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Doing Two Really Hard Things at Once: Leading Remotely and Giving Helpful Feedback

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Even though it may be new for you, some of you may prefer leading from a distance over the old routine at the office. You may love some features of working from home: Less commute, a more informal feeling, better control of your time, and not having to see certain people.

What is hard about leading remotely But the very things that allow you to avoid people and feel more control are the very things that create emotional distance, while “emotional closeness” is actually a necessary thing. It connects you to your team members and inspires camaraderie toward shared team goals. The informal moments you share when you run into people in the hallways, have a snack, stay after a meeting to ask about their family, or sit down to share a concern that bothers you create far more opportunities to gain emotional closeness. Alex Pentland, director of MIT Connection Science, “Employee trust, solidarity, and mental health rely on the hundreds of minute affirmations and gestures of support that we offer those around us every day.” As a leader, this is how you build “psychological safety,” the belief that people won’t be punished when you make a mistake at work.

So, what is hard is to have both of these balls up in the air at the same time:

  1. Leading remotely, as in physical distance AND

  2. Leading closely, as in emotional connection?

Feedback that is truly helpful requires emotional closeness Trust is critical and building trust involves the emotions. Brain science shows us that trust requires a common bond that originates in part of the brain where gut feelings and emotions reside (amygdala or “reptilian brain”), not where thoughts and logic occur (frontal cerebral cortex).

So while you’re busy updating project management details in the software tools that support your group’s ability to communicate collaboratively, the distance between you and one or more team members may be growing.

What can you do to lay the groundwork for trust and sharing helpful feedback?

  1. Take plenty of time with each person on your team to get to know them personally and show your interest in what they are saying

  2. Be a real person yourself. Share information about your family, your pastimes outside work, experiences they may be interested in, and your own honest viewpoints

  3. Ask your team members questions about a past work assignment in another organization and encourage them to share anecdotes from different work settings or geographical locations

  4. Schedule in time for informal discussions in both team meetings and one-on-one conversations

  5. Ask open-ended questions to get team members’ opinions about an upcoming decision or how to reach a goal

  6. Assign small group breakouts using online tools and ask each group to share a conclusion or idea with the larger group

  7. When an employee shares a concern, listen carefully and encourage them to keep talking and share more details of their opinion. Compliment them on their helpful insights.

Honor this “closeness” component Don’t let geographical distance cut you off from building great relationships with everyone you lead. Build trust, and you’ve set the groundwork for great collaboration through honesty, willingness to share “risky” new ideas, and working through challenges together.

Read The Feedback Imperative for more tips and strategies for leading remotely

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