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  • Writer's pictureJerry Morla, MBA, MSL, PMP®

Unlocking High-Performance in Virtual Project Teams 🚀

An emerging leadership approach that has come to the forefront in recent years for boosting performance in virtual project teams is the implementation of shared-leadership models.

To clarify, virtual teams in any knowledge area are workgroups with members that collaborate and communicate primarily by electronic means instead of face-to-face, regardless of their physical location. In other words, not only do virtual teams refer to workgroups with members that work remotely and collaborate through virtual means, but also refer to those that are collocated but rely mainly on electronic communications for interacting. It has been widely argued that collocated teams perform better as these are able to develop relationships and communication channels more effectively through face-to-face interactions. Likewise, it has been largely established that performance in teams collaborating solely through electronic means could be limited by communications barriers affecting interpersonal relationships.

One reason why teams perform better in collocated settings is that these generally have better access to specialized knowledge from teammates and decision-makers than those working remotely. Proximity to those with formal authority can also be more conducive to faster decision-making. Reduced access to knowledge or slower decision-making speed can further impact team performance negatively in areas of creativity, innovation, and problem solving, not to mention, greatly limit development of psychological elements that affect collective performance antecedents including cohesion, motivation, and trust. Clearly, traditional management and leadership approaches might not be as effective when working with virtual teams due to these relationship limiting factors.

Shared-leadership practices have been correlated to increases in virtual team performance. Unlike distributed leadership, where leadership roles are intentionally appointed to team members across organization to make specialized knowledge more accessible to others, the construct of shared-leadership is more about spontaneous emerging leadership behaviors from anyone in the team, regardless of level of formal authority. Some examples of these self-directed behaviors are stepping-up or self-motivated interventions to address performance gaps or task needs as these arise. In short, shared-leadership is more about team members leading and stepping up when needed, making decisions, and solving problems, regardless of their formal position in their organization. This style of leadership has proven to be effective for compensating limitations stemming from geographic distribution of teams or limited face-to-face engagement, as is the case of most virtual teams.

Though findings from research in the area of virtual teams demonstrate strong correlations between collective leadership practices, such as shared-leadership, and desired team performance outcomes, there is lack of consensus on how to promote shared-leadership to reap its benefits. This is in part, due to the diversity of makeups and contexts of virtual teams, including cultural backgrounds, personalities, nature of work, or other factors adding complexity. More technical oriented industries with high reliance on knowledge work often benefit most from this leadership approach. Other factors include level of education and experience of team members, but most importantly the willingness of formal leaders to surrender control, empower followers, and foster trust, as well as for other team members to yield and submit to one another as situations calls for. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to promote shared-leadership, yet a combination of selection for success, behavioral training, communicating collective purpose, promoting collective support, but most importantly development of trust across the organization, are without a doubt critical factors for developing this collective way of leadership.

Some strategies for promoting shared-leadership and boosting performance in virtual teams include the following:

  • Select and train for success: Emphasize values and traits during the selection process, combined with training and communication of cultural values.

  • Provide clear vision and shared-purpose: Provide clear vision, goals, and shared-purpose to develop and promote collective performance.

  • Build trust: Promote and foster trust building by encouraging participation and increasing phycological safety for all team members.

  • Empower followers: Increase decision making autonomy and controlled risks tolerance.

  • Model leadership transformation: Demonstrate, encourage, and reward collective and servant-leadership behaviors across the organization.

In conclusion, though shared-leadership can result from spontaneous behaviors among committed team members, formal leaders can intentionally encourage and develop these practices for maximizing the impact and unlocking performance potential, in both satisfaction and outcomes for their teams.

Trusting and sharing… secrets for high-performing teams!


About the author: Jerry Morlà draws from years of experience leading global virtual teams and post-graduate work in the areas of organizational development and emerging leadership models.

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