Leading remotely

“So how do I do that?” He leaned forward almost belligerently waiting for an answer. We were nearing the end of a day-long session on transformational leadership and I was giving examples of goal setting to improve transformational leadership. Most of the examples were small goals that leaders could implement every day[1]. The participant’s question was prefaced by an explanation, “I manage 40 employees spread out over 7 different locations in Northern Alberta. It would take me 10 days just to visit all of the different sites. So how do I do these daily goals?”

It was a good question. Frankly I can’t remember the answer we gave but I am sure it was not based on any evidence – because we didn’t have any at that point. But since then I’ve thought a lot about this question and, because I advocate being a scientist-practitioner, some of my research has been directed toward coming up with an answer.

The problem is that most of our research and thinking about leadership is based on a model of face-to-face interaction in which the leader and the follower are in the same location. Increasingly that is simply not true. When we do diary studies asking followers to rate their last interaction with a leader, we often find that the employee had not seen their leader that day[2]. With the growth of project[3] and virtual teams it is more and more likely that your manager or supervisor lives in a different city, province or even country. What does leadership mean in this context? Do the same rules apply?

The first answer most of us come up with is for the leader to use technology – email, teleconferences and the like, to stay in touch with the people that report to you. Early on we conducted a lab study[4] with students in which they received their instructions via email and we manipulated the leadership style contained in the emails. In two such studies we showed that [a] students who received the transformational emails could distinguish the leadership styles represented in the emails and were more satisfied with the leader when the email was “transformational” and [b] students who received the transformational emails were more motivated and performed better (both individually and as a group) on a laboratory decision-making task.

As encouraging as these results were, they were based on undergraduates working on an artificial task in the lab. Elizabeth Kelley and I undertook more field-work as part of Elizabeth’s Ph.D. dissertation research[5]. We were interested in the conditions under which “remote” leaders were seen as more transformational and, ultimately, more effective. We were able to compare the experiences of two groups of employees – remote employees who were not in the same location as their leader and communicated primarily through technology, and traditional workers who were typically in the same location as their manager and had primarily face-to-face interactions. We discovered some contextual conditions that seemed to be important for remote employees but not for employees working in more traditional arrangements. Four conditions seemed to be important; control, prior knowledge of the leader, unplanned communication, and regularly scheduled communication.

First, when employees felt that they had control over their work they were more likely to experience the leader as being transformational (as opposed to those who felt bombarded by a stream of email directives to which they had to respond). Second, those who knew their manager before working remotely seemed to do better. Finally, it was important for leaders of remote or virtual employees to ensure two types of communication – planned and unplanned. Planned communication means that we establish a regular schedule for teleconferences, virtual chats and the like. The schedule is important because it stops leaders from communicating with employees only when there is a crisis. Unplanned communication is also important – unplanned communication is the virtual equivalent of seeing your boss in the hallway. A lot of communication in organizations happens in these spontaneous, informal meetings and effective leaders of remote employees ensure that they are “checking in” – even if it’s just to say hi. As Elizabeth says, if you are managing remote employees it is critical that you plan your unplanned communication!

[1] Kelloway, E.K., & Barling, J. (2000). What we’ve learned about developing transformational leaders. The Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 21, 157-161.

[2] Wong, J.H.K. & Kelloway, E.K. (2016). What happens at work stays at work? Workplace supervisory social interactions and blood pressure outcomes. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.21(2), 133-141.

[3] Chiocchio, F., Kelloway, E.K., & Hobbs, B. (Eds, 2014). The psychology of project teams. Oxford University Press.

[4] Kelloway, E.K., Barling, J., Kelley, E., Comtois, J. & Gatien, B. (2003). Remote transformational leadership. The Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 24, 163-171.

[5] Kelley. E. & Kelloway, E.K. (2012) Context Matters: Testing a Model of Remote Leadership  Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 19, 437-449.