Potential Blindspots In Leading Remote Teams

benfoulkes
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- 7 min read

For many organisations, it’s been more than six months now working remotely. The team Zoom quizzes are a distant memory and recently it’s been difficult to keep the virtual coffee chats going, if they ever started in the first place. It’s just not the same as bumping into a colleague and having a spontaneous conversation right?

True. Working remotely is different. It presents a whole range of new challenges, from maintaining boundaries between work and other life priorities, to team collaboration, innovation and isolation. Clearly how you lead others has to adapt to this situation too.

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Take the way you communicate for example. In the office being visibly present, checking in with people, being warm and friendly in the corridor, grabbing a coffee or having lunch with your team helps you pick up on the gossip and signals to understand how projects are going, where tensions might lie and therefore where you might head off problems before they might arise.

In a remote environment, all these natural interactions are taken away from you. 9am daily stand ups instead of being a fun check in with the team feel like a chore, and it’s not clear to your remote teammates why they need to be online at a certain time right in the middle of the school run when they can give the same update by email or a recorded video anyway.

As a leader, the tone of your voice in an email is likely to be interpreted more negatively than it was intended, and conflicts are likely to arise more quickly. Without the ability to explain things in simple and concise language confusion reigns. Fewer people come to you with questions or challenges early, when you can solve them, perhaps because they think you’re too busy or because they haven’t had a reply to an email in a while.

Understanding your strengths and blindspots

Being an effective remote leader requires understanding your strengths and blindspots in relation to all these small details - your tone of voice, how often you communicate, the simplicity of your language, your approachability, how available you seem and how well you listen.

These aspects of communication make up just one area out of 14 domains which we’ve found featuring strongly in the thinking of effective remote leaders at Hoxby.

Hoxby is an organisation of nearly 1,000 associates which has been operating remotely for the past 6 years, and for a while we have been wondering what is actually critical when it comes to being an effective remote leader?

In any area of expertise, the top performers have a more detailed and nuanced understanding of the things they pay attention to, something psychologists call an ‘expert schema’.

In golf for example, a complete newbie might come up to the tee and take a wild swing, whereas an experienced pro might consider the wind, the firmness of the ground, the length of the grass and the positioning of the pin on the green, and therefore take a much more considered approach to which club to use and where they are aiming to hit the ball.

It’s the same in wine tasting. Experts have a detailed understanding of concepts like primary and secondary aromas, taste and texture structures, and can then link this with detailed knowledge of the growing, fermentation and pressing process to understand where these tasting notes and flavours come from.

Connecting, Trusting, Combining and Delivering

So to try and understand this expert schema for remote leadership, we employed a psychological technique to ‘map’ the knowledge of effective remote leaders at Hoxby, and from an initial list of some 200 constructs, grouped this into 14 domains which can be thought of in four themes - Connecting, Trusting, Combining and Delivering.

A quick glance at these four ‘meta-domains’ reveals a close match between what we have found and what is present in much of the burgeoning literature on remote leadership. Most models of remote leadership include some focus on the importance of building trust, quality communication and accountable delivery (goal setting and productivity).

In our research, what also came to the fore was the need for successful remote leaders to focus on how they motivate, build team culture and bring together diverse individuals.

Now it’s worth stating that no one is a perfect remote leader. Our research also revealed we are all somewhat ‘skewed’ or lopsided in our appreciation of what we need to do as remote leaders, owing to our own motivations, preferences and experiences.

We all construe the world in very different ways, which means we all have our blindspots. Particularly in this new remote environment, we may not know what we don’t know - until it hits us where it hurts.

For instance one partner at a law firm recently told us how two of the most talented members of their team unexpectedly quit recently. The leader had been operating under the assumption that these individuals, who kept turning in great work, must be doing fine personally, but perhaps because they underinvested in taking the time to make a more personal connection, were blindsided by the revelation of the impact that working in a post coronavirus world was having on them privately.

Previously a leader’s role managing resilience within their teams was important, now it is critical. Again our Hoxby leaders had some pretty multifaceted strategies for addressing this, from ‘meshing workstyles’ and ‘buddying up’, to challenging themselves to learn to be more comfortable with disagreement.

How can you improve your own remote leadership?

At Hoxby, we think remote leadership applies to everyone, regardless of whether they are in an official leadership position or not.

Most importantly it’s important to develop our awareness of our natural strengths, and identify (like a good carpenter) the tools we have at our disposal and how to use them. Secondly, we need to identify and recognise our blindspots. Like when we are driving a car, becoming more aware of our blindspots reduces the risk and dangers these present to us and our teams.

One of the biggest blindspots we’ve found working with teams across industries often comes back to communication. We all think we are doing it right? But really. Are you doing enough? Our research suggests that effective Hoxby remote leaders tend to massively over index on this front. They think about this first, above all things. They continually reappraise the channels they use for this, the frequency, the tone of voice they use, how they use technology effectively (like giving video updates), and reiterating the vision and purpose of the organisation until in the words of one of our CEO’s ‘you are frankly sick of it’.

Once you’ve identified your blindspots, it’s also important to understand why this isn’t something you consciously pay much attention to. Is this to do with motivation? Or linked to your personality? Or is it just a lack of technical knowledge?

Technical knowledge gaps tend to be quicker aspects to address than deeper lying motivational or psychological issues, but can still be helpful to build awareness of as we can use workarounds, like partnering with someone with strengths in these areas.

All good leadership is contextual, and the context of working remotely is one which is still alien to many, and requires added focus and effort to understand this new terrain and how to navigate it most effectively.

This is a guest post by Ben Foulkes, Managing Director at Bucket List company Hoxby. For more information on Ben and the company, check out his rebel page.

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