ATD Blog

Role Modeling for a Distributed Team

Monday, May 22, 2017

How do people know what I'm doing when they can't see me? 

Leaders often think that because their team is located elsewhere they can't (or don't have to) be a role model for them, but that isn't the case. As a leader, if you don’t role model good behaviors, it's the same as telling your team they don't have to demonstrate those behaviors either. Trust me when I say that word gets around! Both the good and the bad of what you do will fly around the virtual workplace just like it would a physical one. But more important, the behaviors you are modeling should be obvious to everyone if you are implementing good virtual workplace practices. 

Here are some ways you can role model distributed team best practices: 

  • Plan and participate in the social aspects of your team.
  • Take time to communicate with clarity and brevity.
  • Use email and other forms of communication conscientiously.
  • Share information with intention.
  • Implement guidelines around best practices for using tools, following processes, and collaborating effectively.
  • Be consistent in your behavior, communication, and leadership.
  • Ensure that everyone has access to the same information in the same way at the same time.
  • Always share the “why.” 

Your team can see you doing these things regardless of where they are located. 
As the leader of a distributed team, you need to be an intentional role model. That means you need to be consistent and thoughtful about what you're sharing and how you're sharing it. Think about what you do and don't do, what your team can observe (or hear about), and make sure you are informing your team about the stuff they can't observe for themselves. For example, your team might see that you have good habits but not know what you did to build them, and therefore might struggle to build good habits themselves. 

So first you need to create good habits of your own. This is kind of like creating your personal set of guidelines. Once you have these figured out, you need to create habits that reinforce those behaviors. 


Creating a good habit consists of three steps: Routine + Reminders + Reward = Consistent Success 

To form a simple habit, it takes a minimum of 21 days of conscious practice. Build a routine that addresses your guidelines, set reminders in your calendar to ensure that your routine is consistently followed, and reinforce that behavior by rewarding yourself once you've created a good habit. 


Calendar reminders aren't just for meetings. You can use them to book time to research, read or think about a topic, work on a specific action, or simply remind yourself to do something at a specific time. Make your calendar tool do the work for you! 

Once you've got the hang of creating good habits for yourself, and by extension created behaviors that you want your team to role model, make sure you teach your colleagues how to build good habits too; that's where the coaching comes in. If you don't teach your team what you've learned and role model those behaviors, then many of your efforts will be like dropping a stone in the ocean: The impact will be limited and likely won't last long. To get the most benefit, virtual effectiveness must be a team effort. 

To learn more about ATD’s education course, Essentials of Leading Virtually, visit this page.

About the Author

Lynette Van Steinburg lives on a cattle ranch in Southeastern British Columbia, Canada. For the past few years her focus has been on virtual leadership, learning, collaboration and teamwork where she helps leaders and teams be more effective in the virtual workplace. As a Technical Producer, Lynette manages platforms like Webex, Adobe Connect, Collaborate Ultra, and Zoom during online sessions so that the participants can focus on the topic rather than the tool. In her personal life she likes to read, write, do yoga, take pictures, and work with animals.

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