Virtual Teams and Coaching Difficult Leaders

This research-based essay was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Psychology of Consulting class (PSY-834) at Grand Canyon University.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, virtual teams have become commonplace. There are notable differences between face-to-face teams and virtual teams. Additionally, good leaders are needed to make sure virtual teams are successful. The first section of this paper will describe virtual teams, how they operate, and the best practices and ethics involved. Then, the second section discusses leadership coaching and how coaches deal with difficult leaders. The paper concludes with some final thoughts.

Virtual Teams

Virtual teams have become much more critical in the past 18 months. The COVID-19 pandemic forced most office employees to work from home for the first time (Feitosa & Salas, 2020). As a result, many organizations have formed virtual teams to operate more effectively. Although virtual teams are familiar now, they have existed for many years, and there is much research comparing virtual teams to traditional (face-to-face) teams. This section examines virtual teams by discussing the similarities and differences between virtual and traditional teams, the development stages of teams, the factors that result in success and those that inhibit success, best practices for leading virtual teams, and the ethical challenges of virtual teams. The section begins with a comparison of face-to-face teams and virtual teams.

Comparing and Contrasting Face-to-Face Teams and Virtual Teams

There are several similarities between traditional teams and virtual teams. First, traditional and virtual teams are formed by people who depend on each other to achieve an established goal (Morrison-Smith & Ruiz, 2020; Stratone & VĂTĂMĂNescu, 2019). The interdependency in teams stems from the team trying to achieve a common goal. Additionally, team members usually have different roles that they fill to accomplish intermediate tasks. For example, one employee might be responsible for entering accounts payable invoices in an accounting department, and another employee would issue payments. The second employee depends on the first because the second employee cannot issue payments until the first employee enters the invoices into the accounting system. As this example illustrates, teams usually comprise interdependent members who seek a common goal.

A second similarity is that traditional and virtual teams use synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication to accomplish their goals (Morrison-Smith & Ruiz, 2020; Wilson et al., 2021). For example, traditional teams tend to meet face-to-face to discuss the progress of their work. Additionally, they may have informal meetings—at the water cooler—to review what was discussed at the formal meeting and eliminate misunderstandings (Feitosa & Salas, 2020). Likewise, virtual teams can have formal meetings using videoconferencing technology (e.g., Microsoft Teams). In addition, they can use the chat function or email for informal discussions (Feitosa & Salas, 2020). The synchronous and asynchronous meetings among team members are critical to team success, explaining why such communication exists for traditional and virtual teams.

Although there are several similarities between traditional and virtual teams, there are also some crucial differences. For example, Wilson et al. (2021) found that leadership emergence in virtual teams does not follow the same patterns as in traditional teams. In traditional teams, the more extroverted team members tend to become the team leaders. However, extroversion did not predict that virtual teams chose their leaders this way.

In addition to leadership emergence issues, virtual teams tend to have more communication problems related to diversity and culture. Given the wide geographic dispersion of many virtual teams, some team members may not understand other team members’ language use and culture (Gheni et al., 2017). In traditional teams, diversity is a concern; however, it is less of a concern because team members can respond to nonverbal cues more appropriately (Wilson et al., 2021). These differences are essential to understand, but they are not impossible to overcome.

The Development Stages of Teams

Researchers have suggested that teams progress through a life cycle. For example, Tuckman and Jensen (2010) described five stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. During the forming stage, group members get to know each other, which is more difficult for virtual teams who have never met face-to-face because team members may not make an effort to reach out to each other (Stratone & VĂTĂMĂNescu, 2019). Furthermore, Stratone and VĂTĂMĂNescu (2019) point out that when team members are added to or removed from the group, they might regress to the forming stage before progressing with their work.

During the storming and norming stages, team members may experience conflict. In many cases, the conflict involves decision-making processes (Wilson et al., 2021). Furthermore, there may be disagreements about who would be the group leader. As previously noted, this is more of a problem for virtual teams than for traditional teams (Wilson et al., 2021).

