How To Lead a High-Performing Virtual Team
Five attributes and how to cultivate and live them
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?
Researchers say these character dimensions are predictors of management qualities for virtual teams. Of the five, I hold none of the stated qualities at the high level I demand of myself. As the leader of a distributed team who interacts virtually, via Google Chat and Meet, this is what keeps me up at night.
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
Extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience and neuroticism (or emotional stability) are the big five traits. Already seen as promising leadership traits, academics found they are also valuable for leading today’s virtual workplace.
1. Emotional stability (Neuroticism)
Stability in emotions is a part of the big five because teams perform better when they are capable of handling stress and ambiguous situations. Unclear information or misunderstandings are highly likely in virtual teams. This is due to the limited availability of cues, such as non-verbal body language and tone, that usually helps one understand the intention of a message.
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.
Many of us identify with being an extravert or an introvert. I label myself as an introvert 100% of the time. Long-term friends wholeheartedly agree. New friends challenge it, “No way, I was sure you’re an extravert!”
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
Change, unpredictability, and ambiguity are words that scare most of us. However, they are exciting to a leader who is open to the 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.
Diligence and perseverance define conscientiousness. The qualities are high in goal-oriented individuals. They have the focus and organization skills to set and achieve objectives. They are strong job performers because of their ability to:
- 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:
- Sets goals
- Delivers positive and improvement feedback to reach goals
- Is dependable and does what s/he commits to
A high willingness to agree with others is a sign of agreeableness. It is caring more about maintaining positive relationships than being right. It’s one that my partner encourages me to improve on. A high agreeableness score is ranked as the top predictor of team leadership effectiveness. Those of us who are agreeable can both lead and follow.
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
The big five model application provides us with a working framework for virtual teams. I see it as an approach to building my virtual leadership improvement plan.
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.
- 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.
How to Lead Successful Virtual Teams
Be open to new experiences
If you’re less than open to new experiences, remind yourself of a time where a new experience turned out to be positive. Share the example with your team. It can be an indirect way to show others you can see the good in a modern approach.
If you get distracted easily, use technology to mask the deficiency. I have a terrible memory, so I take notes about everything anyone says. My partner has even caught me with daily calendar events that say: “Be kind to Gavin.” The purpose is to show that you do what you promised within the timeframe you committed to.
If your nature is introverted, use this to your advantage. Think and write the message you want before sending it. The goal is to make the connection, and virtual worlds can be more comfortable for those of us who prefer to think before we speak. As an introvert, I prefer communication via chats and texts over in person. So, as long as I communicate, I am more of a social leader.
If you challenge ideas often, next time set aside ten minutes for disagreeing respectfully. Next, set double that time to list the positives of the concept. It’s one of the toughest parts of my day, so I remind myself often to look for an angle on the idea that solves the team’s problem.
Stabilize high emotions
If you are highly anxious, develop cues to remove yourself in those cases. Do this to prevent your nervous energy from transferring to others. I have asked colleagues to help with nudging me to take a break when they see I’m losing my calm. Alternatively, I create breaks in between meetings so I can re-charge and alleviate my self-inflicted pressures.
Summary of Effective Virtual Leadership Qualities
The big five framework and its cited qualities tend to produce powerful leaders. It transfers to virtual leadership also. Keywords and phrases to jog each concept are:
- 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.