Managing teams and virtual teams

Managing teams and virtual teams was the topic generating most interest at a recent Future Marketing Manager course (see

In professional service firms, there are all manner of temporary campaign groups, cross-departmental teams to support sector based initiatives and virtual teams for major firm-wide projects. Sometimes the team members are dispersed geographically and usually they are psychologically distant as they typically belong to departments or exist within a matrix structure.

So here is a whirlwind tour of some of the key ideas to help managing teams and virtual teams:

 1.Provide clarity in goals and roles

Fundamental to the success of any team is clarity of goals (What are we trying to achieve? Is it worth the effort? Is it strategically important? How does it align to the firm’s goals? How will we be measured and rewarded?). And along with goals for the team the goals, role and responsibilities for each team member needs to be articulated as well.

There are many teams in the professions who are not given a clear brief or terms of reference and thus spend too much time in off-agenda discussions or dealing with the detail rather than the big picture or focusing on the critical issues. Objectives, KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and expected milestones and timescales are essential to avoid scope creep on projects. For more on project management see here:

 2. Review the team structure

Sometimes, the structure and skills of an established team loses alignment with the strategy and needs of the firm. This means going back to basics, considering the firm’s (or project’s) goals and redesigning or reshaping the team. Sometimes the addition of new members to an established team can – if carefully managed – bring new thinking and a new impetus.

There is a detailed blog on the steps and considerations in designing a marketing and business development team which may also prove useful in developing other types of teams:

 3. Appreciate that team members are different

Both team leaders and members need to understand that everyone – in addition to having different technical skill sets and practical experience – will have different personalities, relationship approaches, learning preferences, communication styles and motivations. Helping people to recognise differences and appreciate different strengths, weaknesses and approaches – rather than fight against them – is a good starting point.

4. Understand team dynamics

There are numerous tools to help teams appreciate their colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses and to explore ways to work together as a team more effectively from old favourites such as Belbin to more recent methodologies such as Talent Dynamics. See the posts on personality profiling such as

A team leader needs to deploy considerable emotional intelligence – particularly empathy – to notice the underlying emotions and dynamics between group members and to facilitate interactions that are productive and healthy. A little pressure and stress is a good thing, too much is dangerous (see,

5. Allow time for team formation

Most people are aware that teams need time to settle into working together effectively – the forming, storming, norming and performing phases are familiar. Time needs to be allocated for people to get to know each other and establish trust – either through some social interaction or for a preliminary team-working activity.

Psychology can also help with insights from social identity theory and in group bias research to help groups meld. More recent models will also look at phases of team convergence and divergence. But be alert that once the team is established there is a risk of “Group Think” where everyone agrees in order to preserve team harmony and thus becomes less productive.

6. Use face time and technology

Face time is vital to enable the personal relationships to become established. But with a virtual team this is often a luxury that is not available. The team leader at least should make an effort to get out and see people in their own environments at least once at the outset. Sometimes, the location of the host of teleconference facilities can be rotated so at least some team members visit others in their offices.

But tools such as Skype and Google+ Hangouts mean that at least some semblance of face-to-face contact can be achieved on-line. Larger firms have teleconferencing facilities in their meeting rooms allowing people from various locations to appear as if they are in the room.

7. Create a thinking environment

Psychologist Nancy Kline did some interesting work on creating a thinking environment – where everyone is empowered to make a contribution. Her 10 indicators of a thinking environment include: listen, ask incisive questions, establish equality, appreciate, be at ease, encourage, feel, supply accurate information, humanise the place and create diversity.

She also had some interesting insights into how to build appreciative relationships with her research on the 5:1 positive to negative interactions. There’s also interesting neuroscience research into how different people react to feedback – while some personalities (and generations) welcome feedback and appear to be “thick-skinned”, others experience critical feedback almost as severely as physical pain.

8. Deploy leadership skills and motivate people

I have written other blogs about leadership skills (see, for example, However, one of my favourite models is that of Adair.