The performing stage is when the team operates efficiently and meets its objectives. Stratone and VĂTĂMĂNescu (2019) suggest that teams will not reach this stage unless they have built trust and good relationships during the previous stages. Again, virtual teams have more difficulty building relationships without a high level of communication (Morrison-Smith & Ruiz, 2020). The performing stage occurs when the team moves toward the end of their time together.

Once the team has accomplished its goals, it moves into the adjourning stage. During this stage of group development, the group reflects on their time together and examines how well they achieved their goals and worked together (Tuckman & Jensen, 2010). As the team adjourns, a leader should meet with team members to discuss their experiences.

The Factors in Virtual Teams That Result in Success

Several factors exist within virtual teams that can result in team success. The most critical factor for team success is appropriate information and communication technologies (Stratone & VĂTĂMĂNescu, 2019). Foremost, virtual team members must have stable internet connections to connect to the various web-based services used for virtual team communications. Examples of services include videoconferencing software, email, and calendar software (e.g., Microsoft Outlook), and file server access at their organization. Furthermore, team members should have a way to share sensitive data securely. Without appropriate technology in place, virtual teams have little chance of success.

Another factor that results in team success is proper role assignments. It is essential to assign people to roles that are commensurate with their knowledge, skills, and abilities (Stratone & VĂTĂMĂNescu, 2019). In addition to ensuring team productivity, proper role assignments will allow team members to know who is responsible for each part of a project. That would allow them to communicate with each other when they have problems without figuring out who should answer their questions.

Finally, virtual teams need to hold regular meetings during their tenure. Since they do not meet in person, team members should hold frequent meetings to update each other on their progress (Stratone & VĂTĂMĂNescu, 2019). Furthermore, they should discuss problems openly in meetings to avoid groupthink. Regular team meetings have other benefits as well, including team building.

Many factors affect success in virtual teams. Having appropriate technology systems, correctly assigning roles, and holding frequent update meetings are essential for success. Although having these factors in place can result in team success, other factors could inhibit success, discussed in the next section.

The Factors in Virtual Teams That Inhibit Success

The literature abounds with factors that inhibit the success of virtual teams. The most commonly discussed is geographical distance and cultural diversity (Gheni et al., 2017; Morrison-Smith & Ruiz, 2020; Stratone & VĂTĂMĂNescu, 2019). As mentioned earlier, virtual teams may be spread across state and international borders over great distances. This displacement could lead to cultural misunderstandings and language barriers. An example of a cultural misunderstanding would be power distance among team members. In some eastern cultures, power is shared among team members, whereas Western nations usually give power to few leaders (Gheni et al., 2017). Therefore, in situations where there is a mixture of people from different cultures, there could be resentment among members due to the power structure.

Another problem that could inhibit team success is a lack of commitment from team members. Since virtual team members are not in an office together, they may not always be productive. This lack of commitment could lead to some members doing much more work than others (Stratone & VĂTĂMĂNescu, 2019). Frequent check-ins among team members could resolve this issue.

The size of the virtual team can also inhibit success. Stratone and VĂTĂMĂNescu (2019) noted that teams form subgroups as they get larger. Additionally, communication among larger teams tends to break down. Stratone and VĂTĂMĂNescu (2019) suggest that managers keep teams at a size that allows them to be productive and communicate well.

Thus, several factors could cause virtual teams to be less successful. First, the geographic distance could cause diversity-related cultural problems. Second, virtual teams could experience a lack of commitment among their members. Finally, virtual teams could become so large that productivity and communication break down.

Best Practices for Leading a Virtual Team

Although there are factors that inhibit the success of virtual teams, they can overcome many of these challenges with good leadership. This section will describe some best practices for leading a virtual team. In addition, Feitosa and Salas (2020) note several ways leaders can address the challenges faced by virtual teams.

First, leaders should monitor trust among the virtual team members, which might include having frequent meetings and engaging informally with team members via chat or text to understand how they feel about other members of the team. Mistrust among team members is a common area of the team’s failures.

Second, Feitosa and Salas (2020) recommend that leaders recognize success. For example, when a team meets a goal, the leader can announce the team’s good work at a company-wide meeting. These types of positive reinforcement can build relationships and ensure future success.

