On my LinkedIn profile, I received a suggestion in response to one of my recent posts that I cover a particular configuration of virtual teams. In this configuration, the team leader is in one location and the rest of the team is in another. There is some research on the effects of different configurations or distributions of members of virtual teams but there is none, to the best of my knowledge, on this particular configuration. I have used relevant research to put together some educated estimates of what is likely to happen.
Presence of a faultline
When the leader is the only one remote from the team, a faultline results, which then triggers social categorization on the basis of status or authority. The leader, because of the power and authority that s/he yields, will be seen by the team member as belonging to a different category compared to them. Frequent interaction among team members and lack of such interaction with the leader is likely to make their separation from the leader even more salient and provide opportunities for them to reinforce their separate identity and solidarity with each other. The leader, too, may categorize the rest of the team as those who share a role different from her/his and who are accountable to her/him.
This faultline separating the leader from the rest of the team is made worse by distance. Most or all interaction between the leader and members is now mediated by technology, which tends to restrict what is communicated. Additionally, whatever is communicated may not be shared with the whole team. The leader is not fully aware of the actual circumstances of the rest of the team just like the rest of the team is unaware of the leader’s circumstances (see a related post on the presence of subgroups in virtual teams). Under these conditions, attributions play an important role in how the leader and followers evaluate each other. Individuals have a tendency to generate explanations or make sense of the happenings around them. In a face-to-face setting, one has access to significant levels of direct interaction and observations from which to make sense but such interaction and observations are scarcer in a virtual team and sense-making is likely to be based more on one’s mental models rather than the actual circumstances.
Biased sense-making resulting from the faultline
The problem with this sense-making and the resulting attributions is that they tend to be biased. So, we not only have a clear separation between the leader and the team that lends itself to a us versus her/him or me versus them mentality, but we have each of the parties influenced by systematic biases when trying to make sense of the other. Unless a leader and the rest of the team are aware of these tendencies and guard against those by giving the benefit of the doubt to the other entity, the end result may not always be pleasant.
What are some of the biases that affect the process of making attributions? Two that are commonly cited in the attribution literature are the actor-observer and self-serving biases. These interact with one another to give rise to an interesting tendency. When something goes well, the leader is likely to attribute that to her/his leadership and actions. If something goes wrong, the leader is likely to link that with factors external to her/him. These might be the rest of the team or other factors, such as the time zone difference, if one exists. The team members may be similarly biased to attribute any positive happenings to themselves and negative happenings to external factors, including the leader.
Due to such evaluations by the leader and the rest of the team, lack of trust, not liking or being persuaded by someone on the other side of the faultline, incomplete diagnosis of issues, and conflict are likely. Team performance is likely to suffer. There is research that suggests that when the leader communicates her/his evaluation of the rest of the team’s role in any negative happening, the team members are induced to make the same attribution (of their role) and experience learned helplessness. Research also suggests that there are many factors that moderate how the above tendencies actually play out. Culture is one of the factors. A leader from an individualistic culture is likely to attribute any negative happening to team members rather than to the peculiar set of conditions that may be facing while a leader from a collectivistic culture is more likely to attribute a similar happening to external conditions.
Overcoming problems due to the faultline
But the presence of a faultline caused by a leader’s separation from the rest of the team is not always bad news. Nor is the process of making attributions. A deft leader is likely to make the faultline less salient by breaking down the status difference and giving team members an equal say in the workings of the team. Such a leader is also likely to encourage greater interaction and information sharing so that sense-making is based on actual happenings and circumstances instead of mental models and biases that can lead to erroneous evaluation. A smart leader, in fact, would take advantage of being virtual and shape the attributions of others in a way which leads to her/him being easily seen as transformational and charismatic. In the absence of direct observation of the leader, the leader is in a position to communicate selective information about her/his performance or behaviors that cues the rest of the team to see her/him in a very positive light. Of course, if in actuality the leader is not transformational or charismatic, the leader will eventually be seen as hypocritical and unauthentic.
The above are some general behavioral tendencies that may show up when the leader of a virtual team is the only one remote from the team. There are many other factors that could also influence the actual happenings. Good, frequent, and open communication by the whole team and considerate behavior by all can go a long way in alleviating the ill-effects of the faultline separating the leader from the rest of the team. The leader has to set the example of open and frequent communication, including that oriented towards building social relationships, and considerate behaviors for others to follow.