Managing the Agile Workforce – Chapter 3: Leadership / Workership

In identifying aspects that are important to the success of the agile workforce (teams that aren’t co-located or spend some of their time apart), our research showed that the style of leadership was important. What it also revealed was that a different type of working relationship is called for – where leader and team agree how they will operate in order to make agile working “work” for them.


What style of Leadership is most effective for Agile Teams?

In the late 1970s, American historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns identified two contrasting styles of leadership:

Transactional Transformational
Based on exchanges between leader and team members, with rewards and punishments as key motivators.


Attention is focused on the achievement of agreed standards.


The Leader intervenes when mistakes and deviations in performance occur.


Based on the creation of a shared vision that team members are encouraged and empowered to pursue – helping each other to achieve a higher level of morale and motivation.


Leaders lead by example, articulate an energizing vision and set challenging goals.

Burns 1978 – Leadership

It is widely believed that a transformational/people-oriented/participative style of leadership tends to result in employees feeling trusted and appreciated. In return they feel loyalty and respect for the organisation and its management. The underlying mechanism behind “transformational leadership” is the leader’s capacity to motivate their team, making them aware of the consequences of their tasks, and helping them to align their personal goals and needs with those of the organisation – motivating them to perform beyond expectations.

Hence while transformational leaders can more easily lead and work with their teams to effect change, transactional leaders are really good at maintaining consistency in the status quo.

Agile / virtual teams (by definition) operate with a more limited level of face-to-face contact and team interaction, and research has shown that the important factor in predicting performance is trust. Trust is crucial because it influences whether individual team members are willing to share and exchange information and knowledge with each other. Transformational leaders increase trust by empowering and encouraging employees, expressing concern for their needs, honouring agreements, and creating a shared group vision. Thus, a transformational leadership style has both direct and indirect effects on performance, whereas a transactional leadership style has only a direct effect on performance (and then only if the output is of a quantitative nature).

And what of “Workership”?

It follows from the above that people will respond to a management style that suits their personal style and the tasks they are delivering. Those that respond well to a transformational style of leadership, who like empowerment, are able to self-manage, manage their own needs and don’t always require the structure of office working, are likely to find agile/virtual working less challenging than those that prefer close management, direction and structure, for example.

Under these conditions, there is more of a partnership between leader and team. The team doesn’t simply wait to be “told” what to do – they co-create, collaborate and assume a joint responsibility for tasks, outcomes and success. The role of the leader becomes one of providing support, coaching and guidance rather than directing and correcting errors for example. But team members also take responsibility for supporting each other, so that the activity of coaching isn’t solely the preserve of the leader. This requires trust between colleagues – to have each other’s backs in tough times, to provide appropriate support so that everyone succeeds together. It also encourages the sharing of knowledge and expertise in a way that would not happen without that level of trust and support.

When a team is working in more agile / virtual ways (i.e. asynchronously) research and our AWA’s experience shows that making our expectations of each other clear and identifying behaviours and working practices is a sound way to proceed, for the avoidance of doubt. This can be done formally or informally – but what is important is that everyone signs up to some form of agreement.

How do we draw up our working “agreement”?

It probably sounds obvious, but we simply need to talk about this. For any team that is starting to work more of the time apart – to openly spend time together discussing what the separation is likely to mean in terms of communication, workflow, decision making, sharing knowledge and expertise and providing support is a great first step. This means identifying what is great about the way we work today and then making plans for how to ensure those great things can be protected and nurtured in the future. Conversely, we can also identify what isn’t so great about today and how we can leave those aspects behind.

Coming up with some form of agreement or working charter helps to be explicit about behaviours and expectations – so everyone is clear, and things aren’t left to chance or to each person’s “discretion” or their idea of what is reasonable. The range can be wide, after all!

Explicit agreements as to who will do what (and when) sets expectations and enables all team members to quickly form views as to the trustworthiness and reliability of others as the way everyone operates can be evaluated according to the group agreement.

What else can we do?

As teams strive to work together more virtually, having a good understanding about everyone’s skills, experience and preferences is very helpful. This allows people to access the right information and expertise without having to search through the team and importantly if we know each other’s preferences, we can try to accommodate them (for example our preferred method of communication – IM, email, phone etc).

Role modelling the behaviours we expect from all team members and actively encouraging, recognising and rewarding those that demonstrate these behaviours. A shared responsibility for maintaining these ways of behaving sends the message that this is not a one-way demonstration (i.e. from the leader’s role modelling) but that peers can address any shortfall through peer pressure, mutual coaching and through discussing the impacts on the team.

And finally, openly recognising the challenges that working virtually delivers to the team – agreeing how these can be highlighted, shared and tackled. It can be easy for dissatisfaction, misunderstanding and poor communication to fester unseen in a virtual team. If there are open channels of communication within a team with high levels of trust, then issues can be raised in a non-judgemental way, constructive way. As after all, everyone is aiming for the same outcome – that the team (not just the individuals within it) thrives and is successful.


In our next blog we look the impact of Personality in the operation and success of virtual / agile teams.

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