Why Leaders Resist Empowering Virtual Teams

Many remote leaders who feel constrained, drained, and isolated are just getting in their own way.

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For Indira, a midlevel manager in the financial services industry, leading a virtual team has been stressful.1 Now that everyone no longer works in the same office space, opportunities for spontaneous check-ins are limited, so it’s tough to know exactly how or when people are having trouble doing their jobs. As a result, Indira worries that she can’t effectively support her team. She also says her “real work” begins after a long day of video meetings. By the time she’s able to focus on her independent tasks and bigger-picture thinking, she’s burned out, and it’s difficult to be productive.

Indira is not alone. We’ve heard many stories like hers over the past few years in our interviews with hundreds of remote leaders in a range of roles and industries. And studies show that such leaders associate a host of problems (both real and perceived) with all-virtual interactions. For instance, they cite technical difficulties, constrained access to information and resources, distractions at home, social isolation, and ever-blurrier work-life boundaries.2 These issues won’t simply disappear after the global COVID-19 pandemic dies down, because for many businesses and employees, remote work isn’t going away. According to recent surveys, over 80% of business leaders plan to keep at least a partial work-from-home arrangement in place, and executives expect a 30% reduction in physical office space.3

One viable solution to some of the challenges leaders face is to adopt an empowering leadership style. This involves delegating authority and decision-making to team members, coaching employees rather than directing them, and regularly seeking their input to solve problems.4 When leaders allow employees to have an ownership stake in their day-to-day work, people can show what they’re capable of doing, which leads to more trust and less micromanaging. That means soul-crushing “task master” meetings (all the more draining online) can be replaced with more meaningful, energizing conversations about strategy and talent development, fueling performance and growth while allowing leaders to build deeper connections with team members. Empowering leadership has many positive effects on employees, too. It’s linked to increased job satisfaction, commitment, self-efficacy, creativity, and performance, as well as decreased intentions to quit.5

One of the most important benefits is greater knowledge sharing among colleagues, a vital source of competitive advantage.6 We’ve seen this dynamic play out consistently in our research and consulting over the years, with particular rewards in remote settings. For example, in one study we conducted with Sabre, a high-tech travel reservations company that makes extensive use of virtual teams, we found that remote leaders who empowered people to experiment and take risks on the job helped them to learn and innovate more effectively. Their team members did not have to wait around for managerial permission or guidance before making process improvements in a fluid business environment and proactively meeting ever-changing customer needs. Given the latitude to solve problems they encountered, team members devised resourceful ways of getting and sharing the necessary information remotely — by using virtual communities and easily accessible knowledge repositories — so that they could make smart decisions on the ground.7

Despite the noted advantages of empowering leadership, here’s the catch: Leaders often resist this approach, especially when managing people remotely. Whether or not they thought they had a good handle on their team before shifting to virtual work, they tend to worry about ceding power and control to employees and taking new risks in a virtual environment, where they can’t observe people directly. Although we, and others, are starting to explore these fears and identify ways to address them, much more attention has been paid to the benefits of empowering leadership than to the reasons why managers resist this approach. Drawing on research about leadership and virtual-work stressors, we’ll describe some of those reasons in detail and then recommend ways organizations can help leaders move beyond resistance.

The Sources of Resistance

Let’s look at the primary reasons leaders resist empowering remote team members.

Problems with motivation. Psychological research suggests that three types of motivation compel people to lead others: affective motivation (they like doing it), social-normative motivation (they feel a sense of duty or responsibility to lead), and noncalculative motivation (they clearly see the benefits of leading others and focus on pursuing them rather than continually weighing the costs and fixating on the leadership “bottom line”).8 Leaders who are significantly lagging on any one of these dimensions may resist an empowering style; they’re highly likely to oppose it if they’re lagging on two or three. Those who don’t like leading to begin with will derive no intrinsic value from empowering others and won’t want to invest energy in doing so. The same is true of those who don’t feel duty-bound to lead — the buy-in simply isn’t there. And constantly focusing on the costs of empowering others triggers leaders’ risk aversion.

