How one consultant learned to connect with virtual teams

Though convenient, dealing with people virtually can have its drawbacks. This consultant learned the hard way what can be lost in translation.

We live in a world of virtual communication. Our leaders and thinkers hail the advent of virtual work teams as though they represented a fundamental advance in human thinking. Business schools teach aspiring managers about the great gains to be made by forcing everyone to slave quietly away in their little cubicles, cut off from the support and camaraderie of their fellows. Fortunately, the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of thousands of years of human communication cannot be so easily discarded. There are many times when direct human interaction assists rather than detracts from the productivity of our expended effort.

Like most of my life's lessons, I learned this one the hard way. I was working as a consulting project manager for an international firm. They had asked me to assist the other teams, somehow magically duplicating my "personal record of success." Although I was definitely flattered, I worried that my company expected too much of someone who was, at the time, a senior consultant but only a junior project manager.

During the first week of my new assignment, I contacted the eight projects assigned to me. The project managers did not sound thrilled to have me onboard. It took me a few weeks of quiet, steady advice to convince them of my general harmlessness. The first four months went by without much incident. Then, quite suddenly from my point of view, one of "my" larger projects fell apart.

Anatomy of the disaster
According to my notes, my manager's manager received the recall notice right after the design phase conclusion meeting. The project team and I started preparations for the meeting well over a month before. In the last week, we all worked late nights getting the final polish on to the presentations.

Unsure what to do, I called the project manager on his cell. He picked up. In a shaky voice, he told me that he couldn't talk about it right now. I agreed to back off, but only if he would meet me at headquarters (a flight for both of us) next week for a debriefing.

I spent the next five days fending off increasing demands for answers from my manager and the various VPs. They wanted answers immediately. I told them to hold on while I sorted out what really happened. I also spent that time getting information from people socially connected to the project team members. As I did so, a pattern emerged, one that I should have identified long before it exploded.

During the official debriefing, I finally got an eyewitness description of what happened. The "senior" architect, a junior just promoted to the position, froze during his solution presentation. After he fumbled too many times, one of the older (but technically junior) engineers verbally attacked him. Before the project manager could cut them off, the rest of the engineers turned as well. What started out as an end-of-phase meeting with the client CIO exploded into a discharge of negative social tensions that convinced the CIO of our complete incompetence.

The elements of connection
We could have derived any number of lessons from the above experience. With my background, I immediately turned my attention to the social outburst. I knew four of the engineers and the junior architect by reputation; it seemed completely outside the bounds of their established professionalism. Something was going on with the team—something that broke down the bounds of ordinary behavior.

I spent time delving into the team interactions with the project manager. Although he didn't pay that much attention to it, he actually had noticed a large amount of tension within his team. After a little coaxing, he laid out enough elements for us to work out what had happened. The "senior" architect managed to alienate the other team members early. The older engineer, who had just been passed over for a junior architect position, resented the younger architect. The other engineers sided with the more charismatic engineer. When the architect froze in public, the engineer's anger got the better of his professionalism. Later interviews with the team members confirmed this initial analysis.

The question became, why did we miss it? Ego aside, I had encountered similar situations in the past. I had even identified and addressed a similar issue on a virtual team with members in different countries. The project manager admitted that he spent too much time in his own cube working on project schedules, but what was my excuse?

I realized my error lay in my fundamental approach to the problem. I provided advice to my project manager without assessing what his personal needs were. More important, I allowed the leadership void to grow until someone stepped up to fill it.

However, monitoring leadership in a remote team is a tricky business. It generally requires at least two of the following elements:
  • One or more persons on the team with whom there is an existing leadership relationship. Ideally, you have an existing relationship with everyone on the team. This gives the other team members one point of reference when dealing with your leadership style. None of the team members in the described engagement knew me from previous experience, so I could not use this element.
  • A local leader who looks to you for leadership. This is an ideal element, as it allows you to project leadership through the other leader. If you trained him or her yourself, it's even more effective; the two of you share a common context. In the above experience, the project manager focused on work management, not leadership.
  • Opportunity to establish leadership using the rules of the group. Groups of technical people often use "intelligence," as established by the ability to answer technical questions, as a measure of dominance. In the above example, I deliberately avoided participating in the exchanges so that the architect could display his prowess.
  • The ability to physically meet with team members at least occasionally. Charisma and empathy are powerful tools, but they require solid physical presence for their full effect. In the above example, I never met with the team.
  • Opportunities to demonstrate interest in, and influence over, impact events. Ensure that you are directly involved with preparations for the major events of the project. In the above example, I did, in fact, manage to be involved as an advisor with one of the largest project elements.

These five elements obviously come from my favored styles of leadership. Other leaders will find different, sometimes radically so, means to project their presence.

Picking up the pieces
With all of this in mind, the project manager and I put together an action plan. While our C-level people soothed ruffled feathers, we appointed the bitter senior engineer to another assignment. We held a weeklong team meeting at headquarters. I also took the architect aside to let him know that I would be intruding a bit more on his technical decisions. These steps allowed me to establish a greater leadership presence, which in turn gave me far greater insight into the working of the team. This insight enabled me to target my advice for the project manager and receive solid feedback as we implemented changes.

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