The other day I heard about a web-conference with 130 co-workers in a geographically dispersed retail organization. Apart from presentations from top managers, no one spoke or chatted when invited to comment. The participants were dead silent for close to four hours.
What were they thinking, those organizers of fire-walled web-conferences where no one from outside the studio is let into the head-nodding warmth of mutual understanding? How come perfectly sound professionals with loving families seems so distant, unengaged and even arrogant when leading from a distant; be it a web meeting, sending e-mails or doing a telephone conference call? And for us invited to an on-line meeting, standing on the outside, why do we look in and then mentally fade out?
Among the distance leaders I have talked to, the difficulty to see and confirm co-workers in their day-to-day business is a returning theme. I believe that on a deeper level, this touches upon what actually makes us human. Seeing the other. And be seen. Martin Buber (1878-1965), the german philosopher, says it is only in the meeting with You, the other, that I become me. Seeing others as a You in the moment, unbiased and without claims, and not only as an It, an object, that I can get to know and use for my purposes. Invisible bonds that are instrumental when building trust in distance teams.
A notable difference between distance and traditional leadership can be found in this sense of belonging, or lack thereof. If not compensated for, the distance component will add unintentional detachment. Surprisingly, it is not only kilometers that creates distance. Professor Karen Sobel Lojeski, pioneer of the Virtual Distance™ model, points at the perceived distance when communicating via screens. In other words, I can feel closer to someone sitting on the other side of the globe than to my colleague sitting next to me, sending me e-mails.
Distance teams members with a low sense of belonging will be more prone to act on local peer pressure from their colleagues in the same office than their distance boss. The response is often to exercise stronger control of the team, pulling ranks to get things done. However, this is not easy when co-workers have several bosses to please in a matrix organization and the distance leader is not the one paying the salary. And failing distance leadership comes with a price tag.
The aforementioned Karen Sobel Lojeski has shown in her research, based on 800 companies and 6400 employees, that projects with high virtual distance, i.e. distance team members with a low sense of belonging, have a 50% chance of failing or being delayed. In the researched companies, this have generated costs in the range of millions or tens of millions of dollars.
Should organizations insure themselves against the risks of distance leadership?
An insurance in the way of proactively investing time to reduce pockets of high virtual distance among key stakeholders in your organization, before malfunctioning distance teams starts to cost much more. To learn more about the virtual distance concept and how it has been used in practice, listen to my podcasts and have look at Karen´s books listed below.
SSE IFL Online Program Director
Karen Sobel Lojeski (2009) “Leading the virtual workforce”
Karen Sobel Lojeski (2008) “Uniting the virtual workforce”