Facing additional stressors in a virtual setting can further thwart leaders’ motivation and intensify their resistance to empowering leadership. For example, our conversations with leaders suggest that poor communication with remote team members can dampen leaders’ affective motivation. Although leaders typically view all-virtual interactions as the root cause of communication problems, when they feel kept in the dark about other projects team members are supporting, they can’t help getting frustrated with the people rather than the process. They may, in turn, be less compelled to delegate work and share responsibilities. Some leaders also confided that they are less driven to lead in a virtual environment, where they feel less visible and accountable to the organization — and less obligated to develop and coach their teams. As for fixating on costs, many remote leaders told us that they think a great deal about the long hours they put in that take time away from their families and other personal priorities. Their jobs seemed more doable within a regular workday when they managed people in person. But now that those hours are consumed by virtual meetings, their independent work eats into what used to be personal time, and they are keenly aware of the sacrifices they are making for their jobs.

Perceived loss of control. Research also shows that people are intrinsically motivated when they believe they have power over events in their lives. This perceived internal locus of control promotes feelings of competence and autonomy. In contrast, those who ascribe their successes and failures to factors beyond their influence — an external locus of control — tend to feel that events happen to them.9 Thus, leaders with an internal locus of control would be more comfortable empowering others, because they wouldn’t be threatened by sharing power — they would still feel they had a hand in their own fate. But leaders with an external locus of control may fear that what little control they have would be diminished if they empowered others. That is, they may worry that giving their teams more control or agency means having less themselves.

Tech-related stressors, such as internet outages, bandwidth concerns, spotty service, and crashing systems — many of which are outside the remote leader’s purview — can exacerbate fears of losing control. Indira, the financial services manager we interviewed, sometimes has intermittent internet access and cannot connect to her company’s internal messaging platform during the workday, which makes her feel less on top of things. It’s not surprising that leaders may try to compensate by clamping down in other areas — by closely monitoring employees’ progress on project tasks, for example, or strictly tracking how people allocate their time.

Concerns about risk. Psychological insights about regulatory focus — the tendency to either seek pleasure or avoid pain — tell us a lot about why people behave as they do.10 Promotion-focused individuals, who see their goals as steppingstones on a path to advancement, concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve those objectives. Prevention-focused individuals, who see their goals as responsibilities they are on the hook to fulfill, concentrate on minimizing losses and staying safe. Leaders with a prevention focus may thus resist empowering their employees to take on more, because they worry about the risks of doing so. Team members might need extra hand-holding as they’re learning, for example, or they might make costly mistakes that could come back to haunt and overwhelm the leader.

A leader’s concerns about such risks can be intensified by the stressors associated with leading virtually. Indeed, since the major shift to remote work in 2020, many leaders we’ve spoken with have felt increasingly isolated being at home and exhausted because their work bleeds over into their personal time. However, instead of empowering team members to use their knowledge and expertise to accomplish the team’s tasks and goals (which could solve both problems), some leaders tend to do things themselves to make sure they’re done right the first time. They may believe they’ll save time and energy down the line and avoid difficult interactions with team members if they don’t have to fix others’ mistakes. But dodging those risks actually exacerbates the leader’s sense of isolation and burnout. Leaders who don’t give others a chance to demonstrate their capabilities and contribute substantively are in go-it-alone mode. They take on more and more themselves — and have less and less faith in their team. Camaraderie dissipates.

Reducing Leaders’ Resistance

These three reasons for resistance to empowering leadership are largely rooted in the assumption that power is a zero-sum game. Here’s the thinking: Investing in people’s development will cost you time and set you back. Giving others control and ownership over the work means you control and own less of it yourself. Their gains become your losses.

