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.

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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.

3. B. Vigliarolo, “Remote Work Is Here to Stay, Gartner Finds,” TechRepublic, July 14, 2020, www.techrepublic.com; and S. Lund, A. Madgavkar, J. Manyika, et al., “The Future of Work After COVID-19,” McKinsey Global Institute, Feb. 18, 2021, www.mckinsey.com.

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.

8. K. Chan and F. Drasgow, “Toward a Theory of Individual Differences and Leadership: Understanding the Motivation to Lead,” Journal of Applied Psychology 86, no. 3 (June 2001): 481-498.

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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