Rapid global changes in communication technologies have spawned the virtual business enterprise. Individual professionals interact on a mutual endeavor via the internet and cellular communications from different global locations. As the world of work becomes more global, the project leader of the virtual team faces the increased challenges of dealing with a geographically dispersed and culturally diverse team, including balancing potentially competing cultures and dissimilar social values of the team participants.
The complexity of cross-cultural work-groups and group relations in a pluralistic society can lead to formidable resistance by the parties involved, especially in managing organizational change. Moreover, a common problem of the virtual project teams is the perceived lack of support from company executives, fellow teammates, and project managers. Consequently, solid leadership of the virtual project team working in a global environment is essential.
This article addresses the leading of virtual projects, including the appropriate leadership style, the special challenges of this scenario and suggestions for tackling this brave new world.
Four Possible Leadership Styles
Contemporary organizations recognize the limitations of the old command-and-control management regimen and the advantages of an empowerment venue for success in today’s business climate. Companies are changing from a focus on competition to one of cooperation; from wanting things to valuing relationships; and from enforcing uniformity to extolling diversity. There are four styles for the virtual project leader to consider.
Task Master: Authoritarian Management
An authoritarian “command and control” method has long been the traditional management style of American business. Most people learned this “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy at home and in school, followed by the “drill sergeant as god” in the military. This task-focused leadership style requires directions to be delivered from the authority above to the obedient subordinates below. An authoritarian manager makes all the decisions, has all the power and executive privilege, and gives orders for strict execution by subordinates. While authoritarian management is suitable for certain situations (e.g. emergencies needing quick solutions), this style of leadership is inappropriate for situations that benefit from employee input, involve non-routine problem solving, or require proactive team members.
A participative leader consults with subordinates, solicits ideas, suggestions and opinions, and then integrates this input into organizational decisions. While participative management is common in American corporations, it does not include a redistribution of power and authority. Paternalistic management makes all major decisions and determines rewards. Although the team players are responsible for personal performance, they are not complete partners in the company since the team lacks an equity stake in the enterprise and the authority to make critical decisions.
Stewardship -The Empowering Leader
With a robust reward system, self-directed project teams following a stewardship approach are empowered to make decisions and to take direct control of project work. Teammates form their own leadership with the power to influence the goals, systems, and structures of the project. Stewardship presumes project leaders to be committed to the success of the organization. While holding themselves personally accountable for the results of the project and the actions of team members, steward project leaders do not attempt to control subordinates or take responsibility for the team’s professional development. The steward leadership style assists organizations to thrive in today’s rapidly changing global business environment by tapping the energies, commitment, and knowledge of all project participants.
Servant leadership is an inversion of the traditional organizational pyramid, whereby the leaders transcend their own self-interest to serve the needs of their followers. Servant leaders nourish the growth and development of subordinates, and provide opportunities for individual material and emotional gain. Although seemingly egalitarian and altruistic, servant leadership functions on four basic precepts: put service prior to self-interest; listen first to affirm others; inspire trust by being trustworthy; and nourish growth.
Although each of the noted leadership styles is possible, the project manager leader following a servant leadership style is best suited for today’s virtual environment. The successful global project leader’s skills include empathy for cross-cultural issues, suaveness with cyberspace, and the leveraging of technology to deal with change resistance. The most important issue facing the geographically dispersed project team, however, is the development of trust. The tools of the astute virtual project are discussed next.
Essentials for Virtual Project Teams
The key ingredients for leading virtual project teams include the effective use of telecommunication technologies, forging a group identity, developing a sense of professional community, and developing trust amongst the team and their leader.
Internet and Telecommunications
The Internet, along with the accompanying telecommunications technologies, is presently the major influence on multiple changes within business organizations as well as the world community at large. Society and traditional cultural relationships are experiencing profound changes, unprecedented in terms of time, space, and distance, due to the light speed of the new age of immediate 24/7 information sharing. Compared to traditional business, where operations move at a slow deliberate pace and change is met with skepticism, the culture of the Internet business is agile, faced-paced, and receptive to new solutions. Virtual project teams operating in this brave new world must embrace the expansion of communications networks and business relationships across organizational boundaries.
A crucial construct for virtual teams is the enabling of team structures that formally establish team governance. But group dynamics can challenge the virtual project team, dynamics especially exacerbated by an “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” mentality. Special issues in leading virtual project teams include developing trust and group identity; sharing information; formation of clear structure and informal subgroups; and understanding information. To counter the “out-of-touch-out-of-the-value loop” negative feelings of the virtual team member, strong connections between the project and the team members are established by an enhanced sense of professional community and trustworthy project leaders.
Sense of Professional Community
A globally-spewed project team has greater challenges in developing clear structures of team organization, processes, information sharing and understanding of shared information. A broadband communication strategy employing multiple media can counter the difficulty in sharing adequate levels of information across distances. Broadband communication technologies that can facilitate the virtual project team include the Internet, pagers and cell-phones, teleconferencing, and videoconferencing. Without face-to-face interaction, virtual team players have fewer shared experiences, lack group cohesion, and complete understanding of teammates’ roles and responsibilities.
Moreover, cliques tend to create antagonism and competition between the team and the project manager. The judicious, regular use of the broadband communication technologies can help to counter these difficulties. Regular teleconference meetings, with a well-articulated agenda and balanced participation, assist with forming a group identity in addition to properly executing the project. Although a project leader cannot prevent cliques and subgroups from forming, a virtual team that perceives their project leader to be open, trustworthy, and ethical will help maintain honest productive lines of communication.
Trustworthy Transformational Project Leaders
The most important issue facing the virtual project team is developing trust. Geographical dispersion creates the perception that virtual project leaders have little if any formal authority. The problems of irregular and inconsistent communications, the personal unacquaintedness amongst the dispersed team members, and detrimental competitive feelings, all require the project leader to build—overtly and continuously—trust as a top priority. Executing projects in the virtual workplace require an appropriate leadership style, understanding of a global literacy, and the astute use of technology in dealing with resistance to change. Project management, as a leader-intensive undertaking, considers trustworthiness as the most primal law of the virtual jungle. A trustworthy project leader is the most critical component for the virtual project to succeed.
A project leader with a servant leadership style is able to stimulate the team to think about project requirements in new ways, to leverage technology in facilitating change and to emphasize group goals over personal self-interests. Transformational leaders inspire a sense of importance about the project mission and successfully transcend the barriers of geography and culture—while maintaining accountability for results—key to project success. A transformational leadership style is best suited as the "right stuff" for virtual projects in need of directive leadership functional in a global continuum.
Global changes in communication technologies are creating a new sociological and economic system and call for new methods of project management. The cultural and societal changes forged by globalization and networking transcend national boundaries and governmental controls, while redefining the nature of project work into virtual teaming functioning outside the traditional organization. The virtual project team has now become the new standard modus operandi for planning and executing change-based projects, as project management resources become globally accessible and universally accepted. Virtual project leaders must have a global literacy of culture that transcends national boundaries, and have an understanding of the role of technology in dealing with change resistance.
Servant style leadership provides the best model for the virtuous leadership of virtual projects, since leading change is a critical precursor of every project conducted in cyberspace. Trustworthy transformational leaders with empathy for team members help teams achieve higher project quality by successfully interlinking people and task for success over time in dynamic and often chaotic environments. The formidable challenges of understanding culture and addressing change make leading projects in the virtual atelier that much more exciting.
© 2012 allPM.com
This article is an abridged version of the 2003 paper, “The Virtuous Leading Virtual Project Teams” by the same author published by Common Ground.