PROVO — The skills it takes to become a leader in the real world may not be the same attributes that will work as well in virtual reality, a new study shows.

Research from Brigham Young University indicates that members of virtual teams tend to recognize leaders in very different ways compared to in-person team members. A new study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology examined “emergent leaders” — those with no formal authority but who are recognized as leaders among team members — in groups with varying levels of virtual interaction.

Researchers discovered that in face-to-face situations, team members value individuals with “classic” leadership traits — like extroversion and intelligence. But in virtual settings, those qualities are not as effective.

“I still form impressions (through), ‘Are you intelligent or conscientious?’ But now my perceptions of your leadership are driven far more by, ‘Have you done things for the team that are leader-like?’” said Cody Reeves, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at the BYU Marriott School of Business.

“Do you help to monitor our resources, monitor the environment, are you helping others (by) reaching out and assisting them? Are you doing things that are leader-like, not just ‘Are you a leader type?’”

The study shows that because there may be fewer social cues available for human interaction along with increased chances for miscommunication, team members may tend to gravitate toward individuals who implement tangible measures to ensure goal attainment over those people with charismatic personalities.

“On a virtual team, it’s more important than in a face-to-face meeting to stand out as the one who helps others,” Reeves explained. “Those who take the time to pause and assist others with tasks are more likely to be viewed as leaders.”

For the study, Reeves and his colleagues observed 220 student teams at two Midwestern universities who met to work on assigned projects mostly virtually, mostly in-person or in a combination of the two options. The students completed surveys regarding their own and their team members’ characteristics and behaviors, along with who they thought to be their team leaders. Comparing the data with transcripts of the students’ virtual interactions, researchers noted patterns in how leaders tend to surface over the range of virtual to in-person teams.

Reeves said the perceived differences between virtual and traditional leaders are “stark.” He added that although social connection is still critical for leaders on virtual teams, online productive leadership is driven mostly through minor acts like timeline monitoring, providing feedback, as well as teamwork coordination.

“It’s a really an important point for businesses to realize. If I’ve got workers working collaboratively, especially if I do have formal leaders and I don’t want them to be undercut by others who are emergent leaders, I need to be training them on what are these behaviors to engage in,’ he said.

“It’s more important now that I’m working virtually than it was when they were working face to face.”

The authors said that as virtual work becomes more common for organizations, their managers and team members will benefit from knowing that leadership traits and behaviors affect leadership perceptions in different ways in diverse virtual contexts. An example would be for organizations to avoid automatically promoting individuals who have distinguished themselves as emergent leaders from more in-person contexts to leadership roles in highly virtual contexts.

“In virtual environments, our actions speak loudly,” said study co-author Steven Charlier, professor of management at Georgia Southern University. “The ‘soft’ skills that traditional managers rely on might not translate easily to a virtual environment.”

Reeves agreed. “A ‘natural leader’ who doesn’t usually engage in these specific leader-like behaviors but always kind of ‘has it’ needs to be extra careful because those are the types that are at the highest risk of no longer being viewed as a leader in virtual contexts.”

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With the “new normal” of working online, “now is the time for organizations and employees to gain virtual leadership competencies,” said lead author Radostina Purvanova, of Drake University. “These are the skills of the future. Those companies that have already embraced virtuality are now reaping the benefits — and the rest of us must catch up quickly or else we will simply be left behind.”

Reeves noted the study was researched long before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, but the information resulting from it can be used to help companies and organizations function more effectively if and when they transition back to more interpersonal interactions in the formal workplace.

“I would hope that these behaviors carry on even when we’re back to face-to-face, they will be helpful there even for leader emergence. They just aren’t as important (in person) as we found they are in virtual teams,” he said.

“So maybe, if nothing else, this becomes a catalyst to help instill some of those skills to train our leaders so they’re better equipped to work with their teams.”

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