C.I.B.E.R. Leadership: How leaders should be using technology

It’s become perfectly predictable.  In the middle of a training session when the facilitator calls for a break, everyone reaches for a cellphone and starts texting or checking their email.  Almost everywhere you go, you see the same thing.  Any spare second – a bus ride, a wait in the doctor’s office, your dinner partner going to the washroom – is an opportunity to catch up on social media or start emailing.

Not surprisingly, there has been increasing concern about what effect this “addiction” to technology is doing to us.  There are widespread concerns that technology use is blunting childrens’ ability to play and negatively affecting their literacy.  Some Australian researchers have even suggested that, as a result of the posture adopted during texting, children are even growing horns![1]. Thankfully, the latter suggestion has largely been debunked.

In the workplace, concerns about technology have focused either on [a] the inappropriate use of technology to bully[2], or direct aggression to[3] , other employees, or [b] the use of technology after work hours to intrude on employees’ personal lives[4].  As a result of the latter concern, some organizations and jurisdictions are moving to regulate supervisors’ use of email after hours[5].

Although these are important issues, in reading this literature I am left with two concerns with these policies.  First, I am concerned that the results of research are being used to tell managers what NOT to do (e.g., don’t be abusive, don’t email after work) with comparatively little attention given to how leaders can use the technology effectively.  We need to think about how leaders SHOULD be using electronic communications. Second, I am concerned that policy and regulations are being directed at the format or timing of communication rather than the content of the emails.  It strikes me that, in many situations, content may trump timing.  If, for example, the president of my university wants to triple my salary, he is free to email me at 3 in the morning to tell me the good news and I will not complain. (If President Summerby-Murray is reading, I am quite serious – try me).

So how can leaders’ use email and other forms of electronic communication effectively?  Over the last several years much of my research has focused on leadership and some has touched on technology use.  Looking back over that work I think I can suggest at least five things leaders can do that are supported by evidence.  I refer to these five behaviours as C.I.B.E.R. leadership.

Check-In.  First, leaders can use email, text and other forms of communication (e.g., Slack) to check-in with employees.  In our work on remote leadership, Dr.Elizabeth Kelley and I found that when leaders relied on technology to communicate with employees, communication became formalized and agenda driven[6].  Leaders only communicated when they needed something from their employees and the communications often lacked the social niceties that accompany face-to-face meetings.  Elizabeth summarized these findings when she told leaders that they need to “plan, unplanned communications”.  That is, leaders should purposively ensure that they are using the technology to check-in with employees  -to ask how it’s going, whether there is something the employees need etc.  Of course, checking in should be within normal work hours but using the technology in this way gets away from the pattern of only initiating a conversation when something has gone wrong or the leader needs something.

Inspire:  As part of our interest in remote leadership, we also became interested in whether leaders could communicate a transformational leadership style through email.  Transformational leadership is the single most researched and empirically validated theory of leadership.  When leaders are transformational they [a] act with integrity and as role models (idealized influence); [b] inspire others and raise expectations (inspirational motivation), [c] encourage others to think about problems in new ways (intellectual stimulation) and [d] treat people as people (individualized consideration).  Although much work on organizational leadership is based on an implicit model of face-to-face communication, in our research we have shown that leaders can effectively “be transformational” in their use of email – communicating the four critical aspects of the transformational leadership style[7].

Boast.  I know it seems odd to say that electronic boasting can be an effective leadership strategy but bear with me.  In our work on cyberaggression, Dr. Terry Weatherbee and I noted that one of the things that made cyberaggression unique was the unprecedented ability to escalate conflicts[8].  If I am arguing with my colleague over email, I can BCC or CC the Dean –to bring her into the conflict.  Of course, Terry and I suggested that this is a destructive behavior – but what if we used it positively?  What if we copy the “higher ups” when praising an employee?  When one of my students publishes a paper or wins an award, I make sure that the Chair, and the Dean know of the students’ achievements.  Moreover, I include the student on the note so that he/she knows that I am proud of, and bragging about, their accomplishments.  This form of boasting is, I think, acceptable – as long as we are boasting about the work of others.

Engage.  Engaging others in decision making is a key aspect of many leadership models[9].  It is the essence of intellectual stimulation – asking employees “what do you think we should do?”  Email and other electronic communications can be a valuable tool for leaders to ask questions and solicit involvement in decision-making.  Rather than using email to issue directives, why not use it to gather information?   Of course, anytime we are asking for a response from employees we need to make sure that we are within work hours and giving people adequate time to respond.   But we know that when leaders engage in this form of behavior, they achieve stronger results and happier employees[10].

Recognize.  I have written about this before, but one cannot over-estimate the importance of recognizing when employees are doing good work and letting them know that you are aware of their efforts. A short note to say “I saw how you dealt with that situation and just wanted to tell you what a great job you did” only takes a minute to write.  But we know that when employees are recognized in this way it has a direct and positive influence on their psychological well-being[11].

Five simple behaviors – Checking in, Inspiring, Boasting, Engaging and Recognizing – that I think can dramatically improve leaders’ use of electronic communication. Using them regularly will help ensure that employees are not dreading the next time your name pops up in their inbox.

[1] Shahar, D., Sayers, M.G.L. Prominent exostosis projecting from the occipital squama more substantial and prevalent in young adult than older age groups. Sci Rep 8, 3354 (2018).

[2] Farley, S., Coyne, I., Axtell, C., & Sprigg, C. (2016). Design, development and validation of a workplace cyberbullying measure, the WCM. Work & Stress30(4), 293-317.

[3] Weatherbee, T. G., & Kelloway, E. K. (2006). A case of cyberdeviancy: Cyberaggression in the workplace. In E. K. Kelloway, J. Barling, & J. J. Hurrell (Eds.), Handbook of workplace violence(pp. 445−487). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

[4] Day, A., Scott, N., & Kelloway, E. K. (2010). Information and communication technology: Implications for job stress and employee well-being. New developments in theoretical and conceptual approaches to job stress8, 317-350.

[5] Wang, A. (2017). France gives employees ‘right to disconnect’ from work emails. The Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/01/02/france- gives-employees-right-to-disconnect-from-work-emails.html

[6] Kelley, E. & Kelloway, E.K. (2008). Remote leadership in C. Wankel. (Ed). Handbook of 21st Century Management. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications

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

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

[8] Weatherbee, T. G., & Kelloway, E. K. (2006). A case of cyberdeviancy: Cyberaggression in the workplace. In E. K. Kelloway, J. Barling, & J. J. Hurrell (Eds.), Handbook of workplace violence(pp. 445−487). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

[9] Kelloway, E.K., Penney, S. & Dimoff, J.K.  (2017). Leading the Psychologically Healthy Workplace: The RIGHT Way in E.K. Kelloway, K.Neilsen & J. Dimoff (Eds). . Leading to Occupational Health and Safety: Wiley.

Wong, J.H.K., Kelloway, E.K. & Makhan, D.W. (2015).  Safety Leadership: In S.Clarke, T.M. Probst, F. Guldenmund and J. Passmore (Eds).  The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Psychology of Occupational Safety and Workplace Health Handbook. (pp. 83-111) Chichester: Wiley.

[10] Barling, J., Weber, T. & Kelloway, E.K. (1996).  Effects of transformational leadership training on attitudinal and financial outcomes: A field experiment.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 827-832.

[11] Gilbert, S. & Kelloway, E.K. (2018). Leadership, recognition and well-being: A moderated mediation model.  Canadian Journal of Administrative Science,35, 523-534.

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