Membership and Trust
Leaders who promote a strong sense of membership in their dispersed teams go a long way toward developing trust among the members. Veterans of dispersed teams mention several tactics leaders can adopt to create a sense of membership.
- Keep the team informed of long-term organizational changes.
- Ask the team for input on critical organizational issues.
- Make time for team-building activities.
- Encourage personal contact and communication among all members.
- Hold face-to-face meetings.
Leadership That Exploits Advantages
Dispersed teams require more direct and careful maintenance than local teams to reach their full potential. Team leaders who pay attention to the pluses and minuses of dispersed teams can design tactics and techniques that address specific concerns and increase team effectiveness. For example, one advantage enjoyed by dispersed teams is that they can work around the clock. Members on one side of the world can read e-mail, respond to problems, and get back to their counterparts on the other side of the world before their workday begins.
Dispersed teams can also be a richer source of organizational innovation than local teams. A larger perspective helps dispersed teams solve problems quickly. Insights from colleagues around the world bring new dimensions to the work. Members can draw on cultural differences to access and understand viewpoints and opinions of others, which may, for example, influence how products and services are delivered to clients. Dispersed teams are able to gather information and feed solutions to the organization that might otherwise be unavailable or take too much time to obtain.
On an individual level, members of dispersed teams enjoy some advantages over their counterparts serving on local teams. For example, as members learn about cultural differences through their work with others, they can develop more agile emotional competencies that enhance all of their work relationships. Members also gain international business knowledge and build resiliency by expanding their personal and professional networks. They gain a sense of empowerment through the autonomy that often accompanies the responsibility of serving on a dispersed team.
Leadership That Mitigates Disadvantages
As powerful as these group and individual advantages are, without effective leadership they can be undermined by disadvantages common to dispersed teams. The most significant disadvantages fall into two categories: problems with communication processes and problems with project management systems.
Leaders of dispersed teams need to be aware that communication skills are critically important to their team’s effectiveness. The opportunities for misunderstandings (communicating in different languages and from the perspectives of different cultures remains problematic) are far greater on a dispersed team than on a local one. Communication problems are exacerbated by the lack of face-to-face contact and an absence or severe reduction of nonverbal signs (body language is a major information conduit between people). Correspondence by e-mail, phone, and fax can leave out a lot of fine points and leave the team grappling with generalities and abstractions.
Further, dispersed teams face significant difficulty sharing information inside the group and with those outside if its members move into and out of the team. Local teams can depend on the organization’s bench strength to recruit and develop new members, but dispersed teams often require a more selective recruitment process. Some organizations may assign people to dispersed teams as a developmental opportunity and give only second thought to the skills and attributes they bring to the team.