Kimberly D. Sebastian, PhD., Western Governors University
James D. Hess, EdD, OSU Center for Health Sciences
Virtual working arrangements have become an important component of the operating model for healthcare service businesses to consider for a variety of reasons, including recruitment of top talent, effective deployment of workforce, and reduction in operational overhead. Concomitant with this evolving pattern of organizational structure, there has been debate in the literature contrasting the effectiveness of virtual teams to the effectiveness of co-located (face-to-face) teams. While virtual team focused literature has recently begun to concentrate on virtual leadership attributes versus task-orientation and/or technology, little research has been conducted to more fully understand the impact of emotional intelligence on the overall work engagement of virtual teams within a healthcare service entity. This study examined the impact of 26 virtual leaders’ emotional intelligence as assessed by the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) on the overall work engagement of 107 virtual team members measured through Utrecht’s Work Engagement Scale (UWES). As hypothesized, a positive and significant correlation was found between the overall emotional intelligence of the leader and the overall work engagement of virtual team members, as well as, with the dimensions of vigor and dedication. No significant correlation was found with the dimension of absorption.
Virtual work arrangements have become an important aspect of operating models for healthcare service entities to consider for a variety of reasons, including the recruitment of top talent, the globalization of workforce, and the continual pressures of reduction in operational overhead. With a vast and rapid expansion of technology providing substantial opportunity for connectivity regardless of location, there is an increasing interest among scholars and practitioners to understand the effective dynamics of virtual working environments.
Despite the information and digital transformation of society over the last quarter century, the exponential expansion of technology, and the desire for improved efficiencies in workforce, there is much debate in the literature regarding the effectiveness of virtual teams. Several meta-analyses comparing the effectiveness of co-located (face-to-face) teams to virtual teams suggest the latter are less effective.1-6 In spite of this research, virtual environments have become an important aspect of operating models for healthcare service entities to consider. The Institute for Corporate Productivity conducted a survey of 250 organizations in 2008, of which 67% indicated an increased reliance on virtual teams within their respective companies over a three-year span.7 Subsequently, in 2012, the Society of Human Resource Management conducted a separate survey finding 66% of global organizations were indeed using virtual teams.8 Researchers have suggested virtual teams provide many benefits to organizations by increasing adaptability in addition to supporting the aforementioned performance metrics yet the debate persists on the overall effectiveness of this non-traditional operating model. 9-12
As the prevalence of virtual teams increases, the attributes of virtual team leaders becomes an important issue. Specifically it raises the question “does the emotional intelligence of a virtual team leader have an impact on the level of engagement of virtual team members?” In traditional environments, leadership has been touted as the cornerstone of team success. Hess and Benjamin espoused leaders who connect with their own emotions are more adept in managing the frustration and anxiety associated with setbacks and even failure.13 Leaders who have the ability to discern the group’s norms while maximizing positive emotions can create highly emotionally intelligent teams.4 Druskat and Wolff indicated the most effective teams are emotionally intelligent ones and advocated any team can attain emotional intelligence.15
Linking the domains of leadership, emotional intelligence, and team work engagement has the potential to enrich the effectiveness of virtual environments. Given the ongoing debate of the effectiveness of virtual teams, the question arises as to the efficacy of traditional leadership theory in this non-co-located world. More specifically, recognizing that fundamental basic human emotions exist regardless of co-location, it may be theorized the impact of a virtual leader’s emotional intelligence is valuable even in a non-co-located environment. Further examination of methods to drive effectiveness in virtual teams will aid healthcare organizations, leaders, and the overall virtual workforce to meet the ever-evolving demands of the digital age.
The objective of this quantitative research study was to examine the impact the emotional intelligence of a leader may or may not exert on the work engagement of virtual team members within a mid-size healthcare consulting firm. Participation in the study was open to all leaders and employees within the organization of which a total of 26 leaders (68.4%) and 130 employees (73.4%) located across the United States volunteered by completing the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and/or Utrecht’s Work Engagement Scale (UWES) online.16-17 The results of this study provide key insights to assist both practitioners and researchers in further understanding the impact of leadership emotional capabilities and the impact of work engagement within virtual teams.
