Relax. It’s Not a Problem with Your Virtual Team

This blog is provided by Jean Brittain Leslie as a companion to her interview for Voice America. This interview, Improving Virtual Team Success by Focusing on Paradox airs on 4/30/19.

A lot goes unresolved in virtual teamwork: issues that would take a few minutes to address in person end up wasting hours of time due to miscommunications; individuals hammer away at their tasks, while team bonding stagnates; you struggle with continued technological glitches and wonder if connectivity issues are really a sign team members lack engagement.

The bad news is that there are no solutions to these problems.

The good news is that these aren’t problems. These are polarities.

Unlike a problem, a polarity is ongoing, unsolvable, and contains a pair that need each other—neither is sufficient alone. In the example above, virtual teams need to be both task-focused and relationship-oriented. It’s easy to say these alternatives are in opposition to each other, but in truth, they’re complementary and interdependent. The trick isn’t solving a polarity (that’s problem-speak sneaking back in); the trick is recognizing the polarity for what it is and leveraging it effectively.

Recent research by the Center for Creative Leadership with 140 virtual teams from 56 organizations showed leveraged polarities are positively associated with virtual team effectiveness. What this means (back to our example) is that teams that were able to have sufficient focus on the tasks of the team and focus on building relationships to facilitate working together as a team have higher levels of performance, commitment, satisfaction and informal learning.

Here are a few common examples of virtual team polarities:

  • Verify & Trust
  • Advocacy & Inquiry
  • Formal Communication & Informal Communication
  • Unified Team & Diverse Individuals
  • Create New Processes & Use Existing Processes

Again, you might feel the urge to replace the ampersand with “versus,” but resist. Each of these pairs are needed in order to thrive. The goal isn’t for each pair to battle until the winner emerges. However, the pair may not always be in balance. There will be times when a given pair must take priority over its counterpart.

Central to effective virtual team leadership is the ability to leverage polarities, and the first step is to identify them. Here are a few questions to ask when trying to determine if you’re facing a problem or a polarity:

  • Is it ongoing?
  • Are there two alternatives? Does your success depend on the alternatives?
  • Can you only focus on one alternative for so long before needing to focus on the other?

If you answer “yes” to all of these questions, you’ve identified a polarity. If you answer “no” to any of the above, you probably have a good old-fashioned problem on your hands. If the latter, don’t worry, it’s solvable.  If the former, just keep telling yourself, “this is not a problem.”

To learn more about polarities, please visit the blog and radio show posted by Barry Johnson Balancing Competing Perspectives: Some Challenges Require Solutions and Others Balance.

To become a more innovative leader, you can begin by taking our free leadership assessments and then enrolling in our online leadership development program.

Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible,  iHeartRADIO, and NPR One.  Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.

About the Author

Jean Brittain Leslie is senior fellow and director of Strategic Initiatives in Research, Innovation, and Product Development at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL®). With 26 years of experience working at CCL, Jean has made numerous contributions in the areas of research, publication, product development, and training. She has published more than 90 pieces on leadership, assessment, and feedback—in the form of peer-reviewed and popular-press articles, book chapters, and books. Jean also has presented over 50 papers at professional conferences such as the Academy of Management and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists.

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