He sees both strategic and operational leadership success depending on the balance of the task, the team and the individual. This ensures that one member of the team – whether over or under achieving – does not divert attention from the team’s task nor put the entire team at risk. Underperformance by an individual cannot be tolerated as it will impact on the motivation and effectiveness of the rest of the team (see

9. Manage from a distance (virtual teams)

Once there is clarity of the team’s aims, purpose, roles and communication methods there needs to be regular communication to ensure that everyone feels involved, issues can be addressed and the work stays on track. Obviously, if budgets permit it is valuable for remote workers to get on a plane or train and meet with other team members at least once.

Virtual meetings are an important method for virtual teams to stay connected. Guidance indicates each virtual meeting should focus on relationships, be properly prepared so that everyone can be present and productive and balance completing the agenda with gaining broad participation. And mix it up a bit, if every meeting follows the same pattern people can become disengaged – so add some variety to the ways things happen.

According to Lencioni one of the most important aspects to work on here is psychological trust to support those who may feel vulnerable if they are at a physical (and cultural) distance. According to US studies, nine out of 10 US employees believe that their boss trusts them to get their work done – regardless of where they are.

Activities that allow all team members to explore their similarities and differences (such as individual and team assessments mentioned above) or provide time for people to get to know each other socially will help. Maister and Green have developed a useful series of questions and a tool to help you assess and develop your trustworthiness.

It also helps if the leader puts in a call to individuals before group teleconferences to ensure that individuals know what is happening and why and are able to mention views that they may want to raise themselves or anonymously.

Leaders may adjust the agenda to allow different remote workers to take centre stage – people need to be able to express themselves – on particular issues or make a point of asking for their views during the teleconference. Similarly, a short call to individuals after the group call will also convey support and generate feelings of inclusion.

At the close of each virtual meeting there should be checks for closure – has everything been completed, is everyone in agreement, are the next steps clear, has everyone something of value to take from the meeting and has everyone been acknowledged and/or contributed?

And make sure that leaders are available in between meetings and regular check-points if team members have questions or issues they wish to raise. Leaders should take the initiative in calling at unexpected times to provide informal feedback – especially positive feedback – and seek views from members.

10. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

I meet plenty of team leaders who despair when their team members complain that they have inadequate information or don’t feel that they are up to speed. The leaders sometimes forget that because they have been heavily involved in a topic they have a lot of knowledge and underestimate the time required by others to keep up.

Another issue is the need to repeat or return to key issues – people may forget things that are raised once, the may only assimilate some of the information when it is first presented and may need reminders of the key points of documents that have been previously circulated.

Asking team members to outline their recollection of the key facts – and asking others to provide additional points or updates can make the process more interactive. Reinforce key points regularly.

11. Coach rather than control

A good leader will understand when and how to delegate. And will alter the amount of support provided to those given unfamiliar tasks – delegating the outcome rather than the process to experienced team members.

Using coaching skills to develop team members and build their confidence is a vital leadership activity. See

12. Deal with conflict

Small disagreements between people or tension between priorities can quickly escalate into destructive conflicts. And sometimes the damage from conflict is irreparable. Therefore, you need to be alert to conflicts and whether they are within or between individuals or between the team and others and take early action. You need to ensure that you are not inadvertently drawn into taking sides in triangulation. There are numerous blogs on conflict management – see, for example:

13. Be aware of multi-cultural needs

Cultural awareness and sensitivity is a significant topic in itself. Some guidance for managing multi-cultural teams is here: and

Summary – Components needed for team performance

Studies on team performance indicate that the following five components need to be in place:

Vision – There needs to be a clear sense of purpose and an understanding of what success looks like

Rules of engagement – There should be a document – ideally produced by the team – describing how the team will work together and the scope of the work for which they are responsible

Stakeholder management – The team must understand who the stakeholders are, what they require and how to engage effectively with them

Right members – The team needs people with the relevant skills, experience, authority and influence. It also needs clarity on roles and a leader

Accountability – The team must recognise that they are responsible collectively for their results


Kim Tasso is a qualified psychologist and professional coach and an experienced management consultant who has worked extensively with senior teams (Board, Managing Committees and strategy groups) and middle management teams in areas such as marketing and business development.