With advances in technology, there has been a significant increase in the number of employees working remotely over the past few years. Think about the last team project you were on. A decade ago, the question might have been, “Do any of your teammates work remotely or in a different location than you do?” Today, the question is more likely, “How many of your teammates work remotely or in a different location?” And, now that more individuals are working remotely, it’s important to consider what leadership qualities and styles facilitate collaboration and success in virtual teams. We know what the success factors are for leaders. It’s especially important to determine whether there are specific qualities or skills that stand out when working with remote employees and teams.
In a recent study, Hill and Bartol had a similar question. The researchers wanted to determine how an empowering leadership quality affected team performance. Leaders who exhibit this style are likely to lead by example, encourage participative decision making, and provide appropriate and sufficient support and resources to facilitate goal achievement. Leaders who empower their employees create an environment in which employees are encouraged to take accountability and set challenging goals.
To understand this relationship, the researchers recruited 194 employees who made up 29 virtual teams at one multi-national company to participate in the study. The researchers found that when leaders exhibited a high level of empowerment, team members were more collaborative and, as a result, they had higher individual and team performance. Their increased collaboration allowed team members to more effectively strategize and achieve their goals. Additionally, this relationship was even stronger when the team was more geographically dispersed. Meaning, the leader had an even stronger influence on collaboration when teams were more dispersed.
What are the practical implications of this study?
First, when you know a leader will be managing a dispersed group of employees, make sure you assess whether they exhibit the necessary level of empowerment in the hiring process. You can do this by way of a Leadership Assessment, behavior-based interview, or role-play exercise. The best strategy is to measure this skill in multiple ways and multiple times across the hiring process.
Second, organizations can provide training opportunities for their current leaders on how to empower their employees. Have a group of leaders read through case studies and determine the best ways to address the situation. Additionally, lead a discussion about the best ways to address common challenges that remote employees face. A takeaway from the training is to give the leaders challenge assignments for empowering their employees.
While we know empowerment is important for all leaders, we now also know that empowerment is possibly the best leadership quality for leading a remote team. Give employees a voice and support…and the team will collaborate and perform.
Hill, N. S., & Bartol, K. M. (2016). Empowering Leadership and Effective Collaboration in Geographically Dispersed Teams. Personnel Psychology, 69(1), 159-198.