The Effects of the Team Leadership Structure on Team Dynamics and Performance in GVT Context



The Problem

  • As organizations shift from hierarchical and rigid bureaucratic structures to more organic organizational designs, GVTs becoming ubiquitous


  • Between 50 and 70 percent of all white-collar workers in OECD countries at least occasionally work on projects that require some form of virtual collaboration. Of those 20 to 35 percent involve collaborations across national borders, and the number of such interactions is increasing (c.f., Duarte & Snyder, 2011; Kurtzberg, 2014).


  • Geographic dispersion, cultural diversity, limited level of acquaintanceship among the team memberes, and reliance on virtual communication in GVTs fundamentally changes team dynamics and presents new challenges with respect to team management.


  • GVTs tend to be less hierarchical and more flexible with respect to leadership. Usually, GVTs are formed based on the cross-functionality, cross-geographically, or cross-company principles. That is, the GVT members represent similar levels of hierarchy, but different functional areas, subsidiaries located in different geographic regions, or different partner companies.


  • As a result, GVTs are often formed with no pre-arranged leadership structure where it is immediately obvious who the “boss” is.


  • Usually, it is left up to the team to work out a coordination and leadership system and decide on how the team will be governed.


  • Some GVTs may still have an appointed leader or choose to formally elect a leader and establish a clear chain of command. However, many GVTs choose a less formal approach where no formal leader is elected, but either an informal leader emerges, or the team sticks with a flat structure where all team members are involved in decision making and coordination.


  • Clearly, the GVT leadership and coordination structures have an effect on team dynamics and performance, possibly a profound effect.


  • Thus, understanding what determines team leadership structure and how leadership structure affects various team processes and outcomes is an important research question.


  • Specifically,


  • Why some GVTs end up with a formal leadership structure, some have informal leader(s), and some stick with a flat “leadership-less” structure?


  • Does the choice of leadership structure (formal, informal, none) affect GVT dynamics and outcomes, and if so, how?


  • These two questions can be addresses as two sides of one equation in one paper, or as two separate papers. It may also be feasible to write separate papers for different types of outcomes.


Leadership Model

PART/PAPER 1: Antecedents of Leadership/Coordination Choices in GVTs

  • It would make sense to start with exploring/testing the effects of GVT leadership structure on team dynamics and performance, and if a positive effect is confirmed, move on to trying to explain why determines team’s choices with respect to its leadership structure.


  • However, a natural progression would be to start with antecedents and only then move on to consequences.


  • There appears to be several major blocks of factors that could play a role in the GVT leadership structure emergence.


  • Block 1: Team design (controlled by the management)


  • Team size, gender composition, and other team characteristics may have an effect on team’s choices of their leadership structure.
  • It is possible that smaller teams tend to stick with flat structures, but as the team size grows, teams are more likely to use more formal leadership and coordination models.



  • Block 2: Team member characteristics, average and differences (not controlled directly, but could be controlled via recruitment and selection)


  • There two important sub-blocks here: average team member characteristics vs. differences among team members.
  • It could be that it is all about team’s average cultural intelligence, or average team age, or average working language proficiency. For example, teams that are on average older, or more experienced, or more culturally intelligent are more likely to have a formally elected leader.
  • However, it may also be the case that it is the differences that matter. It could be that the teams where there is a big difference in team members’ age, skills, or experience level are more likely to have a formally elected or informal leaders. Maybe it is that the team member(s) who are noticeably older, more experienced, more culturally intelligent get to assume the leadership roles because their noticeably different age, or experience, or skill level makes such choice easier.