That thinking is misguided, however, because power is not a finite resource, and empowering leadership is about lending or sharing power — not ceding or giving it up entirely.11 Paradoxically, when using an empowering style, remote leaders often become more powerful themselves. They are no longer doing the types of tasks that their employees should be and are capable of doing, so they can turn their focus to bigger-picture, longer-term, strategic pursuits. Once leaders recognize this, they become more motivated to delegate and coach employees, less fearful about losing control in the process, and eager to develop people with an eye toward what will be gained to benefit all.

How can organizations make it easier for remote leaders to share power? By addressing some of the motivation-, control-, and risk-based issues and virtual stressors that are getting in the way. Here are a few recommendations, drawn from various research findings, our observations in companies across sectors, and our interviews with leaders over the past few years.

Reframe their motives. First, help remote leaders regain their joy in leading — their affective motivation — by facilitating richer exchanges and stronger ties among team members. Having that sense of connection makes leaders feel more invested in the people they’re working with and developing.

Tech-based communication tools can help serve this purpose when face-to-face interaction isn’t possible. For example, some of the companies we have worked with encourage employees to turn on their cameras during virtual meetings. It may seem like a small adjustment to make, but people do interact on a deeper level when they see one another’s facial expressions and body language; information gets lost in the absence of nonverbal cues.12 In companies where cameras are usually off, we’ve noticed a palpable lack of energy during meetings — people literally and figuratively phoning it in. Although not every meeting needs to be on video (too much time on-screen can actually cause fatigue), regularly seeing colleagues can certainly help strengthen bonds. So can having brief meetings that are focused not on work but on getting to know one another. For example, organizations can encourage leaders to connect once or twice a month with small groups of direct reports for just 15 minutes or so to chat about what’s going on in people’s lives. Don’t know where to start? Leaders can ask icebreaker questions like “Who would you pick to play you in a movie of your life, and why?” If people see this as “forced fun,” they may need a little push to engage interpersonally. Eventually the bonding, which can energize leaders to invest in their employees, will come more naturally.

Indira, the financial services manager, suggested that leaders can gain social-normative motivation by clearly prioritizing tasks to be completed. To do this, she likes to plot things out on an urgency-importance matrix. Working with the team to outline what needs to happen in what order can help everyone — including the leader — recognize how each task affects their colleagues. This fosters a shared sense of responsibility for the group’s accomplishments and performance.

As for restoring noncalculative motivation, leaders who aren’t overloaded and burned out by remote stressors are better able to focus on the benefits of investing in others’ development (shared workload, engaged employees, strengthened capabilities) and less likely to fixate on the costs (time, energy, potential mistakes). To ease into delegating work that will expand people’s capabilities, some leaders find it helpful to create a buddy system, breaking down responsibilities into smaller pieces and assigning those to pairs of team members. This can make the delegation less risky while still freeing up leaders’ time, encouraging meaningful exchanges among teammates, and providing opportunities for growth. Leaders who can’t quite bring themselves to delegate before they believe their teams are ready can avoid potential costs by encouraging employee volunteerism to develop skills.13 Without the costs looming, it’s easier to focus on benefits: Leaders can see how team members are growing through their volunteering, identify ways of putting that growth to use, and then gradually begin empowering people through richer work assignments.

To prevent overload and burnout — costs that are top of mind for leaders — it helps somewhat if companies have strong guidelines or formal policies to promote better work-life balance at all levels. It’s even better if senior executives model balance themselves, given that social learning theory suggests that they set the tone in organizations. Of course, organizations haven’t yet figured out how to help people draw a sharper line between work and home when work is at home. But in the meantime, they can take reasonable steps like explicitly asking leaders and employees not to send or respond to messages after regular working hours and setting clear boundaries for clients and other stakeholders so that they won’t expect round-the-clock availability.

Boost their sense of control. To counter leaders’ fears of losing control, organizations should do what they can to make technology easier to manage. Equip remote leaders and their teams with the digital tools and training they need to operate smoothly and predictably, and outline some contingencies they can fall back on when things go wrong. For instance, provide alternative ways of connecting online, such as mobile hot-spot devices to use when internet service isn’t reliable. If leaders feel that day-to-day work isn’t threatened by connectivity problems, glitchy systems, and user fumbling and errors, they may be less inclined to micromanage their employees in an effort to control something in an uncertain world.