Third, leaders should ensure that the virtual team is a safe space for discussion of ideas. All team members should be encouraged to bring up their ideas without fear of harsh criticisms and personal attacks. Instead, the team should consider ideas genuinely, even if the team doesn’t accept the idea in the end. Furthermore, Feitosa and Salas (2020) explain that team members should be encouraged to understand the personal challenges faced by other team members.

Finally, leaders should assess the levels of teamwork among team members. Feitosa and Salas (2020) recommend that leaders provide frequent feedback to team members to know how they are doing. Furthermore, leaders should focus on results and team output instead of the number of hours each team member works. Additionally, leaders should hold debriefing sessions to understand how team members felt the team operated (part of the adjourning phase of group development).

Leadership is critical to ensuring team success, and there are best practices available to help give leaders some direction. These best practices include monitoring trust, increasing process gains, ensuring inclusion and safe spaces for team members, and assessing teamwork frequently. In addition, part of good leadership is understanding the ethical challenges faced by virtual teams. The following section presents a discussion of these ethical matters.

Ethical Challenges of Virtual Teams

Leadership in any domain requires consideration of ethics and morals. For virtual teams, there are unique ethical considerations. Ethical behavior among team members and team leaders is essential to the success of virtual teams. This section describes some of the ethical challenges of virtual teams.

A primary ethical concern arises from virtual team members working from remote locations instead of a central office location. Warren and Shaw (2021) note that team members may be distracted or lack commitment while working remotely. Feitosa and Salas (2020) noted that this problem was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing most workers to work at home while caring for children. Therefore, leaders of virtual teams need to set an example for the team members and demonstrate their commitment to the team.

A second ethical concern is the possibility of team members communicating in inappropriate ways. People who do not have face-to-face interactions are more likely to exhibit inappropriate or aggressive language in their electronic communications with others (Warren & Shaw, 2021). Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence because people have gotten used to social media communications. However, leaders need to reinforce proper communication and etiquette in the workplace.

Finally, virtual team members may misuse organizational resources. For example, given the blurred lines between home and work life, employees may use the organization’s computer hardware or software for personal needs (Warren & Shaw, 2021). This misconduct could be especially problematic for government employees because they could mingle sensitive and classified information with personal information. The result could be catastrophic. Therefore, leaders must communicate the organization’s expectations regarding using organizational resources to team members.

As with all professional environments, ethical considerations are essential for virtual teams. Some of the ethical challenges virtual teams face include work-life balance issues, inappropriate communications, and misuse of organizational resources. The team leader needs to address all of these ethical issues to ensure that team members understand what would happen if they violate ethical norms.

Concluding Remarks About Virtual Teams

Virtual teams have become much more critical to organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, researchers have been comparing traditional and virtual teams for many years to determine ways to improve the performance of virtual teams. This paper has discussed some similarities and differences between traditional and virtual teams, the development stages of teams, the factors in virtual teams that result in success and those that inhibit success, best practices for leading a virtual team, and some of the ethical challenges of virtual teams.

Studying the last five years of research in the virtual team space has resulted in several conclusions about what makes virtual teams operate effectively. The most important theme in the literature is leadership. Proper guidance from team leaders will help virtual team members be successful, move through the stages of group development, and act ethically. A future consultant should understand how leadership affects virtual teams and be able to coach leaders to guide them towards success.

Coaching Difficult Leaders

This section of the paper discusses the coaching of difficult leaders. A difficult leader is one who challenges the coach or resists coaching (Taylor et al., 2019; Wasylyshyn, 2020). Leaders might resent the fact that a coach was hired to help the leader improve their performance or make some other kind of change (Wasylyshyn, 2020). To deal with difficult leaders, coaches should possess certain competencies and execute best practices (Wise & Hammack, 2011). This section of the paper discusses these competencies, three types of difficult leaders, how a leader’s style influences the handling of challenges, and how the coaching of a difficult leader might occur in a virtual environment. The key to dealing with difficult leaders is building a trusting relationship between the coach and the leader and supporting the leader’s basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. These ideas are threaded throughout this section.

