Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

What should replace central control?

Leadership that is shared amongst team members or allowed to emerge from within the team leads to virtual teams that are more cohesive and effective, according to numerous recent studies.

For example, one study used three dimensions of virtual distance (geography, culture and time) to look at how different configurations of virtual teams were impacted by different leadership dynamics.  Their results demonstrated that in all cases emergent leadership positively impacted team performance[i].  Another study examined 101 virtual teams and found that not only did shared leadership predict team performance, but it was a more stable form of leadership for virtual teams than traditional forms of hierarchical leadership.

So what exactly is shared and emergent leadership?

Shared leadership is defined as ‘a collective leadership process, whereby multiple team members step up to take the lead or to participate in team leadership functions… [and so] lead each other toward the achievement of goals’ (Hoch & Dulebohn 2017). Emergent leadership occurs when team members take on an informal leadership role.

In other words, leadership should be able to flow naturally to whoever has the right knowledge or capability to exercise it in the particulate circumstance, irrespective of hierarchical position.  Both eBay and WL Gore (of Gore-tex fame) successfully operate self-directed teams. As they say at famously progressive Gore, “if they are not a good leader then we just follow someone else”.

In this way activities are led by people with the expertise and motivation to drive change.  It means all virtual team members taking responsibility for the team’s success.  For it to work, individuals need to have the skills and abilities to engage in the process of shared leadership: to be willing to lead others and also be led by their peers.  It means we need to distribute leadership capability much further into the organization, with a much deeper capability in virtual meeting facilitation skills and coaching.

Is this something you cover in your new manager syllabus?

Other studies have found that emergent leaders:

  1. participate early and frequently in the team
  2. communicate often with quality messages: express more opinions, ask more questions and initiate more ideas
  3. build team members’ confidence regarding their skills and expertise
  4. are reliable and consistent

As a result, emergent leaders are often highly trusted by team members. Sounds like the perfect leadership candidate – without the need for an extensive interview process and the risk that they won’t gel with the team.

As leaders, we will need to encourage this adult-to-adult rather than parent-child form of leadership and actively protect it from the legacy hierarchy, otherwise it will fail to emerge.

If you would like to see more of our latest research led insights into virtual, matrix and digital teams please download our white paper here. Please note we only respond to corporate email addresses, not gmail or other generic ones.

[i] Ocker, R., Huang, H., BenbunanFich, R. and Hiltz, S.R. (2011) Leadership Dynamics in Partially Distributed Teams, IT Professional, 13(1), 26-32.

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