This study utilized the “ability model” of emotional intelligence originally constructed and defined by Mayer and Salovey as “the ability to monitor one’s own and others feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action” (pg. 189).24 The ability model of emotional intelligence is considered a unique intelligence, comprised of four measurable abilities (perceive emotion, use emotion, understand emotions, and manage emotion), which enable understanding and reasoning through emotional information, combining thought and emotion to effectively perform in specific situations.24 Furthermore, research has determined socially capable individuals are recognized to have a well-developed theory of mind skills making them more attuned to the emotions and intentions of others, including enabling them to make accurate interpretations of situations, influence the emotions and behaviors of others, as well as, predict what others think or believe.25-26
The study examined the relational effect a leader’s emotional intelligence, asserts, if any, on the work engagement of virtual team members using Mayer and Salovey’s ability theory of emotional intelligence.24 Existing valid and reliable assessments were employed to compare responses in order to ascertain the relationship of the two variables. The independent variable, leaders’ emotional intelligence ability, was measured by team leaders completing the computerized Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) administered by Multi-Health Systems.27-28 The dependent variable, work engagement as determined through vigor, dedication, and absorption of the work group, was measured by virtual team members anonymously completing Utrecht’s Work Engagement Scale (UWES) administered through an online survey method.17 A correlation analysis was performed to ascertain the association between the two variables, leaders’ emotional intelligence and the work engagement of virtual team members.
H1: High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the overall work engagement of virtual team members.R2: What is the relationship between virtual leaders’ emotional intelligence and the individual elements (vigor, dedication, and absorption) of work engagement for their virtual team members as measured by UWES?
H2: High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the vigor of virtual team members.
H3: High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the dedication of virtual team members.
H4: High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the absorption of virtual team members.
|Department||# of leaders||# of employees||# UWES participation||% of participation|
|Advisory & Consulting||2||4||6||100.0%|
|Sales & Marketing||2||6||4||50.0%|
Vigor is characterized by high levels of energy and mental resilience while working, the willingness to invest effort in one’s work, and persistence even in the face of difficulties. Dedication refers to being strongly involved in one’s work, and experiencing a sense of significance, enthusiasm, inspiration, pride, and challenge. Absorption is characterized by being fully concentrated and happily engrossed in one’s work, whereby time passes quickly and one has difficulties with detaching oneself from work (p.13).34Developed in 1999 at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, two versions of the survey exist, the original 17-item scale and a shortened 9-item scale.17 Seppala et. al. conducted a validity study of the instrument through structural equation modeling to find a high rank-order stability for the work engagement factors (.82 and .86).35 This instrument has been utilized cross-nationally within a variety of professions. While no previous research was found indicating use in the virtual environment, it would appear a viable instrument given the viability cross-culturally. Therefore, the 17-item scale was selected for the dependent variable of this proposed study. The 17 items of the UWES measuring the three aforementioned dimensions of work engagement are categorized as follows and outlined in Table 2:
Vigor is measured by six items (1, 4, 8, 12, 15, 17); dedication by five (2, 5, 7, 10, 13); and absorption by six (3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 16). Items are rated on a seven-point scale ranging from 0 (never) to 6 (every day). The internal consistencies (Cronbach’s alpha) of the UWES-17 ranged between 0.75 and 0.83 for vigor, between 0.86 and 0.90 for dedication, and between 0.82 and 0.88 for absorption.35Table 2. Utrecht Work Engagement Scale Elements35
|Vigor||1. At my work, I feel bursting with energy|
|4. At my job, I feel strong and vigorous|
|8. When I get up in the morning, I feel like going to work|
|12. I can continue working for very long periods at a time|
|15. At my job, I am very resilient, mentally|
|17. At my work I always persevere, even when things do not go well|
|Dedication||2. I find the work that I do full of meaning and purpose|
|5. I am enthusiastic about my job|
|7. My job inspires me|
|10. I am proud of the work that I do|
|13. To me, my job is challenging|
|Absorption||3. Time flies when I’m working|
|6. When I am working, I forget everything else around me|
|9. I feel happy when I am working intensely|
|11. I am immersed in my work|
|14. I get carried away when I’m working|
|16. It is difficult to detach myself from my job|
Hypothesis 1: High EI in a leader results in a positive correlation with the overall work engagement of virtual team members.
