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How Your Teams Can Productively Work Together…Virtually

By Janet Szumal, PhD

Before COVID-19 became a pandemic, the majority of people around the globe were already working remotely and interacting electronically part of the time. However, now that entire organizations are required to temporarily work from home, employers have become increasingly concerned about whether their teams will be able to solve problems effectively and achieve goals in a virtual environment. What can leaders and managers do to support team members to work together effectively?

productive virtual teams

Your Group’s Styles Matter

Constructive group styles are just as important to the performance and problem-solving effectiveness of virtual teams (in which members rely on electronic means to communicate) as they are to groups working face-to-face.1 A Constructive group style is descriptive of groups in which members:

  • interact and approach problems and activities in ways that enable them to fulfill both interpersonal and performance-related needs (such as needs for affiliation and achievement, respectively);
  • demonstrate a balanced concern for their own interests and those of the group (for example by delineating objectives for the group and pursuing them in ways that allow for individual growth and development); and
  • give appropriate attention to both task (including setting goals and focusing on objectives, openly exchanging preliminary thoughts and ideas) and maintenance issues (such as being friendly, mutually supportive, and providing thoughtful feedback).2

Early research on virtual problem-solving teams showed that they are more prone than face-to-face teams to approach tasks and interact in Defensive ways3 that make members feel insecure and psychologically unsafe.4 This is illustrated by the profile below, which shows the composite group styles of thirty-one virtual teams based on members’ responses to the Group Styles Inventory. This tendency, which we refer to as the electronic disintegration of interpersonal processes, is due partly to the lack of nonverbal cues and the negative aspects of deindividualization (such as feelings of isolation and perceived lacked of accountability) promoted by technology.

The Electronic Disintegration of Interpersonal Processes

electronic disintegration of the interpersonal process

 

If you’re not familiar with our Circumplex, the length of the blue extensions at the top of the profile (the 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock positions) represent the extent to which members reported Constructive styles were being demonstrated by their teams while working together on a particular problem or task. The heavier middle concentric circle in the profile shows the 50th percentile or median score for face-to-face teams. Compared to face-to-face teams, virtual teams tend to fall short (well below the 50th percentile) on Constructive interaction styles—including the Affiliative and Achievement styles. This is important because it indicates that virtual teams tend to struggle not only with the people-oriented aspects of Constructive interaction that are critical to psychological safety (like positive social connection, trust, and empathy), but also with the task-related aspects of working together effectively (such as staying focused on objectives, considering alternative perspectives).

As indicated by the length of the other extensions in the above profile, it’s easy for virtual teams to be plagued by some of the most counter-productive styles when it comes to courage, creativity, initiative, and adaptability. Keeping in mind that most virtual teams right now are trying to solve non-routine and important problems—and are doing this in an environment that is quickly changing with lots of uncertainty—teams that are Defensive in passive (green extensions) or aggressive ways (red extensions) are not going to be up to the challenge.

Strategies for Strengthening Constructive Group Styles

Regulate and Constructively redirect your behavior. It’s much easier to change behaviors while groups are still adapting to the new way of working, as opposed to waiting until counterproductive behavioral patterns become the norm and part of the status quo. You can start by paying attention to the impact of your own behaviors and decisions on those of other people. Passive/Defensive behaviors in groups (such as limiting one’s participation or offering few, if any, alternative ideas or perspectives) sometimes are reactions to Aggressive/Defensive behaviors by certain members—which can include sarcasim, blaming others for problems or mistakes, dominating the conversation, and interrupting or talking over other members when they are speaking. Passive/Defensive behaviors in groups typically are also promoted by the Passive/Defensive behaviors of others—which, in addition to the examples described earlier, can include saying or doing what’s popular and waiting for others to take charge or initiative. These kinds of styles can be more important in determining whether teams fail or soar than background, technical skills, and personality characteristics of the group’s members.5 Therefore, check in with group members to find out what’s working and what you can do differently to facilitate and support effective collaboration in this new environment.

