The psychology of leading teams remotely

Leadership from a distance requires a careful study of human nature, says L&D specialist Sudhakar Sampath.

by Sudhakar Sampath
Last Updated: 19 Oct 2018

Josh, a dynamic and charismatic software professional, started his career in a leading IT consulting firm. Within a couple of years, he earned the respect of his colleagues for his exceptional analytical and problem-solving skills. His technical depth brought multiple awards at international level. He continued to grow faster in the organisation and appeared as a role model for many budding professionals.

Things were moving fine until he got a new assignment to lead a virtual team of ten members that would get together physically once a year. Though Josh was initially thrilled to take up the opportunity, he soon started noticing resistance from his team members, cribs on small issues and low engagement levels. There was a delay meeting customer deliverables, resulting in four resignations within a year.

Many of us may find the above story familiar in our own professional careers. Those who are successful in leading physical teams may not necessarily succeed in leading virtual teams. A global survey revealed that about 96% of team leaders consider themselves effective in leading global virtual teams but only 58% of team members feel that their leaders are effective in handling them. This statistic raises the questions: what is so different about leading virtual teams and how can one lead such teams successfully?

A virtual or a remote team is one where team members operate across boundaries and different time zones without the opportunity to work together physically on a regular basis. For instance, if a virtual team has ten members, because of advancements in communication technologies, it is quite possible to have all the members operating effectively from different locations without meeting even once physically in a year. However, several studies show that this kind of interaction can lead team members to suffer social isolation and consequently serious emotional issues such as burnout, loneliness, depression, anxiety, fear and boredom. Over a period, these emotional issues pile up and manifest in behaviour, thus leading to unproductive and toxic work environments.

Can leaders really help virtual teams overcome these challenges? In our experience, we believe it is quite possible to build well-functioning virtual teams, provided that leaders act sensitively to satisfy the three most important psychological needs or hungers of their people. Let’s examine each one in detail.

1. Hunger for meaning

Human beings are inherently driven to seek purpose or meaning in life. Some of us find meaning in personal accomplishments, some in relationships, and some in overcoming challenges and so on. Imagine someone doing hundreds of activities in a week but being unable to connect these activities to the strategic intent of the virtual team, and finding nobody to share the frustration or discuss ideas. There is a strong possibility that this person may feel lonely, unhappy, stressed and consequently less productive.

In fact, research reveals a prevalence of burnout, loneliness and depression in virtual teams. On the contrary, those who see a larger purpose or meaning in their work do not get bogged down by loneliness or depression. For instance, astronauts on the space station are subjected to extreme loneliness, yet rarely complain about it and remain committed. In such cases, leaders play a vital role in defining a compelling mission. They also keep in constant touch with and keep a close eye on the psychological wellbeing of team members.

People working remotely look for assurance and guidance, and who could be a better person to provide that than a leader? If only the team leader starts checking in a friendly manner how he or she can be of help to the members to achieve their goals, the problem of loneliness and burnout will lessen.

2. Hunger for importance

The second important psychological driver is to feel important. When leaders delay their responses while dealing with virtual teams, due to physical separation, it often unnecessarily triggers members to feel ignored or less important. On the contrary, most successful leaders display one common behaviour: they listen to the needs of team members proactively and respond swiftly. Hence, giving a message to a team member is important is vital to arrest unnecessary anxiety and fear around employment or career growth.

Interestingly, we observed in one organisation that virtual team members were retained more often by those leaders who had shown sensitivity in talking to them via phone or through Skype whenever they had to distribute a promotion or a salary increment letter. Those leaders who had simply forwarded these letters via email reported a greater number of resignations in their teams. This shows the importance of proactive communication. Similarly, when members are recognised or given useful feedback for the work performed, it lifts their morale.

3. Hunger for structure

Structure here refers to how an individual fill his or her time by engaging in various tasks. Most virtual teams provide flexibility for team members to perform tasks as long as they meet the overall project timelines. Though the members of virtual teams experience enough flexibility, if time is not utilised appropriately, it can lead to boredom. When we combine the complexity of virtual isolation and unstructured work timing, this becomes serious. Virtual leaders can mitigate this boredom by creating a culture where team members can learn from each other and gain skills and knowledge that will be important to their future. 

Remember, we are not trained to comprehend our own emotional states accurately, let alone those of others. This becomes all the more challenging without face to face interaction. However, by paying closer attention to human psychology, it is possible to develop the leadership behaviours to lead virtual teams more successfully.

Sudhakar Sampath is a learning and development specialist at Wipro Limited.

Image credit: Steve Johnson/Pexels

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