result, delivers better-thought-out plans
  • Gains respect from the team because they openly share their skills and expertise

3. Openness to Experience

Such leaders meet new situations with enthusiasm. Rather than fearing challenges, they creatively solve problems. This trait is most helpful in environments of uncertainty, such as the one we work in today, where technology is replacing and changing many of our jobs. A virtual leader with an openness to experience remains calm in order to transition others to new work approaches.

The opposite of openness to experience is:

  • Has traditional thinking styles
  • Does not accept diversity or inclusivity

Distributed team members may come from different cultures or social norms. They require a leader who welcomes diversity in gender, work experience, and societal customs.

4. Conscientiousness

  • Sees the big picture (goal)
  • Is cautious and validate the details
  • Follows the objective through, regardless of issues that come up

Conscientiousness is visible in these ways:

5. Agreeableness

Agreeable behaviours include:

  • Co-operates with others to find a win-win outcome
  • Communicates to listen, exchange ideas that satisfy multiple views

Technology issues, distance, and introvert tendencies can contribute to miscommunication in virtual teams. An agreeable nature shows thoughtfulness. Moreover, it gives others the benefit of the doubt, which sets a positive tone across the organization to support each other.

How to Know if You’re a Good Virtual Leader?

Apply the big five model to virtual leadership

Step 1: Gain knowledge of the factors closely related to effective virtual management

Let’s acknowledge favourable predictors as ones most likely to apply to a specific situation. The key takeaway is that they are most likely, but not guaranteed, to solve every scenario.

I don’t accept that there is only one method for achieving success since we each hold individual strengths and blind spots. The model simply enables me to evaluate my workplace and team’s performance levels to determine how to improve how I lead virtual teams.

Step 2: Conduct a self-assessment

  • Understand if you’re low, moderate, or high on the extraversion scale.
  • Get your big five assessment. It’s rewarding to see that my focus on developing work relationships through communication has paid off since 2003.
My Personality Test
  • Ask a close companion to assess your big five. I found this step interesting because I told my partner I was unhappy with my results. Before the test, I placed myself low on extraversion and high on agreeableness. He squinted critically and said, “You? Agreeable? Sure, when the idea matches yours.” I also said I handle stress well (emotional stability/neuroticism) and he disagreed. So if you’re going to build an improvement plan, you may want to have others’ assessments to reconcile against your views.

Step 3: Choose one feature to practice

A colleague shared this view: we all have under-developed areas we are less comfortable with. We can be good at our role by working hard to achieve excellence in traits that don’t come naturally.

This means you can be a highly anxious person, yet know how to control it so it is hidden from others. This might mean you live with mood swings or you are highly emotional. However, you recognize showing stress to your team is not helpful to the situation, so you implement ways to shelter them.

My point is visible below. I answered this survey with both my work and personal hats on. The red marker represents how I respond in the workplace and the blue marker is how I am in my personal life. You can see my conscientious and extraverted habits apply only to work.

me at work (red) versus me at home (blue)

How to Lead Successful Virtual Teams

Be open to new experiences

Be conscientious

Be extraverted

Be agreeable

Stabilize high emotions

Summary of Effective Virtual Leadership Qualities

  • Extraversion: friendly, talkative, sociable
  • Agreeableness: compassionate, helpful, trusting
  • Conscientiousness: dependable, detailed, organized
  • Emotional stability: confident, worry little, low anxiety
  • Openness to experience: adventurous, enjoys new experiences

Recognize we control how we lead our teams to work well together, regardless of where they sit. It doesn’t mean one personality trait is better than another. It means we all have opportunities to display the traits that enable our teams to do their best work, individually, and together.

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Vy Luu

Written by

Vy Luu

Leading, following and stumbling through life. Always searching for advice on becoming a better leader, colleague and human.

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