Leading Virtual Teams: Conflict and Communication Challenges for Leaders

Leading Virtual Teams: Conflict and Communication Challenges for Leaders

Daniel Cochece Davis (Illinois State University, USA) and Nancy M. Scaffidi-Clarke (Mount Saint Mary College, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9970-0.ch011
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Virtual teams are increasingly common as marketplaces become more global. They offer advantages to employers, including increased time and travel savings, decreased real estate costs, and larger applicant pools. Yet, conflict is inherent in virtual teams, and leaders within virtual teams must confront debilitating conflicts due to technological issues, cultural miscommunication, and restructuring their communication. Though some elements are similar to handling conflict in any team situation, five group factors are especially subject to conflict and manifest differently in effective virtual teams: strategically selecting team members, building effective relationships, fostering trust, facilitating communication, and achieving team goals. Managing any team presents leaders with challenges regarding building relationships, facilitating communication, overcoming barriers and achieving team goals. However, adding geographic distance, cultural differences, and a lack of continuous face-to-face interaction exacerbates these challenges.
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A “virtual team” can be defined as “a collection of individuals who are geographically and/or organizationally or otherwise dispersed and who collaborate via communication and information technologies in order to accomplish a specific goal” (Zigurs, 2003, p. 340). Organizations benefit greatly from the use of virtual teams by enjoying a larger applicant pool, lower real estate costs (e.g., smaller office space to lease), as well as savings from time and lower travel costs (Cascio & Shurygailo, 2003). Conversely, virtual employees receive greater flexibility in work schedules. Although there are benefits for both parties, with increased geographic distance come unique challenges for virtual teams and traditional team leadership (Maruping & Agarwal, 2004).

In order to look at how to lead virtual teams, one must first look at definitions of “leadership:” “Leadership is a process used by an individual to influence group members toward the achievement of group goals, where the group members review the influence as legitimate” (Howell & Costley, 2001, p. 4). Clawson (2002) defines “leadership as the ability and the willingness to influence others so that they can respond willingly” (p. 34). These definitions can help delineate “leaders” from “managers,” who hold specific organizational positions and help coordinate resources. Clearly, an individual could be both a leader and a manager, but group leaders are not always found in an organization’s management positions. With that said, in order to meet the demands of leading teams in virtual environments, virtual team leaders must have a clear understanding of not only how to lead others effectively, but also the unique circumstances associated with communicating in a computer-mediated environment. In this new environment, leaders must overcome typical challenges such as building group cohesion, facilitating communication and achieving team objectives. However, they must accomplish these feats at a distance.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Virtual Team Communication: The communication facilitating a virtual team’s activities.

Virtual Team: Any team where at least one team member participates through an electronically facilitated presence, rather than a physical face-to-face presence.

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