Virtual Teams

Do virtual team leaders get the followers they deserve?

One of our sayings on our virtual team leader training is “leaders get the followers they deserve.”

Newly promoted leaders  have a six-month period of grace where they can generally blame their predecessor for most failings in the team, results, budget overspends etc. But, after this they have to take primary responsibility, and that includes the style of followership that they create.

Most leaders inherit some expectations of how followers will behave from the previous manager. The climate they created in terms of way of working and expectations on things like level of control and involvement have become part of the routine of the team. Newly installed leaders need an explicit strategy if they want to change this. They also need to be explicit about doing it as people may misunderstand their motivations.

For example, a virtual leader who is new to the job may want a higher level of involvement and control . In the early days whilst they are learning the new roles. It is easy, however, for this to be interpreted as micromanagement by followers who have been used to a higher level of autonomy or less involvement from their boss. In this environment it’s easy to create a vicious circle where increased monitoring leads to dissatisfaction and people begin to escalate more issues. Increased escalation can undermine faith that the manager in the capability of their people and lead them into higher levels of micromanagement. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

Virtual team leaders need to think through the style of followership that they want to create and explicitly modify their behaviour is to bring out that style. For example, if you want people to be challenging, then you must respond well to challenge and must sometimes change your mind, otherwise why would they bother to challenge? If you want people to be self-directed, then give them space to come up with their own ideas, avoid giving too much clarity yourself.

This followership based approach leads to a very different set of leadership capabilities than the usual list of “perfect leader” characteristics. On our virtual team leaders training I often ask people to identify what they would like in a virtual leader. Anyone meeting the list of criteria they come up with would probably be simultaneously running a major corporation and a world religion. I often ask:
“If they are doing all this, what is left for you to do?”

Virtual leaders need to think explicitly about the style of followership they need in virtual teams where a high level of self-direction, autonomy and self-management is necessary. This may require them to lead less themselves to make space for more leadership to emerge in their people.

If you are a virtual team leader and you are dissatisfied with the behaviours of your people, always start by looking at yourself. Have your behaviours created this style of followership? It’s harder to change others than to change yourself, so why not start there.

Check out this interactive graphic on our virtual teams learning path and training module contents.

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