Leading virtually doesn’t make you any less of a leader.
I have a colleague, Miguel*, who tries to hide the fact that he is a distance leader. He led a team in the office in his previous role, but his current team is 100% virtual, and he works from home, now, too. Over lunch recently, we talked about his feelings for this job change.
Miguel said that sometimes he feels that this new role is a demotion, even though his team performs well and has even grown by a few employees. Instead, he said he misses being in the office and feeling connected to the “buzz” at work, and that visiting the office makes him feel like an outsider.
“It’s more than being absent from the office, though,” Miguel said. “I just feel like my team and I were just ‘put away’ as part of the latest reorganization. I looked at it as a benefit at first because I was working from home, but lately I am struggling to feel like I am a valuable member of the company, especially when I am not involved in conversations and decisions that used to be part of my daily routine.”
Miguel and I continued to speak about the situation and his reaction to being a distance employee and a distance leader, and we eventually found the source of his anxiety: the company’s choice to make Miguel a distance leader made him ashamed of his new role instead of celebrating it.
*Yeah, name changed. We’re not trying to shame anyone.
There is a difference between shame and guilt
Miguel’s situation is not terribly unique. In our work environments, we can sometimes make the decisions. Sometimes, though, decisions about our work environments, roles, and activities are made for us. In Miguel’s case, the company did not effectively prepare him for his new distance leader role, and the resulting emotions that Miguel felt centered around feeling like he was less of a leader, less of a contributor, and less of a valued team member. Those feelings of inadequacy in his role led to emotions centered on shame.
Guilt, on the other hand, is based on awareness or suspicion that you have done something wrong or made a mistake. Being human means that we are going to make mistakes, and guilt can be a sort of compass correction to help you identify actions you want to avoid or improve in the future.
While guilt is focused on actions, thoughts, or deeds, shame is an attack on our sense of self-worth. Guilt can help drive self-improvement and self-awareness. Shame erodes our self-image as a person. In Brené Brown’s work Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts (2018), she deeply explores the concepts of guilt and shame to examine overcoming those feelings and using them as a catalyst for doing our best work. She devotes a full section of her book to dealing with shame and fear, and how you can reframe your perceptions to build more healthy perspectives.
In her book, Brown explains it incredibly simply:
“Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.”
Overcoming feelings of shame as a distance leader
Like Miguel, you may be feeling “less than” a valued team member because you or your team work from non-office locations. In Miguel’s case, he needed to reframe the motives surrounding his work status change and realize that perhaps his workplace change was a compliment to his strength as a leader instead of a demotion. Perhaps he is a distance leader because the organization trusted him after so many successful leadership roles.
I also asked Miguel to describe (and later develop as a list) those things that made him feel disconnected. As a distance leader, he realized that he needed to adopt new behaviors to maintain valuable in-office relationships. Whether it was meeting people for lunches or coffee, attending some meetings in-person, making more appointments and phone calls, and even expressing his challenges to his boss, Miguel and I made a quick plan that would get him started on the road to reconnection.
Don’t forget your team
We also both felt that his team, similarly disbanded, might be feeling lost or overwhelmed by their new working conditions. I suggested that he start making plans to meet with his team in small groups (both virtually and in-person where possible) to help them all feel more connected as a team. After conducting a few of these meetings, he discovered that our assumptions were correct: some of his team was feeling equally “hidden” in the organization now. The meetings are helping them recover their sense of connection and organizational worth, according to their discussions with Miguel and one another.
If you are feeling ashamed of your role as a distance leader, then there are some steps you can take to overcome those feelings. The following list can help you identify and overcome feelings of shame:
- Examine the motives. What business decisions led to your role as a distance leader? Is there evidence that you are in this role because you were not performing to organizational expectations? If you can speak with your supervisor in a candid manner, ask about the motivations behind the actions. You may realize, like Miguel did, that you are in this role because you are recognized as a good leader, not being punished for being a poor leader.
- Describe your perception. I highly suggest writing down some of your feelings or perceptions around being a distance leader, especially if you are missing meaningful in-office interactions. By describing the discomfort you are experiencing, you may realize that there are still ways to interact meaningfully with your colleagues that require a different level of effort.
- Establish new ground rules. Make your connections a priority. Make the phone calls, lead video conferences, schedule times to meet with colleagues and leaders who used to be part of your daily informal routine. Those relationships are still there, but may need to change because of your changed role.
- Consider your employees. Finally, remember that your employees may need similar connections with you and the organization. Encourage informal and small group meetings with your team to maintain collegiality, even if those meetings are conducted over video chats or phone calls. As a distance leader, your modeling of new “virtual worker” behaviors is a strong example that your employees could follow.
The Results of Overcoming Shame as a Distance Leader
Do you have any other ideas / experience / thoughts to overcome distance leader shame?
Comment with your answers below!
Here’s a link to Brown’s book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts (2018). She is both a good storyteller and a respected researcher of shame and guilt in the workplace. I also have to say that her Section 4 in this book on shame and empathy is amazing. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy of each of these texts from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.