by Joanna Lima
While unpacking five myths about virtual leadership, the author offers practical wisdom for leaders engaged in distance leadership.
Virtual leadership is a prevalent reality in today’s world of mission, whether in frontline church-planting initiatives, or in important support initiatives across the mission organization. The nature of globalized ministry requires us to be able to offer leadership across not only geographic distance, but often also across various kinds of diversity, including cultural, generational, role, and personality. Some leaders adequately and successfully navigate the challenge of virtual leadership, while others end up only virtually leading and not offering the leadership expected or required. What makes the difference?
Many assumptions are made about leading virtually, and this article seeks to unpack five common myths. These have been revealed in the context of global ministry by leaders across multiple mission organizations, but are also well supported in research on virtual teaming and virtual leadership (e.g., Cascio and Shurygailo 2003; Hertel, Geister, and Konradt 2005). While unpacking these myths, this article offers practical wisdom for leaders engaged in distance leadership and equips those in missions to lead virtually rather than virtually lead.
Leading a Virtual Team Requires Less Energy than Leading a Face-to-face Team
The phenomenon “out of sight, out of mind” is a particular challenge to virtual leadership and virtual teams. When we have face-to-face teams, the reality of the needs and demands of that team are front and center.
Leaders of virtual teams can sometimes feel like they are “off the hook” with virtual team leadership—they don’t have people dropping by their office, morning team meetings to plan for, or obvious team conflicts in the office. The reality, however, is that effectively leading a virtual team requires more intentionality and energy than leading a face-to-face team.
This is in part due to the distance factor frequently experienced by virtual team members. It is not just physical isolation, but can also be a sense of isolation from the organization and organizational issues, and can be compounded exponentially by silence.
Practical wisdom for leaders: Anticipate and over-communicate. Silence will breed mistrust and confusion. Schedule consistent meetings so all team members know exactly when they will be connecting next, and what will be on the agenda. Allow them time to contribute to the agenda, and communicate concerns that have arisen. Careful implementation of a well-developed collaborative communication process is essential.
Trust Is Less Important in Virtual Contexts
Trust is an important ingredient in all effective teams; virtual teams are no exception. In fact, researchers have noted that whereas trust is important in all teams, it is essential in the virtual context. Of course, building trust in the virtual context is more difficult than in face-to-face teams, and breaking trust may be easier in virtual teams!
Trust needs to be formed in two areas: interpersonal trust (the expectancy that team member’s efforts will be reciprocated and appreciated), and organizational trust (trust in the system—that the team process will work reliably). Research has shown that when either of these is low, performance will suffer (Kirkman, Rosen, Tesluk, and Gibson 2004).
In the virtual context, building trust in these areas may be challenging, but not impossible. At the heart of the issue is the deeper question of how trusting, robust relationships are formed. The contributing behavioral and communication elements can still be present and developed at a distance, although more intentionality will be required.
Practical wisdom for leaders: Be ready to face this challenge head on. Researchers commonly recommend that virtual team leaders create an opportunity early in the formation of the team to either meet face-to-face, or if this is not possible, to very intentionally get to know one another at a social level rather than jumping straight into “business.”
Research has shown that in addition to regular communication, the most productive virtual teams have more non-work-related conversations than less productive teams (e.g., Saphiere 1996), suggesting that communication should not be limited to just work topics. As a team leader, you can help to facilitate ongoing personal communication to help build cohesion in the team.
Culture Doesn’t Matter as Much in the Virtual Context
This couldn’t be further from the truth. There has been a lot of research in recent years on the impact of culture on leadership, and subsequently on followership. It is vital that leaders understand how their own culture impacts their leadership and how it is perceived. This is as true in the virtual context as it is in face-to-face situations.
The impact of cultural diversity reflects itself in ways far more complex than managing time zone and language differences (although these are very significant factors). Other pertinent issues include the degree to which equality among people is considered to be normal (power distance), the degree to which members of a culture are tolerant of or adverse to risk (uncertainty avoidance), and where members of a culture fall on the collectivism-individualism scale.
To add to the challenge, in virtual communication there are no visual social cues (unless you are using videoconferencing software). This can contribute to even greater cross-cultural communication problems than when you are sitting in the same room with someone from a different culture.
Practical wisdom for leaders: Maximizing the cultural diversity in your global virtual team is essential to both the health of the team and its productivity. To do this, a high degree of intentionality is required. Cultural intelligence (CQ) offers a means for overcoming some of the challenges inherent in multicultural virtual teams, and equips leaders and team members to harness the benefits that come from different cultural perspectives and experience. One excellent resource for ideas on developing CQ is Leadership in a Diverse and Multicultural Environment (Connerly and Pederson 2005).
