By Claudia C Cogliser of Texas Tech University, William Gardner of Texas Tech University, Christine Quinn Trank of Vanderbilt University, Mark Gavin of West Virginia University, Jonathon Halbesleben of the University of Alabama, Anson Seers of Virginia Commonwealth University
With the rapid growth of virtual teams in the workplace, we quickly realized that research on this brave new form of organizing has not kept pace. We were particularly curious about the team relationships that form within a virtual setting, and the extent to which the quality and structure of these relationships impacts team performance and member satisfaction. Do the same types of group exchange structures that arise in face-to-face settings emerge in virtual teams? Or are there notable differences in and how teams operate in virtual settings?
To answer these questions, we examined electronic communications (e.g., threaded discussion groups, email, online chats, and document sharing) collected from 233 undergraduate business students in 50 virtual teams. Our results revealed four distinct types of group exchange structures. The first, which emerged in 10 groups, is a unified generalized exchange structure. This structure is characterized by high-quality exchange relationships among all group members and high levels of information sharing and cooperation. The second is described as a unified generalized exchange structure with isolates. This structure emerged in 16 virtual teams. Groups with this structure experience high quality exchanges among most members, but negative relationships with some isolated members. The third type identified is a unified balanced structure and was found in 8 teams. This structure is characterized by low-quality exchange relationships among all members and low levels of trust and concern for others. The final structure identified is a unified balanced structure with isolates; it emerged in 16 teams. This structure is characterized by low quality exchange among most members, and negative relationships with some isolated members.
Other types of exchange structures that involve coalitions among members failed emerge. We were not totally surprised by this finding, since as we anticipated that the short duration of the project task, the relatively small size of the project teams (5 to 8 members), and the exclusive use of virtual media, would discourage the formation of coalitions. We suspect that coalitions will be more likely to emerge in virtual teams that have a large number of members, projects with longer time horizons, and ambiguous goals and objectives.
We were surprised to find that virtual teams with unified generalized (i.e., high quality relationships) as opposed to unified balanced (i.e., lower quality relationships) exchange structures did not experience higher levels of performance and member satisfaction. We thought they would since prior research suggests that teams with very high quality relationships among all members perform particularly well, and have very satisfied members. In hindsight, we think that the short duration of the task (7 weeks) may have prevented the full benefits of high quality relationships from emerging.
Our expectations about the negative effects of isolate members were confirmed, however. That is, when isolates were present, negative effects on performance and satisfaction were observed, but only for teams with balanced as opposed to generalized structures. We suspect that teams for which most members experience generalized (i.e., high quality) exchange relationships are more tolerant of low contributions by team isolates, because the team as a whole enjoys positive interactions, as well as successful performance and member satisfaction. Indeed, even team isolates may be satisfied with team outcomes since they enjoy the benefits of effective performance, even though they made minimal contributions. However, for teams with balanced (i.e., low quality) exchanges that reflect low levels of trust, information sharing and cooperation, the presence of one or more isolates has especially detrimental effects on performance and satisfaction. In such cases, we suspect that non-isolate members may be resentful of isolate members, who are perceived as “free riders.” Such isolates may in turn feel that they are unfairly blamed for the team’s troubles because they were not given sufficient opportunities to contribute.
Our findings suggest that it is particularly important for organizations that adopt virtual teams to promote generalized exchange structures to avoid the detrimental effects of group isolates on team performance and member satisfaction. We recommend that such organizations make concerted efforts to foster positive social exchanges that reflect high levels of cooperation, trust, coordination, and information sharing, to discourage the emergence of group isolates. To do so, we recommend team building and other techniques that have been shown to promote team development in face-to-face settings be adopted to reap fully realize the potential benefits of virtual teams.
Claudia Cogliser (Ph.D., University of Miami) is an associate professor in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, USA. Her main research interests include leader-follower relationships, authentic leadership, virtual teams, and scale development.
William L. Gardner (DBA, Florida State University) is the Jerry S. Rawls Chair in Leadership and Director of the Institute for Leadership Research at Texas Tech University, USA. His current research interests include leadership, virtual teams, impression management, emotional labor, causal attributions, and ethical decision-making.
Christine Quinn Trank (Ph.D., University of Iowa) is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. Her research concerns the institutional environment of organizations and occupations. She is co-editor of the Journal of Management Inquiry and Associate Editor of Academy of Management Review.
Mark Gavin (Ph.D., Purdue University) is an Associate Professor of Management at West Virginia University and serves as the Department of Management’s Ph.D. Program Coordinator. He researches in the areas of interpersonal trust, leadership, emotions, multi-level phenomena. His research has appeared in Academy of Management Journal, Human Relations, Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Management, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, and Personnel Psychology, among others.
Jonathon Halbesleben (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is the HealthSouth Chair of Health Care Management in the Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on employee well-being and work-family issues.
Anson Seers (Ph.D., University of Cincinnati) is a Professor of Management in the School of Business at Virginia Commonwealth University. His research publications have focused on work roles and working relationships, encompassing topics such as leader-member exchange relationships, team-member exchange relationships, emergent leadership, role conflict and role ambiguity, team and organizational commitment, work team effectiveness, and task force pacing.