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7 Steps for Applying Transformational Leadership to the Virtual Workplace

Just as expanding technology has changed the basic nature of American commerce in recent decades, so too has it changed employment standards. With the advent of the virtual workforce and gig economy, today’s managers are much more likely to be leading teams that are based not only in different offices, but perhaps even different cities, states and countries.

business women leader with staff providing direction

As managers seek better methods to manage a far-flung team of workers, questions also arise as to whether traditional forms of leadership are up to the task. Yet in the midst of this search, a solution may exist in the form of an already well-known concept: transformational leadership.

Coined back in 1973 to describe leaders who “seek to change existing thoughts, techniques and goals for better results and the greater good,” transformational leadership is a style of management that centers on systemic, long-term improvements affected by leaders who achieve results via empathetic, mutually trustful relationships with their team members.

Real-world examples of transformational leaders can be found in present-day icons, such as Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs. But the model also has been identified in the likes of John D. Rockefeller. He leveraged previously undreamt-of levels of organizational prowess and discipline to build his Standard Oil empire by streamlining as much as by acquisition, and in the philosophy of management guru Peter Drucker, who famously said: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

That ethos—the ever-changing business world requires ever-changing solutions and managerial mindset—is strikingly relevant today, when managers struggle to effectively manage virtual. And so it should be of little surprise that the concept itself of transformational leadership is itself well-suited for the management virtual teams.

To wit: A 2009 study examining the results of applying transformational leadership to both “virtual teams using computer-mediated communication” as well as “traditional teams using face-to-face communication,” concluded that “transformational leadership has a stronger effect in teams that use only computer-mediated communication, and that leaders who increase their transformational leadership behaviors in such teams achieve higher levels of team performance.”

Transformational leadership has a stronger effect in teams that use only computer-mediated communication.


performing a virtual business meeting

Face-to-face communication is an important skill as a leader to transform behaviors in the work environment.


7 Steps for Leveraging Transformational Leadership for the Virtual Workplace

How, then, should today’s virtual manager best apply the transformational leadership? Before doing so, there are seven key steps to consider.

Step #1: Define Goals and Milestones

A key aspect of transformational leadership is working to approach goals in new and innovative ways. So, although this mode of management will eventually be participative in execution—read on for details—the direction of that participatory action must be decided before the project begins. That means understanding how to best accomplish the goals before you given the talent you have to work with, then considering how that talent can be inspired to bring the goal within reach. It also means setting firmly defined milestones for success—signposts along the way to signify whether you’re where you need to be at any given time, on any given project.

Providing specific business goals to business crowd

Providing clear business goals helps improve better performance.


Step #2: Get in a Participative Mindset

A hallmark of the transformational style of leadership is the use of a participative rather than a directive approach. That means making an effort to equalize power among team members, share the process of solving problems, rather than simply making executive decisions (with or without staff consultation). The idea is to inspire a group of people to move toward a common goal and giving them a legitimate sense of buy-in by sharing responsibility and authority.

Step #3: Prepare to Personalize Check-ins

Managing a virtual workforce means offering a certain degree of independence to your team, and the transformational leadership style means stifling any tendency toward micromanagement. For these reasons, added importance surrounds the occasions in which you do check in with team members—and check-ins should still be as frequent as you need them to be. Yet with a virtual, independent-spirited workforce, these check-ins must also be carefully calibrated to fit into personal schedules without disrupting workflows, while also meeting the milestones you laid out back in step one.

Step #4: Enable Self-direction

The participative style of leadership—as opposed to the micromanagement style — will inevitably lead to a certain level of self-guidance among the team members under your direction. Experts advise establishing teams among your group, complete with team leaders empowered with a certain level of autonomous decision-making. This provides a level of motivation that’s particularly important with a virtual team, when employees are often geographically isolated and tend to be somewhat independent in thought and in action.

two men and woman working as a team to solving problems

Establishing teams with provided goals will allow to provide a participative style of leadership.


Step #5: Establish Norms

Hand-in-hand with self-direction, however, comes the need for well-defined norms by which team members can operate. This is important not just for providing guidance in the event of uncertainty, but also for making sure that your larger task of meeting the eventual goal stays on track. Well-defined norms shared at each project’s outset also can help bring attention to those team members who deserve recognition—which could otherwise be somewhat difficult to perceive in the virtual environment.

Step #6: Consider the Contingency Approach

An aspect of transformational leadership that’s particularly well-suited to managing virtual workforces is the contingency approach, or the capacity to adapt to a changing set of variables, depending on how your team members perform. Though trust is key to a style of management that centers on self- direction and autonomy, so is a back-up plan. The prepared leader will have a host of contingency plans ready to be activated when certain milestones are not reached.

Step #7: Apply Your Charisma

Dependent on the inspiration and motivation of talented workers—toward a specific, shared objective, as well as the larger goals of professional growth and personal achievement—transformational leadership is all the more effective when it reflects your own personal aesthetic. And you don’t have to possess celebrity-grade levels of charisma to inspire a virtual team: The power of your ideas, the soundness of your strategy, and your own discretion in enabling independent success all translate exceptionally well to the virtual workforce. Each can work to inspire your team members to achieve their best possible results.

Transformational Leadership in the Virtual Workplace: Bringing it All Together

A result of the confluence of globalization with rapidly advancing communications technology, the virtual environment is here to stay. And transformational leadership is showing itself to be the best method for not only managing it, but getting the best possible result in the process.

As leaders in business process outsourcing, we understand the virtual environment and the transformational leadership principles best-suited to managing it. If you’re uncertain about your capacity to direct a virtual workforce or are interested in learning more about transformational leadership best practices, we’re standing by to help.

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