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Leadership development August 31, 2022

Remote leadership, tailored to fit

Male tailor looking pensive
Today’s virtual teams and their remote leaders need approaches that are a proper fit to the task at hand.

Johanna was staring at her own face on the videoconference screen. She was alone – alone in her home office and alone in the virtual meeting space. The meeting she led ended a couple of minutes ago; all her team members exited at the top of the hour for their subsequent calls. Even though they were not done. Not done at all, muttered Johanna, annoyed.  

She desperately needed a solution for a problem that multiple clients had flagged about their latest product. She knew her team had the skills, ability, and knowledge to tackle the issue and improve the product. But nothing came from them today. Not one promising idea.  

The usual process of their daily standups and biweekly content updates had been working really well. Johanna opened the meetings with updates from the management perspective, and then each member had an allocated timeslot of five minutes for the standup (with no follow-up questions), 10 minutes for the content update, and 10 minutes for a Q&A. To keep them on their toes (and to make it more fun), Johanna randomly pulled their names from an old bowl – there was no set order.  

As she pulled each team member’s name today, she literally saw people shrink from the screen. She had to discard all the ideas they put forward. Frustrating. Two years into the global pandemic that forced much of the workforce to work from home, Johanna was disappointed. We still do not know how to collaborate virtually, she thought.  

Yuval Harari, historian and best-selling author of the books Sapiens and Homo Deus, asserts that what defines the human-animal – one of the most important differentiating factors – is large-scale, flexible collaboration. Unlike collaborative animal species, such as ants, who have their collaboration mode coded in their genes, humans constantly invent and implement new collaboration modes, writes Harari. Yeah, no surprise there. Since the global COVID pandemic hit in March 2020, our teams, organizations, and societies have developed and successfully implemented countless new ways of working together – while being apart. 

To address the topics of remote leadership and virtual collaboration, we have been working with our students and participants using our gamified simulation entitled The Virus. (No kidding. If you want to learn more about The Virus, check out the ESMT Update 2020 Winter edition or my article with Bethan Williams: Under Cyberattack: Learning For Leaders Through Play). 

For this simulation, groups of six to 12 students need to work together in a remote or hybrid setup to resolve a set of tasks under time pressure. The challenge: each task is of a different type and requires a distinct collaboration mode and remote leadership. If teams and leaders assume that they can simply use the same collaboration mode for the second task as they did for the first, they will fail.  Like Johanna failed in the story above. She tried to apply a collaboration mode for an information-sharing task that required creativity. 

Throughout The Virus, the teams encounter five different task types: 

  1. Logical 

  2. Creative 

  3. Sharing 

  4. Autonomous 

  5. Boundary breaking 

During the first task – the “logical” one – participants must resolve a mathematical problem. Because each player has a different part of the equation, the best way to collaborate is to share information. The one taking a leadership role collects the data and puts together the solution. This centralized leadership approach is the most efficient way to resolve this simple, linear, and well-structured task. Using chat or screen sharing features for sharing numbers and figures helps too. 

Most groups don’t find the “logical” task difficult, but many fail colossally at the subsequent “creative” task. Here, the solution can be found if a specific folding technique is applied to the task sheets, a little like origami. Often, the “logical” task leader tries to apply the same mode: collect all information. There are two problems with this approach. First, the information for this “creative” task is more complex and ambiguous, less easy to share. Second, even if all information is available, the task is not solved. It needs innovation. Teams that solve the “creative” task use distributed leadership: it allows for trial and error, building on team members’ ideas. Just like in real life, the innovative idea is likeliest from individuals who are at the boundary of the team: from less extroverted participants, from women in a male-dominated organization, or from new hires. 

Looking at these first two task types, we already see what Johanna could have done differently. The standups and info-sharing team meetings need to deliver on a different task type than the ideation session she tried to run. Using the centralized, strictly structured approach thus didn’t bring the creative ideas she was looking for. 

But task types are not dichotomous. The third task in The Virus is characterized by “sharing.” Here, the team is divided to three subteams. Each needs to find a solution for another and to get their own solution from the third. The role of the remote leader is to coordinate the work between the subteams. In one splendid example of those we observed, a participant laid back in his chair, crossed his arms – signaling that he was not otherwise working on the task at hand – and focused the subteams on exchanging solutions. 

For the “autonomous” task, each team member has a complex but structured exercise to complete. Due to their length and complexity, sharing the details of the individual tasks is counterproductive. Teams that excel with this task type often work in total silence, only breaking it to ask for support when needed or to share the outcome. The leadership task is to allow parallel, autonomous work – temporarily keeping team members from collaborating – and to provide mentors for those who have trouble resolving their individual tasks. 

The final task type bears the intriguing label “boundary-breaking.” Having resolved all prior tasks by relying on the knowledge and skills of the team exclusively, the team must now “google” external resources to solve this final task. While seemingly no big deal, the team has become quite cohesive by this stage of the game, such that team boundaries are less permeable. Group cohesion is great – it is linked to performance, motivation, and team member satisfaction. However, members of cohesive groups have a greater pressure to conform and are prone to groupthink: reaching consensus without critical thinking (see Janis, 1972)1 . To cross the boundary, take risks, and speak up requires “psychological safety,” a phenomenon described by organizational scholars as early as the 1960s that is enjoying renewed interest because of contemporary research on leadership and management (see Edmondson, 2014)2 . Turning to external resources requires that each team member openly admits that they do not already have the knowledge and skills to complete the task. If the team has no psychological safety, such a confession may be impossible. But once “I do not know” is clear and they know that they do not know, “ask Google” – like it or not – is often the next step.  

If I were to advise Johanna on team leadership, I would suggest that she stop looking for the one-size-fits-all solution. There is not one mode, there are many. To identify which one is appropriate, I recommend the transitional approach, based on the work of the late Harold Bridger, a psychoanalyst, and organizational consultant. Bridger defined the “double task” for organizations and teams: their primary task is what they do, their secondary task is learning from self-review. While it may seem difficult to deduce and categorize the task at hand, after some experimentation with the primary task ask “Are we tackling a logical, creative, sharing, autonomous, or boundary-breaking task or something else?” Once the team or the team leader has a good enough sense of the task type, an adapted collaboration mode and leadership approach can be put in action – tailored to fit. 

  • 1Janis, Irving L. 1972. Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.
  • 2Edmondson, Amy & Lei, Zhike. 2014. Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior. 1. 23-43. 10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305.

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