Reconsidering Virtuality Through a Paradox Lens

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Dr. Radostina K. Purvanova of Drake University
and Renata Kenda of Tilburg University. They recently published an article in Group and Organization Management entitled “Paradoxical Virtual Leadership: Reconsidering Virtuality Through a Paradox Lens” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Purvanova speaks about the motivation and impact of this research:]


What motivated you to pursue this research?

The academic literature largely paints virtuality in negative overtones, whereas more and more organizations embrace technology-driven work practices, such as virtual work and virtual teaming. This begs the question: If virtuality is so bad, then why do organizations continue to “go virtual”? Our central motivation in pursuing this research was to advance a new theoretical lens through which to view virtuality – that of paradox. Our paradoxical perspective details both the costs and the benefits that virtuality offers organizations; furthermore, it easily lends itself to practical applications, especially applications in the area of virtual team leadership. In our paper, we discuss how virtual leaders can find synergies between the various challenges and opportunities their virtual teams face. Specifically, our perspective suggests that virtual leaders should blend various, and even contradictory, leadership skills and behaviors, to address virtuality’s competing and paradoxical demands. Hence, our paradoxical virtual leadership model emphasizes the ideas of balance and synergy. This stands in contrast to traditional leadership models, such as transformational, relational, inspirational, and others, which advocate for an increased emphasis on such leadership functions in a virtual context.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Our article focuses on three main aspects of virtuality— technology dependence, geographic dispersion, and human capital—and identifies seven paradoxical tensions that virtual teams face. For example, one of the tensions that virtual teams experience due to their technology dependence is the touch tension: virtual team members’ interactions are simultaneously impersonal but also less biased. Practically, then, the role of the virtual team leader is to acknowledge and balance the two sides of this tension (and all other tensions their virtual team might face). Our article provides specific suggestions on how to tackle these paradoxical strains. Briefly, virtual leaders must first adopt a both-and mindset which would allow them to perceive virtuality through a paradox lens, and see both its challenges and its opportunities. Next, virtual leaders must devise strategies for simultaneously addressing competing demands. For example, in the case of the touch tension, a leader can encourage more personal and friendly communication, while at the same time implementing strategies to keep interactions professional.
Practically, then, our model suggests several applications. First, it suggests that organizations should select individuals for virtual leader assignments who are more likely to develop a synergistic leadership style. Second, organizations should train virtual leaders to reframe their assumptions about virtuality, seeing virtuality as a force to be harnessed, not feared. Finally, organizations should also instill a paradoxical view of virtuality in virtual team members, not just in virtual leaders, either through selection, or through training.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

In keeping with the core question that provoked this research—If virtuality is so bad, then why do organizations continue to “go virtual”?—our advice to virtuality scholars is to focus their efforts on better aligning our science with the practice of virtual work and virtual teaming. Describing just the challenges or just the opportunities of virtuality only tackles one side of this complex issue. In contrast, understanding the interdependencies between virtuality’s costs and benefits allows scholars to advance and test theories with a stronger grounding in reality, and allows organizations to truly harness the power of paradox.

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