  • Other team member characteristics (team average, or variance) that may affect team’s choice of a leadership structure could include:


  • Cultural values
  • Cultural intelligence
  • Prior experience
  • Age
  • Level of studies
  • Gender composition
  • Working language skills
  • Technical skills
  • Prior experience


  • Block 3: Training and development (controlled by the management)


  • The team’s choice of their leadership structure may also be affected by the pre-project training, development, and guidelines provided by the management of the team or project organizers.
  • It could be the presence/absence of team training in general, particularly with respect to team coordination, leadership, conflict resolution and other related areas, or the quality of such training, as measured by team member learning in that training (e.g., performance on training tests).
  • It could be expected that teams that are informed of the advantages of a strong leadership and coordination structure are more likely to have one in place.
  • Also, teams that are prompted to develop a team charter that outlines team member roles, schedule and other aspects of teamwork will be more likely to have a formal leadership structure in place.
  • Lastly, teams that are given an opportunity, or prompted, to spend time on meeting one another, teams where the inter-member acquaintanceship level is higher, will be more likely to have a leadership structure in place.


  • Block 4: Team experiences (natural)


  • Lastly, team experiences in the early stages of the project may affect team’s decision to institute a formal leadership/coordination structure.
  • For example, teams that experienced problems with coordination, challenges with meeting deadlines, or conflicts and other challenges will move towards establishing a stronger leadership and coordination structure to deal with those problems.
  • On the other hand, teams that did not experience such problems from the beginning may be happy with staying with flat equalitarian structure.


Mediators and Moderators

  • It may be a good idea to dig deeper and to see how various factors could mediate and moderate the effects of the factors in these four blocks on the emergence of team leadership and coordination structure.


  • In fact, some of factors listed above could be mediator or moderators, rather than antecedents.


  • For example, team size, age, gender composition, team diversity could be moderators. E.g., maybe team’s average cultural intelligence does increase changes or an emergence of stronger leadership structure, and the effect is even stronger in larger teams (moderation).


  • Or the team size (antecedent) presents more coordination challenges, which leads to more conflicts (mediator) which in turn prompts an emergence of a stronger leadership system (mediation).





Part/PAPER 2: Consequences of Leadership/Coordination Choices in GVTs

  • This may have to be the first paper or the first part of this big project.


  • Does the team’s choice of its leadership/coordination model affect team dynamics and performance?


  • Presumably, it does.


  • Teams with a stronger leadership and coordination system are more likely to:


  • Have a better workload distribution
    • A more elaborate process organized by the leader is likely to result in a workload distribution that is more fair (more equal), and better matches tasks with skills and preferences of individual team members;


  • Stay on schedule and meet the deadlines;
    • A formal (or informal) leader is likely to institute a schedule and keep track of team progress and prompt team members not to fall behind the schedule;


  • Have a better performance monitoring system in place
    • A leader is likely to monitor everyone’s performance and detect early and intervene if there problems with free-riding, or of a team member is experiencing difficulties, or is not able to complete his/her tasks due to problems in family, etc.


  • Have fewer conflicts;
    • A fairer workload distribution and a better performance monitoring and problem prevention system is likely to reduce the number of conflicts.
    • If conflicts arise, including those not related to the task itself (sexual harassment, interpersonal conflict), a presence of authority on the team allows to deal with them more efficiently and effectively before they escalate too far.


  • Show a higher level of satisfaction, team commitment, and team identification;
    • As a result, team members are likely to be more satisfied with one another and the project in general, identify closer with the team, and be more committed to the team.


  • Ultimately, higher quality of output (solutions, reports, products)
    • Ultimately, this will lead to less process losses, a more optimal distribution of resources, better decision and higher quality output.


  • Negatives: It is possible, however, that a stronger leadership structure could have a negative effect on team performance. A strong formal or informal leader may become dictatorial and turn a positive international collaboration experience into an exhausting and negative experience.
  • Particularly relevant here could be the multi-leader model: teams that have multiple formal or informal leaders could experience all kinds of problems that will undermine team effectiveness.



  • Mediators and Moderators
  • The effects of the team leadership and coordination model on team dynamics and performance could be moderated and mediated by a number of factors.