Competencies of a Leadership Coach

Several competencies are needed for leadership coach success. Wise and Hammack (2011) grouped these competencies into three categories: establishing the coaching relationship, communicating effectively, and facilitating learning and performance. Although there are many competencies within these categories, Wise and Hammack (2011) found that certain competencies are more important to leaders’ success than others. Additionally, self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985) can be applied to the leadership coaching competencies to enhance understanding of their effectiveness (Taylor et al., 2019). The following discussion will synthesize the required competencies of leadership coaches and concepts of self-determination theory.

Establishing the coaching relationship

Establish trust with the client. Building a trusting relationship is a critical competency for a leadership coach to possess. Wise and Hammack (2011) consider this competency to be the most important for coaching success. Without trust between the coach and the coachee, the coachee may not be willing to answer the coach’s questions. The coach can build trust with the coachee by clarifying the roles, expectations, and responsibilities of both sides (Wise & Hammack, 2011).

Develop a coaching plan. Once trust has been established in the coaching relationship, the coach must be able to develop a coaching plan with the coachee leader. The coaching plan should include the steps needed to meet the objectives of the coaching engagement (Wise & Hammack, 2011). This competency is important because the coach needs to demonstrate to the coachee leader how the coaching engagement will proceed.

Relationship coaching. Wise and Hammack (2011) found that leadership coaches need to follow up with their coachee leaders frequently to understand how the engagement is going. For example, a leadership coach might have a weekly check-in session to determine how well the coaching plan is progressing. In addition to keeping the plan on track, relationship coaching also helps establish trust in the relationship.

Establishing trust within the coaching relationship meets the psychological need of relatedness described by Deci and Ryan (1985). Relatedness describes the psychological need to socialize and relate to other people. Failing to establish trust in the relationship would mean that the psychological need has not been met (Taylor et al., 2019), and the coaching engagement would more likely be terminated. Developing a coaching plan meets the need for autonomy because the coach can give the coachee leader tasks to perform on their own. In addition to establishing the coaching relationship, there are competencies related to communicating effectively, discussed in the next section.

Communicating effectively

Active listening. It is important that the coach give their coachees undivided attention. Paying attention is more than simply listening; the coach should pay attention to nonverbal cues as well (Wise & Hammack, 2011). Actively listening will meet the coachee leader’s psychological need for relatedness (Taylor et al., 2019) because the coach would show that they genuinely care for the coachee leader.

Provide honest feedback. Providing honest and open feedback is an essential competency. Wise and Hammack (2011) discussed the need to understand how to properly give negative feedback to coachee leaders. Negative feedback should be given in a way that challenges the leader to be better. This meets the psychological need for autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 1985) because it is up to the leader to take what the coach gives them and work with it to improve their performance.

Facilitating learning and performance

Goal setting and monitoring. Coaches need to set goals and monitor the success of the coaching engagement. Wise and Hammack (2011) suggest that goals relate to the best practices of the industry. For example, the executive director of a nonprofit might have goals involving fundraising and resource development. Additionally, coaches should monitor the coachee’s ability to meet the agreed-upon goals. Facilitating learning and performance meets all three psychological needs in self-determination theory (autonomy, competence, and relatedness). All the competencies operate together to ensure a successful coaching engagement.

Difficult Leaders

There are many types of difficult leaders that coaches might encounter. This section presents a discussion of three types of difficult leaders and how a coach should handle them. Wasylyshyn (2020) describes difficult leaders as “fakers” (p. 34) because they do not want to be coached. The three types of difficult leaders discussed here and described by Wasylyshyn (2020) are lack of intention to participate, excessive narcissism, and lack of emotional intelligence (EQ).

Some leaders may not want to participate in the coaching engagement. It is possible that the coach was hired by a board of directors or some other person or body superior to the leader that wishes to see a change in the leader. When leaders fail to understand how they can benefit from coaching or resent the fact that a coach was hired, they may challenge the coaching relationship (Wasylyshyn, 2020). Coaches should build trust with such leaders before continuing with the engagement. If the leader truly will not cooperate, they should be considered a candidate for removal from their position. The leader’s participation in the coaching engagement is crucial to its success.

