Leadership at a distance: Why bosses should become influencers

Corona has given digital communication an enormous boost. For example, executives could suddenly only communicate with employees and colleagues, but also service providers, suppliers and customers, whom they met regularly beforehand, if not daily, only by phone or email, and meetings in which all participants were previously in contact hitting a table suddenly took place online.

For many managers, this meant a major change, but they did not enter completely new territory because: Even in the years before the corona pandemic, digital communication became increasingly important and bosses spent significantly more time, for example, writing and answering of mail than 15 or 20 years ago. Video calls and conferences with employees and colleagues at other locations were also not unusual for many managers. After all, the relationship systems in which companies perform have become increasingly complex in recent years. For example, the performance of companies today often involves not only employees and colleagues at other locations, but also external service providers with whom cooperation must be coordinated. In addition, companies have been trying for years to improve their agility and responsiveness – or overall efficiency –

  • to overcome the so-called “pillar thinking” in their organization

  • and, in addition to cross-hierarchical, to improve cross-functional and cross-functional cooperation.

This also increases the need for coordination and coordination, which can often only be satisfied digitally. This development will continue regardless of whether the corona virus disappears at some point or whether we have to live with it permanently. This is indicated by all developments that are discussed in connection with keywords such as “Industry 4.0” and “Digitalization of the economy”, but also “New Work”. However, the more important digital communication becomes for successful leadership, the more important it becomes for managers to know:

  • to what extent digital differs from analog or direct face-to-face communication

  • and how they should be designed to perform their role in the organization.

When trying to answer these questions, you should first consider what the core task of a manager is. It is to ensure that the area entrusted to her contributes to the success of the company. All other management tasks are subordinate to this core task. Specifically, this means that a manager must design and influence their environment in such a way that all persons involved in the provision of services make the decisions in their day-to-day work that are necessary to achieve the goals and show the necessary behavior. This in turn means that a manager must achieve the desired effects in their environment. You must be an effective influencer in him, so to speak. Only then is she a real manager.

As a result, the answer to the question “How do I communicate as a manager?” based on the answer to the question: How can I achieve the desired effect? Among other things, she decides whether a topic is better dealt with in a larger group or in private, but also via the communication channel: should you look for a personal conversation, pick up the phone or write an email? But it also decides on the setting that is necessary to achieve the desired effect.

In the classic management situation, in which the manager and their employees often see each other several times a day, the managers are aware of this. They have mostly internalized in it that employees are given critical feedback not in front of the assembled team, but in a one-on-one conversation – even if they sometimes show different behavior, especially in stressful situations. Likewise, they have internalized that if they want additional work from an employee or want to transfer complex additional tasks to them, they should not do so by email if possible. Rather, they should take their feet in hand and, for example, go to his office or at least pick up the phone to tell him the message.

The situation is different when analogue human-to-human communication is only possible to a limited extent – be it because the employees work in the home office or have their offices at a different location. Then many managers show behavioral uncertainties: they do not reflect sufficiently before picking up the phone, sending an e-mail or making a statement in a video conference.

For example, it makes a big difference whether a manager casually asks an employee with a friendly smile when they accidentally meet him in the corridor during regular operations. “Well, Mr. (or Ms.) Müller, how are you doing? All right?” or whether she sends him an email with the same text when he works in the home office. In the first case this is usually interpreted as an expression of a personal interest, in the second case it is often perceived as a control or an expression of a lack of trust, because: the person is the same, but the situation or constellation is different. Many managers, who are otherwise advocates of a situational leadership style, are not sufficiently aware of this in digital communication.

The fact that many managers are still unsure about digital communication or that they do not adequately reflect its effects was also shown in the lockdown phase in the video conferences with their employees who are now working in their home office. With them, the employees often had the impression that our managers are less well prepared than at normal meetings and they are more unstructured. One can argue whether this was actually the case or was only perceived by the participants because of the medium. In addition, when I attended such meetings as a moderator or guest, I often registered:

  • The managers log in as the last participant and often with a mumbled reason a few minutes late.

  • If they are “homeworkers” themselves, they often wear casual casual wear instead of the usual business look.

  • They often hang limply on their chair (and if only so that the camera can see them better) and

  • There is often a sofa in the background and, for example, a beach picture with palm trees.

Of course, this was also registered by the employees, and that was certainly not the message that the executives often wanted to convey: “We are now working in the home office, but apart from that, business as usual.” It was also often unmistakable that there were no rules of conduct for digital communication, such as: If you want to say something, you don’t just chatter in between; he rather holds an object in the camera and is then given the floor.

In the phase after the corona-related lockdown, in which a lot of the companies had a provisional character, such deficits could be expected and tolerated. However, if digital communication becomes regular communication or part of it, quality standards and regulations should also be developed for it. In addition, managers – but also project managers and key accountants – have to be trained in how they can achieve the desired effect in digital or hybrid communication, in which they choose the communication channels depending on the situation.

As a rule of thumb, for example, the more digital the communication, the more time managers should invest in relationship work so that personal relationships and trust are preserved. For example, by simply calling their employees because there is no talk in the hallway and deliberately not talking to them about work. US and Scandinavian companies often also organize virtual team events, where participants watch a movie together, make a drink, or all of them, cook the same dish for themselves and then eat it in front of the camera because they know: otherwise it will be quick the team spirit is lost and our team becomes a group of lone fighters.

In addition, quite a few managers changed from Saul to Paul. While previously declared opponents of this form of communication, they now thought that everything could be communicated via video call or conference. This is not the case. In video communication, perception is and remains reduced, and in video conferences, individual participants fall under the table more quickly than when they are all sitting at one table and the manager’s gaze wanders around again and again. For this reason, it has proven particularly useful for a larger number of participants that a list of the participant names is on the executive’s table, on which they can tick off, for example, whom they have already addressed in the course of the conference so that nobody is forgotten. In addition, after video conferences it is often sensible and necessary to call individual participants and ask them personally: “Mr. (or Ms.) Müller, how are you after the meeting? Can you live with the decision? What would you like me to do? …? “

If the communication is primarily digital, such calls are necessary so that, for example, no team member is emotionally lost in larger projects. The importance of the telephone as a communication tool for distance management should not be underestimated anyway, especially as this has the following advantage, especially for people who spend a large part of their working time on a PC or even in video conferences: You can use the telephone for a conference call or a telephone call take in hand and walk with him in the room. In contrast, during a video conference or a video call, you have to sit in your chair in front of the monitor all the time. You should also pay attention to such aspects when managing employees at a distance, at least if you want to achieve an impact as a manager and thus want to be an “influencer” of the company’s success. (hk / fm)

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