When we spoke with Terrence, a gaming casino executive in Las Vegas, he shared another idea for fostering control for both leaders and employees. He hosts mandatory weekly town hall meetings in his department. Pre-pandemic, when everyone was working onsite, these meetings were held monthly. But Terrence noticed that hallway conversations — what he termed “natural collisions” — were not happening in remote work settings, which limited information exchange and opened the door to feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness. So he increased the frequency of the meetings, deliberately encouraging people to overshare so that less information would fall through the cracks. After instituting these weekly forums, he noticed improved productivity in his department. Now he feels more confident about empowering his direct reports because he can see that they are up to speed, and he is still maintaining control of information flow through the town halls.

Make empowerment feel less risky. To encourage remote leaders to be more promotion-focused and less risk-averse so that they’ll support team members’ growth, we recommend taking a more holistic view of how time is spent and managed in organizations. For example, companies can mandate time off for their leaders — perhaps requiring them to take a set number of vacation days every two or three months. Of course, this gives leaders regular opportunities to reenergize, recharge, and recover from the stressors of managing remotely. But their periodic absence also forces them to allow employees to step up and take care of certain tasks so that they can become more competent and confident. The more often this happens, the less risky — and more worthwhile — it will feel for leaders to delegate. In addition, leaders can empower employees incrementally, one task at a time, so that it’s easier to anticipate and manage errors as people learn.14

Organizations can set aside meeting-free days as well — a welcome reprieve for remote teams that spend much of their time coordinating and collaborating with one another online. Many companies have instituted meeting-free Fridays to create space for exploratory, nonurgent projects that can feed longer-term development, engagement, and performance on a leisurely schedule. That’s certainly one benefit. But often, employees need this meeting-free time simply to get their regular work done — and that presents another opportunity to empower them. One day a week, while you’re giving people a break from meetings, give them a break from micromanagement, too. If you stay out of their way altogether on Fridays, allowing them to do their focused work completely uninterrupted, they’ll gain independence, and you’ll consistently get practice trusting people to do their jobs.

To get comfortable with empowerment, it’s also important to establish bonding as an essential activity, not just a nice-to-have. If leaders regularly conduct brief interpersonal check-ins with teammates, they develop the trust needed to loosen their grip, so their employees can take on more challenges. This can happen in small groups, as suggested earlier, and in one-to-one sessions. Terrence, the gaming casino executive, has created a system termed “get me, guide me, and root for me” (or GGR, which corresponds to the industry phrase “gross gaming revenue”) to build relationships with remote employees, one at a time. Terrence explained that “get me” is about understanding employees and their lives, “guide me” involves coaching, and “root for me” refers to encouragement. Each check-in takes him 10 minutes at most, once a week (he deliberately schedules these meetings with this time cap in mind), and he says it usually involves “nine minutes of listening.” The benefit is clear on both sides: The employees feel supported, and Terrence gets to know them and care about them as people, which makes him want to develop them. He’s touching base with them often enough to know where they are with their tasks and where they need help, which lowers the perceived risk of sharing responsibilities with them.

There’s no question that remote leaders have their hands full trying to keep their teams productive, engaged, and on track — all from a distance. Although they can make things more manageable by encouraging and enabling others to step up, instead they often react to the stressors of leading in a virtual environment by feeling less motivated to lead, clamping down and asserting control, and avoiding risk wherever they can. It’s a maladaptive response, but it’s understandable.

By empowering others to grow, leaders can empower themselves to think bigger, achieve more, and breathe easier. Once they wrap their heads around that paradox, with some support from their organizations, they can replace a vicious cycle with a virtuous one. And who wouldn’t want that?

