Distance sometimes magnifies poor leadership.

Distance working comes with its own set of challenges and stressors. Whether it’s the amount of time spent alone, the always-close proximity of work at home, or the invasion of personal time with work issues, distance working can be stressful. Sometimes, though, poor leadership can be the most stressful thing a virtual worker experiences every day. And being a bad virtual boss, my friends, is our topic today.

I have been in work situations where virtual workers were kept separate by the “boss” in a vain attempt to hide my boss’ insecurity (we’ll call my boss Susan to protect the innocent). To make matters worse, Susan also was extremely demanding, and would request work products that were not directly related to individual workers’ roles or competencies. The deadlines were unrealistic, and when she said that a last-minute project was “all hands on deck,” it really meant all hands but hers. She didn’t even take her computer home while the rest of us worked over the weekend(s).

 As a team, we were dying. The stress was unbelievable, and our team had to develop coping mechanisms to survive. Contrary to Susan’s efforts to keep us separate, we were all communicating collaboratively to support each other as new projects emerged.

So where was the problem? Well, since we were all kept separate, we didn’t have a unified “voice.” There weren’t opportunities to give her feedback, either, because anything that looked like dissent resulted in being attacked verbally or on our job reviews. Additionally, Susan’s insecurities led to behaviors that appeared irrational.

Eventually, when Susan moved to a new position outside the company, my team was able to breathe a sigh of relief and become more productive.

Now, I’m not saying that you are a leader like Susan, but there are some definite lessons to take from her behaviors:

  1. Insecurity can lead to poor leadership behaviors.
  2. Keeping employees separate only creates an underground network of communication about you.
  3. Not being able to accept feedback — or even worse, attacking employees who are providing you with feedback that you don’t like — only undermines your role as a leader.
  4. Expecting your employees to make efforts on your behalf without demonstrating a corresponding effort yourself damages the trust your employees have in you.

The Process

What can you do to protect yourself from either becoming or being perceived as a horrible virtual boss?

First, I think you’re already on the right track. If you have read this far, you are probably one of those people who want to improve their work skills and have the right mindset. I’m a firm believer in always improving your skills and aptitudes, though, so there are still steps you can take to improve. If you don’t already, start looking for leadership resources online or books/audiobooks you can read to bring your leadership skills to new opportunities in your work.

Second, Warren Bennis (2009) suggests really looking at the places where you are taking responsibility for your leadership activities. I’m not talking about delegating, but rather, doing some of the actual work that your employees are doing so you understand their specific challenges. If this isn’t possible, periodically schedule an in-depth meeting with your team(s) to go over processes and ensure you understand the processes being used to complete work tasks. This is NOT for the purpose of “fixing” their work; instead, this is to ensure you perceive team stressors and can brainstorm ways that you, yes, you, can help.

Third, take steps to develop a non-punitive feedback cycle. These take time to implement, but simply asking “what can I do better as your boss?” during annual reviews is not sufficient. Your employees have to perceive that you are actually interested in the response, and you need to demonstrate that you hear and value their feedback.

Fourth, your employees are not there to serve you or do your work. A healthy work environment thrives on consideration of others, and that means a good leader actually demonstrates efforts to make the work environment better. Avoid the perception of manipulation at all costs, but focus instead on understanding what makes that employee a valuable team member. That focus includes getting to know your employees beyond what they can do for you to make you look successful.

The Results and Conflict Resolution

Addressing conflict using this strategy can provide each of the people involved in the conflict with a voice and an opportunity to fix a broken or damaged process. However, by dealing with the emotions individually, and stressing the objectives and resolutions as a group, you will hopefully be able to avoid many of the inflammatory behaviors behind the “blame game.”

What strategies do you use to resolve conflict and virtual employee miscommunications?
How do you measure your success with conflict resolution approaches?
How do you know when a conflict has been resolved?

Comment with your answers below!


Want to know more about being a better distance leader (or just a better leader in general)? I can recommend the following book by Warren Bennis, one of the strongest voices in transformational leadership. I especially recommend Chapter 3, on Knowing Yourself, as a good starting point. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.


Bennis, W. (2009). On becoming a leader: the leadership classic, revised and updated. Philadelphia, PA 19103: Perseus Books Group.