Virtual Teams Aren’t as Effective as Face-to-face Teams
Virtual teams have been shown in a variety of research contexts to have capacity to be highly effective. In particular, virtual teams designed for specific concrete outcomes have the potential to be even more effective than traditional face-to-face teams (Avolio and Kahai 2003).
This is in part because of the unique possibilities inherent in virtual teams and virtual leadership. No borders exist (teams can be made up of members from anywhere in the world), no visas, no travel, and no commute necessary, allowing for much greater organizational connectedness. This is particularly significant in allowing for the expression of a dimension of the global Body of Christ that has traditionally been pragmatically difficult.
In the virtual world, leaders from the now-dominant Majority World Church are able to have significant influence in other parts of the world, whereas previously finance or visa issues may have prevented these voices from being heard.
Practical wisdom for leaders: Make the most of the opportunities that virtual leadership and virtual teaming afford. Virtual teams are not “last resort” teams. They can be highly productive and flexible, and are cost effective. They also allow diverse perspectives and expertise to be drawn in for specific purposes.
Substantive Influence Is Not Possible in the Absence of Face-to-face Contact
So-called laissez faire leadership (the kind of leadership that slips to the lowest common denominator of expectations and resources) is not inevitable for virtual leaders. Research has shown that one of the greatest determinants of team performance is the team leader (e.g., Cascio and Shurygailo 2003).
Research shows that this is also true for virtual teams. Consequently, the role as leader of a virtual team should be taken very seriously, as a God-given responsibility. Transformational leadership, a theory of leadership that prioritizes empowering followers and often inspires a deep commitment to goals higher than self-interest, has been shown to be even more effective in virtual team environments than in traditional face-to-face teams (Purvanova and Bono 2009), evidencing the fact that leaders can be just as influential in virtual contexts.
One of the consistent messages from research is that members of virtual teams highly value team leaders who are confident in their ability to lead (Beyerlein, Bradley, Nemiro, and Beyerlein 2008). Therefore, being convinced that you can have influence as a virtual leader is essential, and will be communicated whether you intend it to be or not.
Practical wisdom for leaders: While it is possible to be highly effective in leadership and have significant and substantial influence, virtual leaders should be aware that inevitably adaptation and adjustments of your typical leadership style will be necessary. Communications will rely heavily on technology, for example. Be confident that you can have a significant influence on those you lead virtually.
Research has shown that the practice of virtual leadership, found in mission organizations with increasing regularity, can be very effective and can enable mutual influence from all parts of the mission. Virtual leadership is not something to retreat from, but rather, should be capitalized on as a phenomenon that can be empowering and highly influential.
Avolio, Bruce, and Surinder Kahai. 2003. “Adding the ‘E’ to E-Leadership: How it may impact your leadership.” Organizational Dynamics 31(4):325-338.
Beyerlein, Michael, Lori Bradley, Jill Nemiro, and Susan Beyerlein. 2004. “Collaboration in the Real World.” In The Handbook of High-Performance Virtual Teams. Eds. Nemiro, Jill, Michael Beyerlin, Lori Bradley, and Susan Beyerlein, 681-691. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey Bass Publishers.
Cascio, Wayne and Stan Shurygailo. 2003. “E-Leadership and Virtual Teams.” Organizational Dynamics 31(4):362-376.
Connerly, Mary and Paul Pederson. 2006. Leadership in a Diverse and Multicultural Environment. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.
Hertel, Guido, Susanne Geister, and Udo Konradt. 2005. “Managing Virtual Teams: A Review of Current Empirical Research.” Human Resource Management Review 15(1):69-95.
Kirkman, Bradley, Rosen Benson, Paul Tesluk, and Christina Gibson. 2004. “The Impact of Team Empowerment on Virtual Team Performance.” Academy of Management Journal 47(2):175-192.
Purvanova, Radostina and Joyce Bono. 2009. “Transformational Leadership in Context: Face-to-face and Virtual Teams.” Leadership Quarterly 20(3):343-357.
Saphiere, Dianne. 1996. “Productive Behaviors of Global Business Teams”. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 20(2): 227–259.
Joanna Lima currently serves as the international leadership development facilitator for Pioneers, and is based in Thailand. Joanna has many years of experience leading church-planting teams in East Asia.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 426-430. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.