The initial analysis of research question one investigated the relationship between the virtual leaders’ total MSCEIT score and the work engagement of the virtual team members without consideration of other variables. Utilizing a one-tailed test to determine the positive effect, there was a significant correlation between the leaders’ emotional intelligence and overall work engagement of the virtual team members (r(26) = .353, p=.038). Therefore, this hypothesis was supported.
Hypothesis 2: High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the vigor of virtual team members
It was determined the emotional intelligence of the leader had a significant correlation with the vigor of virtual team members (r(26) = .480, p=.007) at the .01 level. Therefore, hypothesis two was supported. This was the most significantly correlated dimension of work engagement.
Hypothesis 3: High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the dedication of virtual team members.
This hypothesis was supported. The correlation between the emotional intelligence of the leader and the dedication dimension of work engagement of the virtual team members is significant (r(26) = .330, p=.0499).
Hypothesis 4: High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the absorption of virtual team members
The data indicated this hypothesis was not supported. There was not a significant correlation between the emotional intelligence of the leader and the absorption dimension of work engagement of virtual team members (r(26) = .318, p=.057).
Past studies of co-located teams in various industries such as information technology, policing, and food service, have found a correlation to exist between the emotional intelligence of the leader and the work engagement of team members.36,37,38 This study sought to establish whether similar correlations exist in virtual environments.
|Leader (N=25)||6 (23.1%)||19 (73.1%)||25 (96.2%)|
|Team (N=107)||14 (13%)||93 (86.1%)||107 (100%)|
|Tenure/Length of Service||Frequency||Percent of Total|
|Less than 6 months||16||14.9|
|Over 12 years||5||4.7|
|# of Team Members||% of Total Team Members|
|Leader 15||86||82||98||83||122||Consider Developing|
|Leader 16||88||81||101||97||100||Consider Developing|
|Leader 17||73||84||86||79||73||Consider Developing|
|Leader 18||80||82||84||82||104||Consider Developing|
|Leader 19||75||76||73||103||81||Consider Developing|
|Leader 20||78||61||74||100||146||Consider Developing|
|Leader 21||81||76||80||104||92||Consider Developing|
|Leader 22||88||84||105||89||102||Consider Developing|
|Leader 23||85||123||100||77||71||Consider Developing|
|Leader 24||88||97||74||94||100||Consider Developing|
|Leader 25||80||87||73||87||96||Consider Developing|
|Statistics||Std. Error||Statistics||Std. Error|
|Deviation||Statistics||Std. Error||Statistics||Std. Error|
|H1||High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the overall work engagement of virtual team members.||(r(26)=.353,p=.038)||Yes|
|H2||High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the vigor of virtual team members.||(r(26)=.480,p=.007)||Yes|
|H3||High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the dedication of virtual team members.||(r(26)=.330,p=.0499)||Yes||H4||High emotional intelligence in a leader results in a positive correlation with the absorption of virtual team members.||(r(26) =.318,p=.057)||No|
|Variable Name||Standard Coefficients Beta||t||P|
|Variable Name||Standard Coefficients Beta||t||P|
|Variable Name||Standard Coefficients Beta||t||P|
The foundation of current emotional intelligence theory is the ability to perceive emotions. However, being able to perceive emotions through facial expressions and body language can be a limitation within a virtual environment. While technology does enable video conferencing to visually connect when not face to face, the organization sampled within this study did not use this technological capability and relied heavily on email and instant messaging as their primary forms of communication. Within the MSCEIT assessment tool, emotional perception is based on facial expression and visual environmental pictures which does not occur frequently in virtual environments, or at the very least, within the virtual sample used within this exploration. Upon conducting development sessions with the individual leader’s regarding their emotional intelligence results, most conveyed they rarely spoke to their team members or peers outside of short emails or instant messenger.
