Being a team leader means knowing the nuances of the teams you’ll lead. Here’s a primer.

(An excerpt from Leading Teams that Get Results)

Virtual and Global Teams: What’s the Difference?

Virtual teams or geographically dispersed teams share commonalities with their global cousins, but there are also some significant differences that can affect the success of the team. With the proliferation of technology and opportunities to source talent from around the world, understanding the differences in local, virtual, and global teams is a management imperative.

Similarities between Virtual and Global Teams

When setting up virtual teams, there are elements both domestic and global teams need to be successful.

  • Pick the right people: Plan for diversity in specializations, but remember that virtual team members will have multiple reporting lines. Virtual team members must be open to new experiences.
  • Choose the right technology: It’s critical to recognize that work is done by people, not technology. Virtual teams are managed by people and mediated by technology, not the other way around.
  • Start the team off right: Define the team’s purpose and vision, set specific processes for common understanding, and begin by building relationships before jumping into tasks. The team will need clear goals for work and productivity. Although a facilitator could be used to further these objectives, it’s important to train the team to self-govern for success in the long-run.
  • Gain commitment: Make sure all team members understand their roles and responsibilities. It’s important that when virtual teams work together, there is a sense of presence. Consider using photos for the people who are online, video conferencing, and other virtual collaboration tools.
  • Align reward systems: Different work processes require different incentives. Consider a combination of team and individual rewards for goals met.
  • Develop a rhythm of communication: Expectations of when and where to communicate provides some predictability in an otherwise unpredictable workflow. Mediated communication is also the primary way to build trust in virtual teams which is a difficult objective to achieve.

Developing trust is difficult when you do not know your teammates. You have not met them, after all, and you do not see them work. Managing global teams adds another layer of complexity.

How Global Teams Differ

Three incremental challenges face global teams[i]:

  • Technology: Considering global teams must rely on technology to mediate tasks, it is important to be aware of the differences in technological connectivity and infrastructure in other countries. Note also that highly relationship-oriented cultures (vs. task oriented like the U.S.) might first resist the use of technology to work across borders. This difference does reinforce the need to pick the right person. Even in relationship-oriented cultures there may still be people that would jump at the opportunity to work on a global and virtual team.
  • Expressing Leadership: Leadership practices vary among cultures. Cross-cultural conflicts are inevitable on global teams, making the leaders, or facilitator’s openness to value the team’s diversity and show cultural competence is a must on global teams. Although some leadership behaviors, like “dynamism, decisiveness, and honesty” are common to most cultures, some attributes, like “ambition, formality, risk-taking and self-effacement” are valued in some cultures but not others. The role of leadership to build trust is pivotal. Not adapting to these difference could cause team failure.
  • Intercultural Competence: Subcultures play a big role on global teams. You might find you have more in common with your marketing counterparts in other countries than you do with your finance coworkers in your home country. It is critical that all team members understand multiple dimensions of cultural differences, so they are armed with strategies and self-awareness techniques to resolve intercultural conflicts.

Global team members need a specific set of knowledge, skills, and abilities to succeed.

  • Adaptation skills
  • Attitude of modesty and respect
  • Cultural competence
  • Knowledge of the host country and other cultures
  • Relationship building expertise
  • Self-knowledge and awareness
  • Intercultural communication skills
  • Personal and professional commitment to cross-cultural work
  • Resilience

The qualities and strategies discussed in this section enable team development in any realm, but specifically, they create a foundation for success in global and virtual teams.

Is your team high-performing?

Let’s start with the premise that not all teams are high performing. If this premise is true where do managers focus to lead their teams to break-through results? There are three areas to prioritize for high performing teams: people, process, and productivity. Often, we jump right to productivity then can’t figure out why our teams struggle to perform.

High performing teams have certain qualities in common:

  • Engaged members
  • Common vision and values
  • Results oriented perspectives
  • Drive to learn and collaborate

[i] Symons and Stenzel (2007) in their article “Virtually Borderless: An Examination of Culture in Virtual Teaming” for the Journal of General Management.

Learn more about leading your team to great results from our blog series on team cohesion.


Leading Teams that Get Results – Blog Series

Why Teams Outperform Groups

How Well Do You Really Know Your Team?

The Secret to Getting Your Team Aligned

4 Keys to Shape Team Culture

If Your Team is Often Unprepared – Do This

Learn from Your Team’s Mistakes—and its Successes