Six Management Practices That Don’t Cut It in a Virtual World
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted April 03, 2011

Do you think that just because you’re a successful manager of traditional teams that you’ll automatically be a hotshot manager in the virtual world? Maybe not. In fact, it’s often those managers who assume their leadership skills are eminently transportable to a virtual team are those who struggle the most. Why? They haven’t taken the time to understand how vastly different virtual team dynamics can be for both leaders and team members, and thus, are less likely to find ways to accommodate those differences.

In this issue, I explore some of the “traditional” management tenets that are most likely to backfire in a virtual world, and offer some alternatives that will yield better results when leading teams who work remotely.

  • Don’t trust what you can’t see. Leaders who micromanage mistakenly believe that the more one checks up on people, the faster they’ll produce results. Not so in a virtual world, where this kind of pestering may force team members to pull back or pull out, many times with no one really noticing. Far better to pick up the phone or shoot an email or IM to ask how things are going, using a friendly and supportive tone. However, do this sparingly, as people may start to see this show of alleged concern and support as micromanagement in disguise.
  • “Because I said so.” A command and control style rarely works outside of the military in any work environment, but in a virtual world, it’s a non- starter. Some managers imagine that people will be motivated to perform high-quality work just because their manager declares that they must. Hardly. In a virtual world, where it’s so much more challenging to ensure that a team is aligned to work toward shared goals, it’s critical that everyone buys into the overall goals, business case, and the context for their team and individual contributions. Without such an explicit agreement, team members may work at cross- purposes, if they work at all; and when the lack of alignment is finally spotted, it can be too late to pull them back in.
  • Keep important information close to the vest. Think that holding back vital information will make you more respected and powerful? Think again. One of the most critical roles of a virtual team leader is to ensure that people have a way to share and access the content and knowledge they need to do their work. In the absence of informal ways of exchanging ideas and knowledge, virtual teams require multiple channels and methods for creating, sharing, accessing and building on information. Creating a team information architecture is ultimately the responsibility of the team leader, with input from the team. When in doubt, err on the side of enabling members to access more information rather than less.
  • Zero tolerance for mistakes. Making examples of team members who slip up, miss a deadline or otherwise disappoint can create a culture of fear and distrust. Creating an environment where people feel pressured to appear perfect may lead team members to hide real problems, fail to surface critical issues, or pretend to be meeting goals and achieving deliverables when they’re really not. In a virtual world, it’s harder to discover what’s going unsaid, since team members have few means by which to share what’s really going on. To foster an environment where honest conversation can flourish, team leaders must find supportive ways to encourage people to acknowledge shortcomings without fear of retribution.
  • Do as I say, not as I do. If you’re a typical manager, you may arrive to your meetings late, expecting to be caught up on what you missed. You might then sidetrack the agenda with unplanned topics as you silently multitask, hoping no one notices. Yet, when a team member demonstrates this same behavior, you may show little tolerance. Leaders of virtual teams must model the kind of behavior that enables real collaboration. Otherwise, your team members will start showing up late, checking out early, and participating halfway, simply because it’s so easy to do when no one can see you, and when the boss has set the precedent. Set the standard for the behavior you expect from others. If you must arrive late, apologize in advance and catch yourself up on the proceedings through active listening.
  • Light a fire under people and they’ll do great work. Many managers use magical thinking when making unrealistic demands of their teams. For example: “If I set a really ambitious deadline, people will somehow find more hours in a day to get the work done on time.” The result, most often: Damaged morale, frustration, erosion of credibility for the team leader, and ultimately, the inability of the team to deliver timely work. When deliverables are slipping, sounding alarms can be difficult and scary for virtual teams, especially when the leader refuses to back off from a preposterous deadline. Far better to ask the team what they can deliver by when and what they need from you and each other. Agree on ways to track progress and identify gaps so all can quickly discover impediments that require quick rectification.

Summary

Certain basic skills are critical for managing both face-to-face teams and virtual groups, such as active listening, excellent interpersonal and organizational skills, and empathy. When leading a virtual team, however, certain qualities and characteristics are even more important, simply because the margin for error is so small and the work to undo a breach of trust or a misguided assumption is so great. Be honest in assessing which of your leadership skills must be honed, and which must be developed if you want to build on your management track record in a virtual world.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy