How do virtual team leaders assess and respond to boundary crossing issues when building relationships with virtual team members? Virtual teams are a new phenomenon, defined as groups of people working on a common task or project from distributed locations using information and communications technology (ICT). With rapid advances in ICT allowing alternatives to face-to-face communication, virtual teams are playing an increasingly important role in organizations. Due to their global coverage, virtual teams are often assigned critical organizational tasks such as multinational product launches, negotiating global mergers and acquisitions, and managing strategic alliances (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000). Their use, however, has outpaced the understanding of their unique dynamics and characteristics (Cramton & Webber, 2000). Virtual team leadership remains one of the least understood and most poorly supported elements in virtual teams. Virtual team leaders are often the nexus of a virtual team, facilitating communications, establishing team processes, and taking responsibility for task completion (Duarte & Tennant- Snyder, 1999), and doing so across multiple boundaries. Recent research (Kayworth & Leidner, 2001-2002) has begun to look at virtual leadership issues and suggests that the trend toward virtual work groups necessitates further inquiry into the role and nature of virtual team leadership. This article begins by briefly looking at the key concepts of virtual team leadership, relationship building and boundary crossing. Then, drawing upon the author’s research, it examines the complexity inherent in building relationship across boundaries, and concludes with suggestions on how virtual team leaders can mediate this complexity.
Virtual Team Leadership
There has been extensive research on leadership in collocated teams and groups. Typically, leadership can be viewed in a number of ways, from a structured authoritative role to the ability of individuals to intrinsically or extrinsically motivate followers. It is generally agreed that leadership involves social influence and the use of communication activities in motivating teams to achieve goals. Barge proposes leadership as mediation in order to overcome the variety of task and relational problems that may be encountered by a group and explains that leadership “entails devising a system of helping the group get its work done, that is simultaneously stable and flexible and assists in managing the information shared among members and between the group and its external audience” (Barge, 1996, p. 319).
A key leadership skill in Barge’s concept of leadership as mediation is that of relational management, which refers to the ability of leaders to “coordinate and construct interpersonal relations that allow an appropriate balance of cohesion, unity, and task motivation with a group” (Barge, 1996, p. 325). Cohesive teams tend to perform better and are more motivated to complete tasks. Of concern here is how team leaders can coordinate and construct interpersonal relations in a virtual environment to overcome the difficulty of multiple boundaries that do not exist in traditional collocated teams.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Personal Relationships: The kind of relationship between people exemplified by shared understanding, mutual trust and social bonding. Communication in personal relationships is initially directed toward the exchange of personal information and later toward the sharing of mutual experiences.
Virtual Team: A given number of people at distributed locations communicating and working to some degree via information and communication technologies on a set project or task, which may be of a limited or unlimited duration. Face-to-face meetings at the start-up of the team or at regular intervals are possible in a virtual team.
Boundary Crossing: Virtual teams are often characterized by their boundary spanning attributes; that is, they usually cross time and distance, and often include different national (ethnic), organizational and functional cultures.
Synchronous Communication Channels: Communication channels that allow real-time interaction. These include telephone, video conferencing, chat, and of course, face-to-face communication.
Working Relationships: The kind of relationship exemplified by people who work together toward the completion of work-based tasks. It involves communication related to sharing information, coordinating tasks, meeting timelines, and so forth.