Researchers have been investigating leadership for more than 80 years and there are still significant questions that have not been answered. Remote leadership is a relatively new phenomenon and therefore it has few answers and many questions. What advice can be given to individuals tasked with the responsibility of leading remotely? Preliminary research, theoretically based arguments and common sense can all be leveraged to provide direction in absence of solid empirical findings.

Leading is sophisticated and sometimes difficult task; leading from a distance appears to be even more so because of the extra complexity introduced by the remote context. This is both a good news/ bad news situation. The good news is that it is validated by research that you can establish perceptions of transformation leadership from a distance and once established, positive outcomes result from it. The bad news is that establishing this perception takes a significant amount of time and effort.

The golden rule of remote leadership

It would not be incorrect to say that in remote leadership the golden mantra is to “Communicate, communicate and communicate”. The goal of remote leader’s communication efforts should be to replicate the serendipitous two way contact that occurs easily with collocated followers. To achieve the beneficial effects of leadership, it is necessary that leaders build rapport, trust, perceptions of support and a social bond with their followers.

To accomplish this in the remote environment, leaders must communicate with followers at frequent intervals. Leaders should avoid the pitfall of communicating only with the followers with whom it is easy to communicate, generally labeled as proximal followers. Proximal followers naturally have more opportunities for interaction but managers must create similar opportunities for other followers as well. A regularly scheduled time for communication, such as a catch up call every two weeks works very well in this case. Additionally this has an added trust building benefit, as the manager adheres to the schedule, followers will perceive them to be reliable and consistent.

Select the medium & content wisely

In addition to the frequency of communication, remote leadership must consider the choice of media and content of messages. Organizational and national culture, individual characteristics and aptitudes, at a minimum must be factored into this process. What may be acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in another culture.

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In order to build the confidence of remote followers and assist them in achieving higher levels of performance, the leader must understand the individual followers unique characteristics, concerns and abilities. In order to achieve this understanding, social communication is a must. Communication with the followers should not be solely focused on the tasks as it fails to build deep relationship and mutual understanding of each other choices and preferences.

The remote leader- followership relationship should be characterized by open, honest communication in which individuals feel free to initiate casual interaction through any medium. If the followers feel that they will be negatively perceived because they initiated contact in the absence of any serious problem, they will perceive a lack of control and trust leading to motivational consequences. Efforts to create reciprocal perception of trust mitigate the remote followers feeling of isolation and powerlessness.

Share information freely

Remote followers are always in the danger of being left out of the information loop. This leads to several negative consequences and they are unable to contribute fully, they feel marginalized and sense loss of control.  On the remote leaders side, explaining the corporate drivers, rationale behind decisions and current issues fosters connectedness with the remote followers. The followers thereafter contribute by giving individual input or freely share their point of view.

Trust is pivotal in most human relationship; it has many times been called social glue that makes relationship work. This is especially true between a leader and follower, a relationship that is often perceived as adversarial. Using the above-mentioned pointers you can cement trust even when you are in remote leadership role.

Jappreet Sethi

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