Managing a team is difficult enough when in the same office, so we can clearly see the complexity and challenges of leading a virtual team. To do this successfully we need to understand our drivers as human beings.

Neuroscience breakthroughs give us deeper insight into the psychology of human motivation. Lawrence and Nohria (2002 & 2008) set out a model that identifies four profound drivers that dictate how we behave. These drivers underpin everything we do, but they are particularly hard to satisfy when motivating people over distance and separation. This magnifies the role of leader of multi–site teams.

Driver #1: To acquire and attain

Leaders must set out team and individual goals that provide a sense of success and attainment when achieved. Individuals need a clear understanding of how they contribute overall and when they need to deliver. The leader needs to test understanding from every person and the team as a whole.

Philip Mills has successfully led multicultural and multi-site teams as an in-market managing director as well as managing up to 40 markets for drinks giants Diageo and Beam. He says: “All good teams need a shared purpose to make sure they are pulling together and this is even more critical for virtual teams. I have found that three shared objectives are optimal for a team.”

“Virtual team sharing of achievement must happen monthly, in order to keep people in touch,” continues Philip. “Without this, people inevitably revert to a parochial view of the world. Shared accountability is getting the team as a whole to agree how shortfalls can be mitigated and upsides banked. The leader needs to seek input from each person as to how the whole should go forward to achieve the shared purpose. The biggest lesson is when you empower and trust people to actively take part and contribute to the decision-making of shared purpose, they can rise above the parochial.”

Driver #2: To understand

We all know that communication is vital, yet we often hear frustration at constant meetings that waste valuable time.

Philip Mills clarifies: “The issue here is the content of meetings. This is exacerbated with virtual teams, who are often sitting in different parts of the world not really listening. Agenda-setting is critical. All items need to be of interest to the team and linked to shared purpose and decision-making. Everyone should contribute to each item on the call.”

We pick up a lot of signals when meeting face to face, so managing a virtual team requires greater listening skills. This can be made complex by second languages and different cultural perspectives. Testing understanding is a key skill of an international leader, and when done well, garners engagement and support from the team.

Driver #3: To bond

A key role of the virtual team leader is to meet personally with each member of the team. Support between team members should also be encouraged. Sharing best practice and encouraging team members to act as sounding boards for one another engenders feeling part of a team.

Virtual is not enough all of the time. Socialising time is critical for building the glue of virtual teams. A team meeting face to face should be done at least once a year. This provides an opportunity to:

  • Give everyone an overview of the business
  • Share best practice
  • Celebrate wins and learning
  • Spend time together

Driver #4: To defend

“Strong teams show their strength best when things are difficult,” says Philip. “I have seen this in the face of natural disasters as well as with the challenges that the difficult economic environment has thrown us recently. In many instances you get a significantly better result when you’re all fighting for what you believe in.”

It is a common theme and a core truism – great virtual teams are bound together by agreed shared goals, great communication, trust and camaraderie. These four drivers are something that we all hold in common, whatever language we speak and in whatever country we live. By understanding these drivers, the virtual team leader can put in place a purpose and a process to achieve a successful business impact delivered virtually across boundaries.

Written by Kate Lanz, executive coach and Philip Mills, international business builder & brand builder

Kate Lanz is a senior executive and leadership coach. Kate has practised as a coach internationally for over 14 years and brings a powerful blend of psychological depth combined with 12 years of senior level business experience to her work.

Philip Mills is a highly experienced management consultant with strong leadership credentials at CEO/MD level across global markets. He has successfully led multicultural and multi-site teams as an in-market Managing Director as well as managing up to 40 markets for drinks giants Diageo and Beam. He is highly experienced in the FMCG market with skills in change management, business building, crisis management, brand development and coaching

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2 Responses to “The psychology of leading successful virtual teams”

  1. Angelo says:

    Working from home have its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are flexible work schedule and a comfortable workplace; the disadvantage however is the challenge of staying motivated and focusing on work and also collaborating with the virtual team.
    Aside from those helpful tips above, what also works for us is a productivity tool. One very effective productivity tool for us is a time tracking software. It helps us boost our productivity.

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