The second type of difficult leader is one who displays excessive narcissism. Excessive narcissism results when leaders fail to maintain objectivity about their own leadership behaviors and abilities (Wasylyshyn, 2020). For example, a leader may think they know everything about marketing but in reality, that area is a weakness for them. The best way to handle this type of difficult leader is to ask them probing questions until they provide honest answers. This may be time-consuming, but it would help the leader admit what their weaknesses are.

The third type of difficult leader is one who lacks emotional intelligence (EQ). Such leaders have difficulty controlling their emotions and lack self-awareness (Wasylyshyn, 2020). Furthermore, they lack empathy for other people around them. Low EQ results in poor relationships with colleagues and employees who should follow the leader. A coach can handle this in a similar fashion—by asking probing questions until the leader admits that there is a problem with their emotions. Once the leader is aware of the problem, the coach can provide tools that the leader can use to control their emotions or use them in a good way.

The Influence of a Leader’s Style on How They Should Be Coached

Leadership style can affect how a coach handles coaching challenges. There are three broad management styles—autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire (Gandolfi & Stone, 2018). An autocratic leader might not participate in the coaching engagement due to excessive narcissism (Wasylyshyn, 2020). The coach should explain the benefits of the coaching engagement to the autocratic leader and give the leader more autonomy over how the coaching engagement proceeds. A democratic leader would be participative and any challenges that arise should be discussed with the leader and a decision that satisfies all parties should be made. The laissez-faire leader would likely allow the coach to tell them how to deal with the challenge. The three types of leadership styles noted here would affect which approach a coach would take to handle challenges that arise during the engagement.

Coaching Difficult Leaders in a Virtual Environment

Online coaching is more likely now that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses to operate in the virtual environment. Online coaching may have both synchronous and asynchronous components (Jackson & Bourne, 2020). Coaching difficult leaders in the virtual pandemic may present special challenges. For example, leaders may not appear for their online meetings (Wasylyshyn, 2020). Furthermore, the leaders might not participate in the meetings or meet other objectives. Coaches should focus on establishing a trusting relationship with the leaders (Wise & Hammack, 2011). In the virtual environment, trust-building would occur by sending a welcome email at the beginning of the engagement. Overall, there would need to be a higher level of communication for coaching success (Jackson & Bourne, 2020). Online coaching can be just as successful as in-person coaching if the coach has the competencies discussed in a prior section.

Concluding Remarks About Coaching Difficult Leaders

This section discussed the competencies required of leadership coaches when dealing with difficult leaders. There are three categories of competencies—establishing the coaching relationship, communicating effectively, and facilitating learning and performance—that are critical for a leadership coach to possess (Wise & Hammack, 2011). Furthermore, difficult leaders might be unwilling to participate in the coaching engagement, excessively narcissistic, and lack emotional intelligence. Coaches should focus on building trust in the coaching relationship to help resolve these issues.

In addition to actions the coach can take, a leader’s style influences how challenges are handled. For example, an autocratic leader may need to feel like they are in control of the engagement and require additional autonomy support (Taylor et al., 2019). Alternatively, a democratic leader may seek participatory solutions. Conversely, a lassaiz-faire leader would be willing to take direction from the coach without question. Building trust will help the coach have a better working relationship with the client.

Finally, coaching difficult leaders in a virtual environment presents its own challenges. Coaches should focus on communicating effectively and building trust by sending frequent emails to check in on the client. Additionally, they should use videoconferencing technology to check on their clients in real time.

The key to coaching difficult leaders is to build a trusting relationship with the leader (Wise & Hammack, 2011) and ensure the psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are met (Taylor et al., 2019). When given the proper support, coaches can give difficult leaders the tools they need to change their behaviors and become successful leaders. Although some leaders are so difficult that no coach could ever help them, most leaders would be willing to accept the help of a professional coach.

Final Thoughts

Virtual teams are a normal part of the business culture, given the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, organizational and team leaders may require coaching to improve their performance or transition through company changes. Occasionally, coaches will encounter difficult leaders who may resist coaching and resent the fact that their managers hired a coach. This paper established that building trust and satisfying the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness will motivate difficult leaders to work with coaches to improve their performance.


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