  • Possible Moderators:


  • Team size: the effect is likely to be stronger in larger teams
  • Team diversity: teams that are more diverse likely will deal with a host of additional challenges, so a presence of a strong leadership structure is likely to be particularly helpful in teams like that (the positive effect is stronger in more diverse teams).


  • Mediators:
    • The team effectiveness factors listed in the previous section may be rearranged so that not all of them are outcomes, but some are process factors (mediators) and some are performance indicators (outcomes).
    • For example, the effect of the team leadership structure on the quality of the team output could be mediated by the team dynamics (more optimal workload distribution, higher satisfaction and motivation, etc.).



Leadership Perception Asymmetries

  • A further refinement of the study (subsequent papers) could explore the role of leadership perception asymmetries.


  • Particularly in cases when teams have informal leaders, which is a vast majority of the teams, the team members’ perceptions about who the leader(s) is(are) are not always symmetrical. One team member may see him/herself as a leader, while other team members may disagree. Or one person may see Team Member A as a leader, but another person may see Team Member B as a leader.


  • A study into what causes these asymmetries, as well as a study in how such asymmetries affect team dynamics and performance could provide very useful findings.





  • Assuming a GVT leadership structure has an effect, our Study 1 (described in Paper 1) will provide some insights for what affects the nature emergence of a GTV leadership structure.


  • The implications for organizations are clear:
    • Recruitment and selection: Recruit / select people with the right skills, experiences, personality profiles to increase chances of an emergence of a more effective team leadership structure.


  • Team design: Stick with the team design that is likely to result in a natural emergence of the optimal team leadership and coordination structure, such as team size, a mix of experiences and skills represented on the team, and the like.


  • Training: Use team imitation, activities, training and development programs that teach the GVT members to adopt the more effective leadership and coordination models.


  • Experience management: Help the team members get through the experiences that may negatively affect their leadership and coordination model choices. Possibly also add scenario simulation activities that will guide the teams towards adopting more effective leadership and coordination mechanisms.





Study context

  • X-Culture was used a research platform for the study.


  • The X-Culture project ( was used as the research platform for the present study. X-Culture is a large-scale international experiential learning project that involves over 4,000 MBA and business students from 100 universities from 40 countries on six continents every semester. The students are placed in global virtual teams of about seven, each student coming from a different country. Working with people from around the globe and dealing with cultural differences, time-zone dispersion, and global communication challenges, the teams complete a consulting project for a multi-national company.


  • The X-Culture project is an 8-week structured program in which participants studying international business throughout the world are assigned to virtual teams of 5 to 7 people, with each team member from a different country. The teams are instructed to develop a full business plan, with the goals, constraints, and commitments laid out at the beginning of the program, for an international venture. Each team works on a different plan, some of which at the request of real customers and enterprises that support the program.


  • The project environment closely emulates the one in which the corporate global virtual teams operate. They both have a well-defined measurable mandate, and have to conduct business long-distance, face internal cultural differences, operate in different time zones, and to be multilingual (with English as the business language). The team members do not know each other, yet their individual performance is partially measured by the output of a team that they do not know and nor select. Peer evaluations of the performance of each team member are recorded (direct measures on contribution, absenteeism, communication skills, participation, etc.) and the quality of the entire team’s output is evaluated and scored by a committee of experts.


  • Problems with using student samples in business research are widely known. This convenience-sampling approach has been justifiably criticized because the findings obtained using student samples may not generalize to the real-world workplace environment. The lack of generalizability is a result of (1) the different student demographics and (2) differences in the work design.


  • The students are typically younger than their corporate counterparts. Generally, this presents no threat to validity of the findings, but sometimes age, work experience, or marital status may be believed to moderate the relationship of interest and if that is the case, the younger age of student samples may be of a concern. In other words, if the focus of the study is on general attitudes, personality, or reactions that are likely to be universal across different representatives of the general public, the younger age of the student-sample study participants should not present a problem. However, if the constructs in question are believed to morph as one matures and gains work experience, use of student samples may indeed present a problem.


