Virtual leadership is much more than merely using the appropriate communications technology. It is about being able to engage people from afar to produce results together. It builds on a shared vision of the future to help people to get things done together.”
Penny Pullan, Virtual Leadership, 2016, Kogan Page
Teams in higher education can be disconnected or fragmented for a number of reasons. Support teams can be dispersed across several campus locations, multi-disciplinary research teams may involve colleagues from a range of different departments, centres of excellence are often based on complex cross-institutional partnerships, and teaching teams can draw on a range of diverse specialisms. Often university/college life involves a portfolio of responsibilities working collaboratively across different teams and, therefore, engaging with colleagues virtually to some degree is no longer regarded as unusual.
Now add to this the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and true leadership complexity presents itself. Campus closures, lockdown, social distancing and enforced working from home has brought about disruption, displacement and disconnection: the disruption of work patterns and activities, the displacement of teams and departments, and the disconnection of colleague relationships. And the impact of this potential loss of focus and cohesion goes beyond simply interrupting ‘achieving what needs to be done’ and has implications for deeper issues such as team identity, collective commitment, culture and organisational growth.
There is a lot at stake as we ask more and more of colleagues in our drive to achieve rapidly shifting organisational goals and requirements, whilst at the same time seeing engagement levels potentially start to wane. After months of crisis-driven change, further transitions occasioned by the force of unprecedented circumstances may struggle to gain traction. Using the ‘we need to’ imperative too many times can, if we are not careful, exacerbate disconnection. If too much of the drive to action is external, that all important ‘fire from within’ will flicker and falter and a separation will occur between the things we do and the values we stand for.
Consistent and reliable engagement only comes about through a connected approach to leadership. The good news is that most successful leaders will be doing a lot of the right things already. Successful, that is, in the sense of inspiring performance on the basis of collective commitment. The challenge is essentially one of translation, into whichever version of virtual and disconnected engagement you are experiencing, and being more deliberate in our practice of good practice:
One of the key conclusions presented in this powerful article by Amabile and Kramer (2011) is that, like it or not, “managers have more influence than they may realize over employees' well-being, motivation, and creative output”. As the figure above illustrates, “even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously” but “on the flip side, small losses or setbacks can have an extremely negative effect”. The nourishers enhance the inner work life of colleagues, whereas the inhibitors act as toxins and have a corrosive impact upon engagement and performance. And for these good practices to flourish they must be tailored and attuned to the things which have significance for the individual or team concerned. So, for work to be meaningful, for example, “it simply must matter to the person doing it” and that is the narrative of connection to which the leader needs to be attuned.
The art of leading a virtual team, or one that to whatever degree has become disconnected in terms of identity, purpose and relationships, is to ‘dial-up’ the nourishers more consciously and explicitly than ever before. The signals, for example, that transmitted appreciation when all of the well-established group-norms and working patterns were in place, may simply not, now, get through. Similarly, small setbacks that needed little close discussion previously, may now need to be consciously made the focus of learning and exploration. And, needless to say, the impact of things like leaders taking credit for other colleagues’ ideas, being cynical about contributions, overt favouritism, failing to communicate change with sensitivity, and altering performance goals without consultation, will be a toxic recipe for disconnection and profound alienation. Likewise moving too fast with a piece of change, when the process needs to be slow to allow time and space for collaborative engagement, will create fault lines in the leader-follower relationship – faults and fissures of the kind that may never again close.
How to go on being good at what matters, is the fundamental leadership challenge in this strange and difficult pandemic age. If you used to invest in relationships with colleagues through ‘a hundred small discussions’ and found that these ‘made all the difference’, then that is what matters. So, to continue this example, how can you go on creating opportunities for those informal conversations with no particular agenda? The nourishers, to go back to Amabile and Kramer, need to go on nourishing.
The opportunity for reflective leadership development around these questions and issues is more important than ever. Sharing experiences, exploring good practices, comparing approaches, having safe opportunities to challenge afresh the continuous forming and transforming or our leadership identities is at the heart of deep, immersive leadership development. This will be the approach to learning and the ethos of the new Leading Virtual and Disconnected Teams programme offered by Advance HE.
To conclude, here are four key thoughts that apply to all leaders looking to re-orientate their practice in the current pandemic world of unpredictable and unforecast change:
- Look after yourself so that you can go on looking after others – an earlier blog focused on developing sustainable resilience in higher education highlighted the “interesting paradox… that sometimes to be selfless we have to begin by being selfish”. This is “a simple concept that makes intuitive sense – you cannot help others for very long if you don’t take care of yourself first”.
- The small but important things matter more than ever – as highlighted above, there is a multiplier effect in terms of positive impact associated with getting the small things right as regards good leadership practices. So, for example, if you do not have a regular supportive dialogue with your direct reports, then it is unlikely that much else will flourish, particularly in these disconnected times.
- Meetings of the right kind are transformational – people may say that they are turning into Zoombies with too many unnecessary and unproductive online meetings, and there may be more than a little truth in this. However, meetings that genuinely focus on ‘what matters now’, that invite dialogue and creativity, that are based on relationships of respect, that show positive appreciation, that focus on goals, and that deliver worthwhile actions will quite simply transform the climate of the team.
- Consciously connecting and reconnecting is the primary role of the leader – the following is an extract from a blog on Connected Leadership originally written in 2016 and re-published by Advance HE in July 2020. This extract illustrates the powerful role that connected leadership can play in a disconnected world:
“Many of the best developments in organisations arise from a collision of people and events that can never be fully forecast. It is, therefore, as important for leaders to ‘be strategic’ as it is to plan and develop strategies. Leaders who connect people with purpose, and purpose with people, release personal energy and potential without getting bogged down in aligning goals or re-engineering structures. This is a more emergent and adaptive approach that is focussed on connecting the heart, soul, mind and strength of individuals and teams with the real purpose of the organisation in the prevailing context, at the current time, in the wider world.”