Virtual teams are becoming an increasingly valuable tool of many organizations, however in order for virtual teams to be successful, best practices should be identified and implemented wherever possible. As the business community continues to grow in size and complexity, many leaders find themselves managing team members who are in different cities, different states, and even in different countries. Teamwork plays an important role in getting things accomplished. Projects that are complex and require multiple skill sets are often more productive when a team effort is present versus an undertaking the project individually. Working together, team members can build on one another’s ideas, create new ideas and collaborate to find more innovative solutions. Virtual teams offer an advantage over traditional teams in that they are not limited by geography. However, managing virtual team members adds a unique set of challenges for leaders. These challenges include communicating with virtual teams and providing leadership for virtual teams.
Ethics and Virtual Teams
Virtual teams, protected by computers and distance, can create a tendency for more aggressive and disrespectful communication. The freedom from face to face interactions through digital means may allow behaviors that otherwise might not be acceptable. For example, some may feel more comfortable being passive-aggressive on email than they might act in a face to face interaction. The article “5 Signs You’re Too Aggressive on Email” provides a list of aggressive email behaviors or phrases to use with caution (Jackson, 2017). Repeated Reply-Alls, unnecessary Cc’s, and writing in all caps are a few of the examples provided. The absence or presence of certain punctuation marks, capitalization or the use of all capitalization can create an unintended sense of insincerity or sarcasm. When you are communicating digitally via email or instant messenger, you can’t see the face of the other person (or people) that you are communicating with, so important body language cues or facial expressions might be missed. Face to face interactions can help expose body language, feelings, tone, and reactions, which can often be misunderstood through digital means. Tone is also easy to misinterpret via digital communication. These miscommunications are easier to address in person as opposed a series of back and forth emails. It is important that virtual teams are aware of the pitfalls of digital communication and take steps to avoid being passive-aggressive and insincere. The TedX Talk entitled: Creating Ethical Cultures in Business by speaker Brooke Deterline suggests the idea of social fitness training. The more we can practice the situations before they happen, the better we will be prepared. In the text, Johnson states “we acquire virtues from exercising them” (Johnson, 2012). The blog entry “8 Tips For Effective Email Communication” offers a list of tools to use for effective email communication (Friedman, 2018). Friedman recommends being clear and concise with the message in order to provide the reader with a clear understanding. I think the most helpful tip is to practice the “24-hour rule when you’re upset” (Friedman, 2018). By waiting before responding, you can gain greater perspective and understanding of the issue in question.
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Johnson states “Ethical perspectives help us identify and define problems, and force us to think systematically” (Johnson, 2012). I think the ethical perspective of German philosopher Immanuel Kant is relevant to the issue of ethics and the virtual team. According to Kant, “what is right for one is right for all. Ethical actions are based on our duty, our obligation to perform the action. Kant’s perspective of ethics is based on a universal law that he calls the categorical imperative (Johnson, 2012). The categorical imperative asserts that a person should only act on the principles that she or he would want everyone else to always act upon and there are absolutely no exceptions under any conditions. This approach applies a very black and white view of circumstances which may create challenges, but I believe ethical communication is not a complex issue. The actions in question is communication on virtual teams. Using Kant’s ethical perspective – it is our duty to come to work and be the best team member we can be every day. It is our obligation to act respectfully towards one another. It is not a difficult action to take, yet it is one that must be taken if virtual teams are to be effective.
Systems Thinking and Virtual Teams
Systems thinking and viewing situations as loops instead of independent events can help change perceptions of situations. Instead of viewing a situation as an isolated event, systems thinking can help us understand the entire environment of a situation. By recognizing the each team member as parts of the whole vs individuals, we are able to see how each person contributes towards the team’s shared vision. Team members must not only know who they are as individuals, but they also need to have a clear identity as a working unit – a team mental model. They must be able to look past the learning disability known as “I am my position”. Senge explains: “When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results when all the positions interact” (Senge, 2006). Team interaction is critical to the success of virtual teams. As individuals, we each have diverse talents, strengths, weaknesses, and communication skills. A team environment provides the opportunity bring all of our individual attributes together to create something greater. When you recognize mental models “you can manage and change them” (Spodek, 2012). By being aware of the team mental model, individuals will have the opportunity to make relevant contributions. This greater awareness will also help the team understand how their actions impact each individual and this increased consciousness will hopefully lead to better decisions.
Mental models of individual team members and a team mental model need to come together as one so that the team can work together toward its common goal. Henry Ford’s was accurate when he said “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” In order for teams to thrive in today’s competitive environment, they must look at doing things differently. Magzan states that “Leadership effectiveness is strongly connected with the ability to learn and change” (Magzan, 2012). One way organizations are learning and changing is by creating virtual teams. However in order for these teams to be successful, they must be effectively managed. Many ideas and insights “fail to get put into practice because they conflict with powerful, tacit mental models” Senge (2006). To overcome this challenge I think we need to ensure the mental models of the team converge and become a shared vision. Senge describes the practice of shared vision as “genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance.” By sharing the ownership of goals and plans, we can move forward together with a clear understanding of the what, how and the why. An example of effective management and a shared vision happens at my workplace annually where we participate in a goal setting process and are given MBO’s, or management business objectives. These MBO’s are tied to our performance evaluations and bonuses, and we are all given the opportunity to provide input. There are individual goals and team goals. I am fortunate to have a manager who supports this process by demonstrating openness and a willingness to listen and help me build an individual development plan (IDP) which has some overlaps with the MBO’s. I have found that I can still have an impact on my team and weave my personal vision into my team’s shared vision. By working on both plans during the year, the MBOs and IDP, I am able to focus and be successful both as an individual and a team member.
