Leading Virtual Teams

Cultivating High Quality Leadership Exchanges Across Geographical Boundaries

Teamwork is an integral component of many jobs, and is critical to the innovation that drives organizational growth. But teamwork today often takes a very different form than it did in the past; while the concept was once inherently an in-person endeavor, the advent of technology that allows workers to communicate over vast distances instantaneously has given us the opportunity to form virtual teams across the globe.

Virtual teams are defined as teams that consist of individuals who are separated by distance but are working on interdependent tasks. These teams rely on various forms of technology to communicate, including telecommunication (e.g. webcam) and e-mail, among others (Lipnack & Stamps, 1997). Virtual teams are crucial to the success of multinational companies and to businesses that are looking to expand.

Despite their necessity, there are several disadvantages that come with the use of virtual teams. Some of the more common challenges include building team relations, managing time differences, smoothly distributing work, handling differing cultural norms, and facilitating effective leadership (SHRM, 2012). Additionally, team members separated by distance lack the spontaneous interactions that co-located members engage in when they bump into each other at, say, the water cooler (O’Leary & Cummings, 2007). Communicating with a time lag can take away from exploring problems instantaneously, and isolation can impact the awareness of and by fellow team members. Taken together, these issues can harm the team’s effectiveness, innovation, and ability to function.

Fortunately, a certain type of leadership may ameliorate the challenges faced by virtual teams. Researchers Gajendran and Joshi (2012) found that team members were much more involved in group decision-making, felt a greater degree of inclusion, and experienced an increase in innovation when virtual teams were led by leaders who created high-quality leader-member exchange relationships while maintaining frequent communication.

Leader member exchange, as the name would imply, is focused on the leader’s relationship with the employee. In high-quality leader member exchange relationships, the leaders create and foster personal, meaningful connections with their employees, and treat each employee as a unique individual (Graen and Scandura, 1987). These relationships are supportive, show acceptance, and provide security for the members. These bonds have been described as being transformational for members, helping the employee to gain a greater affinity for the group or organization (Graen & Uhl-Bien, 1995). (See our blog article on the Transformational Leader  for more information). It is important to maintain these high-quality leader member exchange relationships throughout the duration of the team engagement.

A few tips for creating high quality leader member exchange relationships are as follows (Nahrgang & Seo, 2015):

  1. Start working on the relationship early: Socialize with newcomers and provide them with guidance and advice. In a virtual relationship, this could entail setting up a one-on-one phone call or skype conversation to get to know your team members.
  2. Find common ground: Leaders and members who have similar attitudes and behaviors tend to have higher quality relationships earlier on. Even if there are cultural differences or even language barriers between you and the members of your virtual teams, you may be surprised to discover how much you have in common.
  3. Cultivate trust: Building and maintaining trust is crucial for both sides, and breaking that trust can be devastating for the relationship. This holds true whether your team is virtual or face to face. (See our blog on Becoming a Trusted Employer for more information).
  4. Pay attention to context: All relationships are unique, and a high-quality connection with an employee who you may never meet in person will look very different than such a connection with your direct report who sits right next to you. Be mindful of the context and the role that it plays in shaping your connection.

Organizations can help increase innovation and effectiveness by ensuring that the leaders of virtual teams are trained in the art of creating solid relationships with their members, and that they make it a common practice to communicate frequently and on a personal level with all members of their team. If you’re a leader of a virtual team yourself, get out there and start communicating with all of your dispersed co-workers, especially the isolated ones. Even if your team isn’t virtual, building high-quality relationships with the members of your team will still be beneficial. Not only will your employees thank you for it, but it will also make your entire team more effective.


Gajendran, R. S., & Joshi, A. (2012). Innovation in globally distributed teams: The role of LMX, communication frequency, and member influence on team decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology97(6).

Graen, G. B., & Scandura, T. A. (1987). Toward a psychology of dyadic organizing. Research in Organizational Behavior.

Graen, G. B., & Uhl-Bien, M. (1995). Relationship-based approach to leadership: Development of leader-member exchange (LMX) theory of leadership over 25 years: Applying a multi-level multi-domain perspective. The Leadership Quarterly, 6(2), 219–247.

Lipnack, J., & Stamps, J. (1999). Virtual teams: The new way to work. Strategy & Leadership27(1), 14-19.

Nahrgang, J. D., & Seo, J. J. (2015). How and why high leader–member exchange (LMX) relationships develop: Examining the antecedents of LMX. The Oxford Handbook of Leader-Member Exchange, 87-118.

O'Leary, M. B., & Cummings, J. N. (2007). The spatial, temporal, and configurational characteristics of geographic dispersion in teams. MIS quarterly31(3), 433-452.

SHRM (2012, July 13). Virtual teams. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/pages/virtualteams.aspx