Do you remember playing the telephone game as a kid? You’d say one thing to the person sitting next to you, and they’d pass on your message. Then the next person would pass on what they thought they heard and so on. The real fun of the game was when you heard the last person share what they thought was the message, and the first person share the message after that.
Leading Virtual Teams is Tough
For almost two decades I’ve been managing remote staff. In some cases these were full teams located in one place far from me. In other cases it was an entire team spread across three countries, with no two people within 100 miles of each other.
Leading a virtual team – one where members are distributed all over the place – can take that telephone game to a whole new level of crazy. And if you’ve been leading in a remote context there’s a good chance you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Leading Virtual Teams is Counter Intuitive
What I know to be true is that when it comes to leading virtual teams effectively, you can’t simply add a weekly phone call or regularly emailed report to your normal leadership strategies and hope for success. Leadership in this context requires something else.
In fact, the most central thing I’ve learned is that it’s all unintuitive. By that I simply mean, leading virtual teams effectively requires you to embrace two new leadership paradigms because, like the telephone game, what you think you know may not be what you need to know.
It Means Managing Less
One of the things we all tend to do in situations we’re uncomfortable in is to limit the degrees to which things can fail. So we control more and release freedom less. This puts us, we think, in a stronger leadership position.
But that’s not always the truth. The truth is that we’ll never develop ownership by assigning tasks. And that can quickly become a vicious cycle where we create the lack of ownership by the way we’re leading our virtual teams.
Instead, assign roles and goals. Get out of the task business. It will drive greater ownership over tasks simply out of necessity’s sake. After all, if you don’t own the tasks, someone must. And why should it be anyone other than the people with the roles assigned to pursue the goals?
In this way you step out of task management, and step into the leadership work of clearing the roadblocks and providing the air cover that your virtual team needs.
It Means Embracing Peer Pressure
We’ve all learned, from early on, that peer pressure was something we were supposed to reject. But we never stopped to question if some kinds of peer pressure was good.
I run a daily “pulse” call with my different virtual teams. That call can last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes and it’s where I share context so that team members can make better decisions. It’s also where I hear about roadblocks that may be in the way, and anything else that someone thinks I need to know.
But the most important aspect of the call is when each team member answers the question – “What is done done?” No, that’s not a typo. It’s there twice on purpose. Because I want to know what is actually complete. Not partially or mostly done (with an attached modifier after the word “Done”). Instead, I want to know what’s so done that the only word after it is done.
As we “walk” around our virtual meeting room, each person shares what’s done done. They don’t share activity. They share accomplishment. And there’s no trouble when a person doesn’t have anything to share on any given day. But after a couple of days, there is mounting peer pressure.
The fear of peer rejection is stronger than the fear of looking weak.” ~Chris Lema (Tweet This)
No one wants to be the slacker, the slowest one on the team. And so they do what comes naturally – they ask for help. First from each other. And then from me. But they don’t hide for days. Because tomorrow’s another day where they can shine, where they can get something done, or help someone else on the team succeed.
What about Your Experience Leading Virtual Teams?
Are you leading virtual teams? What other paradigms have I missed? Share them with me in the comments.