Organizational Dynamics and Virtual Teams
What are the implications of the strategic issue from each of the four frames?
What insights do the four frames provide in addressing the strategic issue?
In describing the four frames, Bolman and Deal (2013) call the structural frame one of “oldest and most popular ways of thinking about organizations”. An organization’s culture is dependent on the structural frame. The structural frame is like the foundation of a building and it helps define how an organization will function. Proper planning is critical to the success of this frame. Effective planning helps to identify the required resources. Without planning, an organization may find that it is not utilizing its resources efficiently. By clearing defining the five w’s (and the how), and by taking into consideration current circumstances, an organization will be able work together to meet the needs of the stakeholders. This frame works well when goals are clear, and when there is little conflict, uncertainty, or ambiguity. Virtual teams are uncertain and ambiguous by nature – there little supervision and structure. Using this frame can help to establish rules and roles, goals and policies. Guidelines can help team members interact and communicate with each other. Assigning specific roles can provide an outline as to how each team member will be responsible and accountable for moving toward goals. Policies can improve cooperative behaviors and offer a more secure framework for employees to work within. Clear boundaries combined with a sense of autonomy and independence are ingredients for success within this frame.
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The human resource frame is at the opposite end of the frame spectrum in that it is focused on the human needs and the relationship between employees and their organizations. It emphasizes the need for team members to have power and opportunity to perform their jobs well, while at the same time, considers the needs for human contact. Human contact on virtual teams is different but Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can still be applied. These needs include food and shelter at the base of the pyramid, positive relationships in the middle, and self-actualization at the top. For an employee virtual or traditional, the basic need that a job satisfies is money which can be translated into food and shelter. The need for positive relationships can be found through recognition for a job well done and positive relationships with co-workers. On a virtual team, it might be more challenging to provide positive recognition and feedback, but it is not impossible. A virtual team manager must be able to inspiring their team and make them feel their contributions are significant to the organization. Positive relationships with co-workers can be developed by simply actively listening to hear what other people are saying. The top need in the hierarchy is meaning or “developing to one’s fullest” (Bolman & Deal, 2013, p. 121). Successful team managers will take the time to understand their team member’s needs and will then try to match those needs with the needs of the team. For example, some team members may prefer to mine data versus lead meetings. Or some team members may like to document processes over calculating monthly variances. By finding the right fit, team members will be able to find meaning, and teams will be able to find team members who are committed to doing their best work.
The symbolic frame is about a team members need for a sense of purpose and meaning in their work. Bolman and Deal (2013) assert that symbolic forms “shape an organization’s unique identity and character”. I think a virtual team is unique in that it can encompass different geographic locations and greatly rely on communication technology to collaborate. Even the languages used to communicate may be a second or even third language to different team members. And traditional work schedules are far from traditional. One team member’s morning may be another person’s lunch or even dinner time. But the one common thread among virtual teams is the desire to do quality work. As long as a=a high level of trust can be created and maintained, virtual teams will be able to work together along the path to success.
The political frame looks at the issue of power and the related conflict and competition. The political frame reminds me of the acronym I learned about in my business and marketing classes – WIIFM, or what’s in it for me. As human beings, I think it is natural to try to find value in the things we do. The political frame asserts that organizations have coalitions that consist of groups and individuals with different values, beliefs and interests (Bolman & Deal, 2013). These coalitions are used to allocate the resources of the organization. Bargaining and negotiating play a key role in decision making and conflict resolution. Managers who are effective politicians need four skills: agenda-setting, mapping the political terrain, networking and coalition-building, and bargaining and negotiating (Bolman & Deal, 2013). An effective team manager will understand how to appreciate the difference in needs, perspectives, and lifestyles and not let conflict and competition wreak havoc on the team. The 2nd habit in Stephen Covey’s The 7 habits of highly effective people is to “begin with an end in mind”. Covey suggests one needs to “start with a clear understanding of your destination”. In order to achieve success, you need to plan and think about what success looks like so you can work towards it. An effective team manager will understand the value of position power and use that power to create leverage to accomplish the shared goals of the team.
- Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing organizations: artistry, choice, and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic ([Rev. ed.].). New York: Free Press.
- Deterline, Brooke. “Creating Ethical Cultures in Business Brooke Deterline at TEDxPresidio CC.” YouTube. TedX, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 16 May 2016.
- Friedman, Nancy. 8 Tips For Effective Email Communication. Retrieved November 17, 2018, from http://www.telephonedoctor.com/our_blog/eight-tips-for-effective-email-communication/
- Jackson, Amy. (2017, May). 5 Signs You’re Too Aggressive on Email. Retrieved November 17, 2018, from https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/5-signs-youre-too-aggressive-on-email/
- Johnson, C. E. (2012). Organizational Ethics; A Practical Approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
- Magzan, M. (2012) Mental Models for Leadership Effectiveness: Building Future Different Than The Past:
- Senge, P.M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
- Spodek, J. (2012). Examples of models: Beliefs and mental models.
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