Personality Traits and Leadership Styles on Virtual Teams

By Astrid Wonderley on June 10, 2022

With the entire world working from home, many company leaders are wondering what they can do to ensure the effectiveness of their virtual teams. One solution is to make sure team leaders have the personality traits to drive better performance.

In a study published by the journal Human Resource Management Review, researchers from California State and Michigan State Universities examined the most effective leadership strategies for virtual teams and the personality traits that deliver the best results.

“While virtual teams provide a number of advantages to organizations, there are a number of inherent challenges resulting from team virtuality,” argue authors Julia Hoch and James Dulebohn. Virtual teams have unique challenges when building trust, making group decisions, managing conflict, and sharing opinions.

The authors note that while much research has explored the personality traits that lead to effective in-person/on-site teams, little research has been devoted to the role personality plays in virtual teams. Specifically, how different personalities drive different leadership styles on virtual teams and how those styles affect productivity.

On virtual teams, some members can take on leadership roles as emergent leaders or shared leaders. Personality being a key determiner of which type of leadership team members take to build trust and support of team members, resolve conflicts, and get results.

Emergent vs shared leadership

In the study, Hoch and Dulebohn found that in virtual teams, leaders often emerge naturally. While there may be an official team manager based on rank or seniority, the unique dynamics of working together in a virtual setting often develop leaders organically in one of two ways: either a single person emerges as a dominant voice, or the team shares leadership responsibilities.

Extroverts make emergent leaders. Emergent leaders are individuals who exert significant influence over other team members, even if they are not officially in charge. The researchers found that emergent leaders are often highly extroverted.

This is because “extroverts are seen as confident and forceful due to their emotional expressiveness as well as their positive verbal and non-verbal behaviors,” the authors write. Therefore, “…extroverted individuals will likely command…respect and confidence among team members, and…be viewed as, leaders.”

Emergent leaders are also highly conscientiousagreeable, and emotionally stable. They are particularly good at dealing with conflict through mentoring, asserting authority, and “providing regular, detailed, and prompt communication.”

Interestingly, the research shows that advanced technical ability actually has a negative effect on leader emergence.

It is a common assumption that subject matter experts are the natural choice for team leadership, but, as this research suggests, SMEs are often so focused on their area of interest that they may fail to lead if they are lower in these key traits.

Agreeableness and emotional stability predict shared leadership. Shared leadership is where team members each hold a separate leadership role or function. These teams mutually influence one another and each takes leadership responsibilities based on his or her strengths, deferring to others where appropriate. To help the team succeed, team members collaborate when making decisions, support one another, and take responsibility for outcomes.

This shared leadership model is best suited for teams where all members demonstrate high levels of self-management and self-leadership skills, along with agreeableness and emotional stability. Shared leaders typically have mid-levels of extroversion as highly extroverted teams can have more conflict.

How to foster the right leadership style for your virtual team

The authors conclude that both shared and emergent leadership models can help virtual teams deliver better performance — if the right traits are present on the team.

HR leaders and managers can use employees’ personality assessments to assemble teams that are likely to develop the preferred leadership styles OR support leaders with processes and rewards that align with personality-predicted leadership styles.

For example, teams that are in charge of collaborative tasks or creative efforts may be best served by having lots of moderately extroverted members with diverse skill sets who will naturally operate as shared leaders; whereas a team that relies on hierarchy and formal decision-making methods may benefit more from a single highly extroverted and conscientious member who’s likely to emerge as a leader and take charge.

Once these virtual leaders emerge, companies can make the most of the results by encouraging that virtual leadership culture, and providing training and mentoring where appropriate to help these organic leaders provide the best support to their teams.