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References

1. Names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.

2. C.D. Cramton and S.S. Webber, “Relationships Among Geographic Dispersion, Team Processes, and Effectiveness in Software Development Work Teams,” Journal of Business Research 58, no. 6 (June 2005): 758-765; B. Larson, S. Vroman, and E. Makarius, “A Guide to Managing Your (Newly) Remote Workers,” Harvard Business Review, March 18, 2020, https://hbr.org; T. Golden, “Coworkers Who Telework and the Impact on Those in the Office: Understanding the Implications of Virtual Work for Coworker Satisfaction and Turnover Intentions,” Human Relations 60, no. 11 (November 2007): 1641-1667; N.B. Kurkland and D.E. Bailey, “The Advantages and Challenges of Working Here, There, Anywhere, and Anytime,” Organizational Dynamics 28, no. 2 (autumn 1999): 53-68; B. Wang, Y. Liu, J. Qian, et al., “Achieving Effective Remote Working During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Work Design Perspective,” Applied Psychology 70, no. 1 (January 2021): 16-59; and J. Mulki, F. Bardhi, F.G. Lassk, et al., “Set Up Remote Workers to Thrive,” MIT Sloan Management Review 51, no. 1 (August 2009): 63-69.

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4. P.N. Sharma and B.L. Kirkman, “Leveraging Leaders: A Literature Review and Future Lines of Inquiry for Empowering Leadership Research,” Group and Organization Management 40, no. 2 (April 2015): 193-237.

5. G. Chen, P.N. Sharma, S.K. Edinger, et al., “Motivating and Demotivating Forces in Teams: Cross-Level Influences of Empowering Leadership and Relationship Conflict,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96, no. 3 (May 2011): 541-557; M. Kim, T.A. Beehr, and M.S. Prewett, “Employee Responses to Empowering Leadership: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 25, no. 3 (August 2018): 257-276; and A. Lee, S. Willis, and A.W. Tian, “Empowering Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Examination of Incremental Contribution, Mediation, and Moderation,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 39, no. 3 (March 2018): 306-325.

6. A. Srivastava, K.M. Bartol, and E.A. Locke, “Empowering Leadership in Management Teams: Effects on Knowledge Sharing, Efficacy, and Performance,” Academy of Management Journal 49, no. 6 (December 2006): 1239-1251.

7. B.L. Kirkman, B. Rosen, P.E. Tesluk, et al., “The Impact of Team Empowerment on Virtual Team Performance: The Moderating Role of Face-to-Face Interaction,” Academy of Management Journal 47, no. 2 (April 2004): 175-192.

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9. E.L. Deci and R.M. Ryan, “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior,” Psychological Inquiry 11, no. 4 (2000): 227-268.

10. E.T. Higgins, “Beyond Pleasure and Pain,” American Psychologist 52, no. 12 (December 1997): 1280-1300.

11. T.B. Sabey, J.B. Rodell, and F.K. Matta, “To and Fro: The Costs and Benefits of Power Fluctuation Throughout the Day,” Journal of Applied Psychology 106, no. 9 (September 2021): 1357-1373; and R.E. Sturm and J. Antonakis, “Interpersonal Power: A Review, Critique, and Research Agenda,” Journal of Management 41, no. 1 (January 2015): 136-163.

12. A. Tsuchiya, H. Ora, Q. Hao, et al., “Body Movement Synchrony Predicts Degrees of Information Exchange in a Natural Conversation,” Frontiers in Psychology 11 (April 2020): 1-10; and N.S. Hill and K.M. Bartol, “Five Ways to Improve Communication in Virtual Teams,” MIT Sloan Management Review 60, no. 1 (fall 2018): 18-22.

13. J.B. Rodell, H. Breitsohl, M. Schroder, et al., “Employee Volunteering: A Review and Framework for Future Research,” Journal of Management 42, no. 1 (January 2016): 55-84; and A. Shantz and K. Dempsey-Brench, “How Volunteerism Enhances Workplace Skills,” MIT Sloan Management Review 62, no. 4 (summer 2021): 79-83.

14. R.C. Ford and M.D. Fottler, “Empowerment: A Matter of Degree,” Academy of Management Executive 9, no. 3 (August 1995): 21-29.

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