Mindful leadership applied to virtual teams

Lately I wrote a post on what it takes to lead multicultural teams. It now struck me that many of us don’t just lead multicultural but also “virtual” teams; this adds a lot of complexity to something that is already not so easy on its own.

Wooden mannequins pushing puzzle pieces into the right place

What actually is a virtual team some of you might ask? Following Wikipedia, a virtual team is “(…)a group of individuals who work across time, space and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology”. In clear it means that you might be sitting in one location, like me in Switzerland for example, and you actually lead and work with people all across Europe or even around the globe. It also means that you might not even see these people physically throughout the year. Additionally, it might be that you are not the direct line boss of some of these people but ‘only’ the matrix with less direct possibilities to motivate your staff as you are not the final ‘evaluator’ and ‘bonus giver’.

So, how do you then communicate and how do you walk the fine line of what is acceptable in one culture and what is not? I have to say that at first and being a coach, it was very difficult for me, not so see people as the non-verbal and paraverbal components of face-to-face discussions usually tell me the whole and hidden story and let me intuit the truth behind spoken words. Video communication through web cams or other means would have helped a lot but unfortunately this was not available. So what to do?

First of all and especially concerning team members from cultures I did not have had any work contacts before, I informed myself about the habits, the style and the usual work behaviours from colleagues who were willing to share. I also spent a lot of time speaking to my team and of course listening to them, in order to find out more about them as  persons, their lifestyles etc. Very often I also asked open questions like: “What does this mean for you”? Or “how do you interpret this particular objective or task”. Creating a trusting and open relationship where all partners and team members feel comfortable is extremely important. Of course I made mistakes, as we all do I am sure, misinterpreting things  or inadvertently creating a situation that for others could be quite uncomfortable. Learning from these mistakes, discussing and exchanging are the ingredients to successfully setting a viable basis for virtual work relationships. Interesting enough, when you listen emphatically, mindfully and with attention and when you are truly interested in what your counterpart has to say, you will quickly find that the tone of voice alone can tell you stories about the state of mind of the other person.

It actually is a skill to be able to listen and direct a conversation when there are so many things competing for your attention in the office at the same time. What is your experience with virtual teams? What works and what not? Looking forward to your thoughts!

About people skills and empathic leadership

In on of my last posts I have discussed how leadership can have a real impact on ‘human capital’ in a world that seems to rotate faster every day. As a conclusion, I said that every leader can make a real difference if he/she is able to create the conditions that allow qualified staff members to feel at ease at their workplace and identify with the corporate culture. But what does it take to “lead through example”? How can you foster the so important climate of trust and transparency, allowing for growth and personal satisfaction? I guess that there is no standard answer to this question as every person leads in a very particular way bringing distinct results to a specific type of situation.

For me personally, the most important skill set to have and to make use of when leading are the so called ‘people skills’. Whereas non-existent in many dictionaries, there are a number of definitions around such as: “the ability to communicate effectively with people in a friendly way, especially in business” [1] or:

  • “understanding ourselves and moderating our responses
  • talking effectively and empathizing accurately
  • building relationships of trust, respect and productive interactions.”[2]

Together with other social or interpersonal skills such as listening, communication etc., mastering people skills and even becoming a “people’s person”[3] will help you motivate and drive your employees achieving better results than ever before. In applying these skills to your day-to-day life, you will find that suddenly you will be leading simply with charisma and empathy and that there is actually no need to create an atmosphere and culture of fear as can be observed unfortunately in many enterprises nowadays, public and private sector alike.

Especially in matrix environments where leaders need to engage with members of “virtual teams”, who are not necessarily their direct reports and could be based anywhere in the world plus where communication happens mostly exclusively through e-mail, calls and video-conferences, social skills are more important than ever to achieve results and objectives.[4] In fact, the ability to create and foster quality networks, to ‘think outside of the box’ and to create a climate of exchange, knowledge sharing and trust while leading is of major importance for providing direction and innovation to any company. So while it is certainly not easy to build up relationships and interact closely with people, the loyalty and positive attitude that come out of these skills and leadership style are more than rewarding.

Many companies and enterprises though still need to acknowledge the importance of people skills and consequent leadership behaviors instead of relying solely on extrinsic motivation measures and tactics. If more people started to lead and manage this way, work place happiness and work-life balance would certainly see a major improvement… to be continued!

[2] Portland Business Journal by Harriet Rifkin: http://www.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/2002/06/03/focus6.html

[3] Oxford Online Dictionary: “a person who enjoys or is particularly good at interacting with others”

[4] Also compare with : Rick Lash: “Leadership Essentials for the matrix environment”, http://www.greatleadershipbydan.com/2012/06/leadership-essentials-for-matrix.html?m=1