While generally a desire for more personal connectivity with team members was conveyed, the benefit of conference calls or video conferences was not considered of high enough importance to implement this available technology into their day to day communication mediums. The perceive ability within this sample size was below the general population average and resulted in the overall emotional intelligence competency skewing left of the general population mean as illustrated in Figure 3. This could indicate a need for further exploration to discover how best to identify this ability within a virtual context. Furthermore, it would be advantageous to investigate if there are more effective means to evaluate the ability to perceive emotion within a textual context.
The Strategic area of emotional intelligence, more specifically the understand ability, was the most significantly correlated ability within the data sample, indicating the ability to understand emotions and interpreting the varying degrees of emotions has a higher relevance in the virtual environment. The ability to understand is also the most cognitive ability within the emotional intelligence framework. While there are varying degrees of findings regarding the impact of age on emotional intelligence, some studies have discovered emotional intelligence theory increases with age.27 This would coincide with the ideation that as we get older we gain wisdom and understanding through the various experiences along life’s journey. In this particular study, over 50% of the leaders, as well as team members sampled indicated they were over the age of 40. This might account for the impact the demographic of age had on the overall correlation of variables. Given the narrow focus of this study, it is impossible to determine without further investigation the cause and effect of the variables.
Overall, given the findings within the study, the authors submit that the emotional intelligence of the leader impacts aspects of work engagement within the virtual environment. Cabello et. al. findings hold true within the virtual environment such that age remains an influencing factor of emotional intelligence.83 Although, the authors would posit the application of emotional intelligence, as it is applied within the co-located environment, is different within the virtual ecosystem. As data from the indicated, the Strategic area of emotional intelligence is the most significant influencing factor within the virtual environment. The experiential side of emotional intelligence was found to not be an influencing factor of work engagement in the virtual setting. This is likely a result of the inability to perceive emotions through body language, facial expressions, and tonality within the virtual structure. Specifically, the ability to perceive emotions within a textual communication requires different and nuanced skills to accurately determine the emotional inferences of the communication of which the current instrument, MSCEIT, does not test. Conducting research to understand how to assess and develop this ability would further the findings within this study.
Moreover, understanding the varying degrees of emotions plays a considerable role in engaging virtual team members. The authors would theorize this highly cognitive ability of emotional intelligence has a key affect within the textual environment of the virtual ecosystem. Although, this theory would need to be investigated further to uncover what specific actions leaders perform to display this ability that influences work engagement.
The findings of this study only begin to scratch the surface of the impact of leadership within a virtual environment and indicate the need for further exploration of the attributes needed both in virtual leadership and virtual work engagement. As organizations venture into operating in virtual environments, additional insight into the catalyst of work engagement in a virtual ecosystem is critical. In Gallup’s State of the American Workplace, it is estimated actively disengaged workers cost the United States approximately $483 to $605 billion annually in lost productivity.84 As the number of employees working remotely, as well as, the number of employees who desire to work remotely continues to increase, it becomes paramount to grasp the key attributes needed to lead a healthy, productive, and engaged virtual workforce.
As a result of the relatively limited team sizes of virtual workgroups across corporations and in an effort to mitigate variables, such as, industry and cultural differences, one organization was selected as the subject group. Despite the precaution to mitigate variables, the results of the study experienced limitations due to the length of time involved to complete the study, number of individuals who opted to participate in the study, organizational restructuring including acquisitions and departmental transitions, in addition to a relatively small population size overall. An extenuating challenge within the sampled organization emerged as a result of one group being acquired from a small firm integrating operations and workforce shortly before assessing engagement of workforce. The timing of the acquisition could have potentially influenced engagement results for the impacted group. This particular group was analyzed separately by the researcher to determine data validity prior to incorporating in the overall results.
The researchers had no previous relations to the organization being sampled, limiting any preconceived view of the company and its members. The authors have no financial interests in the company studied and received no sponsored funding for the research.
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