  • The work design differences are a usually a much bigger concern. A typical student-based study is usually limited to a simple in-class experiment. The student team members lack the interdependence commonly observed in organizations. The completion of the task is usually quick, often taking only minutes and rarely longer than a class session. The cost of failure and compensation are not a factor at all, which changes the motivation and incentive structure. And if culture is part of the model, cultural diversity in student samples is often “artificial” in the sense that it is either induced through priming (c.f. Oyserman, Kemmelmeier, & Coon, 2002), or even if the students come from different countries, they tend to be acculturated and adjusted to the host culture. This would be particularly of a concern if performance is a key variable of the model, or is used to validate the predictive validity of an instrument with respect to its effect on team dynamics and performance.


  • A careful inspection of the subject of the present study suggest that our sample characteristics present no major threats to validity of our findings. First, the demographics of the present project participants was not meaningfully different from the demographics of their corporate counterparts. About half of the participants were MBA and EMBA students, and the rest were business students in their last or second last year of studies. The vast majority of the participants had at least some work experience, and many were employed at the time of the project. Many participants reported they had their own businesses or held managerial positions. Most project participants aged 21-28, with an average of about 25 years, and about 16% of the participants in their 30 and 40s. These are the people who either already are or will be organizational employees in a year or so and will comprise the core of business organizations.


  • For all purposes, our sample was every bit as good, or possibly even better, than what could be obtained from corporate organizations. First, the cross-cultural international settings were very real. The study participants worked in international virtual teams, each composed of about seven people with 5.2 different countries represented on each team (sometimes two team members were from the same country while the rest of the team member each came from a different country). The geographic and time-zone dispersion, cultural and language differences were real.


  • Second, the study task and environment were designed to resemble the corporate world as closely as possible. The team member interacted daily during 8-9 weeks, which is a typical project length in the corporate world. Once the students enrolled in the course that participated in the project, they were required to take part in the project. The team assignment was random and students had no choice over the countries represented on their teams. This is similar to how it works in the corporate world: accepting a job offer is voluntary, but once in a job, one has little choice as to what projects to work on and with whom.


  • The project involved development of a solution to real-life business challenges presented by real-life companies. The task involved market research, market entry plan development, and product design. The project was supervised by instructors with rich business consulting experience and managed as a regular business consulting project.


  • Just like in the corporate world, the teams were given significant autonomy in terms of the extent and type of communication methods. However, all participants were introduced to and were encouraged to use free collaboration tools, such as email, voice and video conferencing tools (e.g., Skype), document and collaboration platforms (e.g., Google Docs and Dropbox), and social media (e.g., Facebook and Google +), similar to what is commonly used in a corporate environment.


  • The stakes were very high and the project was effectively a temporary employment for the client organization. First, the project accounted for 20 to 50% of the course grade. A failure on the project usually meant a failure in the course, with all resulting negative effects on future career prospects. The members of the best teams were invited project participants symposiums held once a year. Most attended received travel stipends. Additionally, organizations offered post-market commission, as well as prospects of internships and job offers. So from every angle, the project settings and work design were not different from those in organizations and the threat that the findings of the present study would not generalize to the corporate employee population is extremely small.


  • Most important, the advantages of the large international sample from the X-Culture project probably greatly outweighed the possible disadvantages due to marginally younger sample demographics. There is certainly a tradeoff between a smaller sample of “real” workplace GVTs (usually a one-team case study and hardly ever exceeding a N=10) and literally a hundred times as many real “global” and “virtual” teams working on a standardized business consulting project, but the teams members being a little younger than their corporate counterparts. Despite certain threats to generalizability of the findings, the latter option is a viable and likely superior alternative.




  • We have data on team design
  • Team member characteristics
  • Team leadership structure
  • Team dynamics, including communication, conflicts, and much more
  • Individual and team performance, from effort to quality of the report quality


Lead Author: Vas Taras,