Being a distance leader requires new observation skills.
Imagine yourself in this situation: In a regularly scheduled one-on-one video call with a productive employee on your team, she mentions that she has been unhappy with her work lately. This worker, Trina, has a singular role that requires her to be very responsive to customer needs, so she is the only person who can do the highly technical work. “I’m out here with extremely aggressive clients,” she says, “but instead of appreciating what I am doing to help them, all I am hearing is that they want more modifications that really don’t address their business question. It’s like sweeping the floors in a house that is about to be demolished! I know we don’t have funds for more personnel, but I’m getting really tired of being the only person who does this job.”
During the conversation, you ask a few clarifying questions to make sure you understand her perspectives. After she explains her stressors and the situation, you make a shortlist of several choices (These are just example choices from my experiences, so they may not reflect your approaches):
- Do nothing. This includes various shades of “say you are going to do something but it never gets done.” Of course, this is not the choice you will make. I’m just putting it out there.
- Ask Trina something like, “what are you going to do to solve your problem?”
- Recommend that Trina needs to put systems in place that will help lower her stress.
- Ask if Trina would like more regular check-ins with you or with someone else to reduce the feeling of isolation.
In my past experiences, I have received “help” from my leader in each of these ways. Option #1 is a trust-breaker, and will eventually lead to team members dissatisfaction and, perhaps, departure. Option #2 is a little better, but only marginally. Expecting your employees to always solve their own problems is not what an already-stressed person wants to hear. In this case, Trina has no power to solve her own problems. Option #3 is like Option #2, except now you would be throwing out suggestions for additional work for an already-stressed-out employee. Congratulations, you have just avoided doing any work that would help the employee. <– That’s not a compliment.
Option #4? That could be the winner, but is only a hopeful approach in the early stages of working through a problem like this. In her comments, Trina said that there were two things creating her personal stress: the work with clients, and the feeling of isolation. While you can’t control what the clients are requesting, you can help support the feeling always being alone in her job.
Listen for the longer conversation
It’s difficult to acknowledge when we are not listening to our employees properly. As a leader, you know that every problem’s solution comes at a cost, whether that cost is time for you or your employees, purchasing resources, or developing new procedures. However, actually listening to the problem beneath the issue being discussed is a skill that must be practiced. If it has to be practiced, it means that you will fail, perhaps spectacularly, before you really hone in on the specific set of approaches that work for you.
For virtual teams, the problems are even more difficult to uncover. In the example above, expecting Trina to solve her own problems is ridiculous, since she has even fewer resources and is feeling a level of stress that is probably impacting her work. It may be that Trina just needed to talk with a sympathetic ear. As the leader, you are in the perfect position to keep her from feeling isolated. Once that is under control, then collaborating to frame client expectations is the next step.
What many leaders (myself included) tend to do is jump in with solutions that might help at face value. Sandstrom and Smith (2008, 2017) recommend open dialogue as a key leadership competency. Whether through social media, direct conversations, or work team meetings, the most effective skill related to the practice of creating collaboration and innovation is listening effectively to active inquiry and reflecting. Effective communication that helps resolve team stressors and conflict also creates connections among team members, builds open dialogue that is clear and unambiguous, and requires the skills of listening and questioning to encourage trust development and facilitate meaningful discussions.
Another benefit of using listening skills is that leaders actively engaged in dialogue with their team members have more opportunities for conflict management, demonstrate more patience with team members, and share information more effectively (Al-Ani et al., 2011).
Let’s make listening for issues and conflicts practical. The following ideas are tried-and-true practices that work for me, but are far from the definitive answers. What are some practices can help you uncover the deeper issues?
- Be truly present. It’s only a conference call, right? The other person or people won’t see that I am working on other things? You have been on calls when the other person drifts away from the conversation. The other person or people can tell.
- Use video when possible. One of the great things about the increasing opportunities for video is that it really does make people feel more connected. You don’t like being on video? It’s time to either get over that or stop posting pictures of yourself on social media. Additionally, video interactions allow you to observe the non-verbal cues to help you overcome problems or conflicts.
- Take notes. Take notes of who talks about what. You might find that some members of your team are not contributing at all, some are dominating the conversation, and others are quietly busy working on something else.
- Be honest about your next steps. In many cases, being honest about what you can and cannot do to resolve the situation is important. For example, in Trina’s case, I would tell her that I can communicate with her more to ensure that she feels more connected, but be honest that the client situation will take some time to resolve. Then actually do what you can to start addressing both problems.
- Check in with team members after the conversation. A couple of days after the conversation, call the participants (if it’s a large team, just a few) to check in on their impressions of the meeting. If the team member is more introverted, then this is their opportunity to share their reflections after some thinking time. I also rotate the people that I ask, to build trust and listen to different perspectives.
- Ask clarifying questions. While there are lots of ways to ask questions that might feel accusatory, consider asking variations on the following questions in ways that encourage conversation. Tone is key!
- Why do you feel that way?
- What impressions do you get from this situation?
- How does this impact your work?
- What would you like to happen instead?
- What does this problem being resolved mean to you?
The Results and Better Listening Habits
Working virtually comes with its own types of stress, and distance leadership can mean you are the last person to know when issues emerge. As a leader, you have an opportunity to listen to the underlying problems and develop solutions that improve the work environment. Whether it’s an individual worker problem or a team conflict, better listening is a key to resolving the challenges on a team.
What strategies do you use to listen for conflict and virtual employee challenges?
What questions can you use to uncover issues?
How do you know if you are succeeding in your approach?
Comment with your answers below!
Want to know more about listening and being more intentional about your leadership competencies? I can recommend the following book by Jeannine Sandstrom and Lee Smith, who authored Legacy Leadership. 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.
Al-Ani, B., Horspool, A., & Bligh, M. (2011). Collaborating with ‘virtual strangers’: Towards developing a framework for leadership in distributed teams. Leadership, 7(3), 219-249. doi:10.1177/1742715011407382
Sandstrom, J., & Smith, L. (2008). Legacy leadership: The leader’s guide to lasting greatness. Dallas, TX: CoachWorks Press.