Be seen. One of inherent downsides of working virtually is the loss of nonverbal cues that can give you and others a more accurate interpretation of what people are saying (or not saying) as well as provide unsolicited, in-the-moment feedback on the impact you and they are having on others. If you’re using a communication medium that offers video and you have a camera on your computer or smartphone, turn it on for meetings as well as one-on-ones—especially when it seems that letting people see you could make a positive difference. Invite people to also turn their cameras and explain why.

Establish a unified sense of purpose. Be clear in communicating what the group and your organization are trying to accomplish during this critical time. Define the priorities and most important problems for the group to address right now. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the current situation is temporary. Therefore your team should also be working toward the longer term, the organization’s overarching purpose, and what you collectively want things to look like when the current situation becomes history.

Keep your focus—and be willing to adjust. It’s easy to get sidetracked, particularly when things are constantly changing and stress is high. Address your peers’ and employees’ individual needs and be empathetic. At the same time, stay focused on the objectives and be willing to adjust them as new information becomes available so that objectives stay realistic and people stay motivated.

Stimulate thinking. Research shows that Passive/Defensive styles have an even more detrimental effect on the performance of virtual teams than they do on the performance of face-to-face teams, particularly when Constructive styles are weak.6 Although quickly coming to agreement without much discussion may feel more “comfortable,” encourage discussion of alternative perspectives and ways of looking at problems and ask quieter members to share their thoughts. This will ensure that your team comes up with good solutions that members are confident about and accept.

Highlight job significance. One of the challenges with working remotely is that people start communicating less with each other and, as a result, start losing sight of the ways in which their efforts make a difference for their team as well as their organization and its clients.7 Take the time to regularly stay in touch with your peers and employees and let them know how their efforts are helping you and how their work is making a positive difference in the work and lives of others.

Taking steps now to strengthen Constructive group styles will not only bolster the effectiveness of your teams while working virtually, but also continue to strengthen their effectiveness when members are once again able to work together face-to-face. If you’re ready to dive in and learn more about your teams Constructive styles using the Group Styles Inventory visit humansynergistics.com.

 

Human Synergistics is carrying out a new research project focusing on virtual teams and the relationship between group styles and outcomes such as solution effectiveness. To collect data for this study, we are making available a limited number of credits for the digital Group Styles Inventory prototype to HS Global Change Circle Accredited Consultants. Please contact us at info@humansynergistics.com if you are a GCC member and have virtual teams interested in completing the GSI and receiving feedback. This includes face-to-face teams that are transitioning to virtual operations.



1 Janet L. Szumal and Robert A. Cooke, Creating Constructive Cultures, pp. 27-31.

2 Based on Robert A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Group Styles Inventory.

3 See Richard E. Potter, Pierre A. Balthazard, and Robert A. Cooke, “Virtual team interaction: Assessment, consequences, and management,” and Pierre Balthazard, David Waldman, Jane Howell, and Leanne Atwater “Shared leaders and group interaction styles in problem-solving virtual teams.” Additional references are listed on the Human Synergistics website.

4 “Psychological safety” is a term coined by Amy C. Edmondson in “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams” to refer to members’ shared belief that their team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking such as speaking up when you have a fresh idea or admitting when you’ve made a mistake or need help.

5 See, for example, Charles Duhigg, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team;” Pierre A. Balthazard, Richard E. Potter and John Warren “Expertise, Extraversion, and Group Interaction Styles As Performance Indicators of Virtual Teams;” and Sean Graber “Why Remote Work Thrives in Some Companies and Fails in Others.” 

6 Richard E. Potter, Pierre A. Balthazard, and Robert A. Cooke, “Virtual team interaction: Assessment, consequences, and management,” pp. 135-136.

7 Janet L. Szumal and Robert A. Cooke, Creating Constructive Cultures, p. 258.

 

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