In short, when so much of the way the world does business has shifted from in-person to virtual work, the key leadership attributes that best motivate people have evolved as well.
Now, a brand-new study in the Journal of Business and Psychology seems almost eerily tailored to the current moment.
The study involved tracking 220 students at Midwestern universities who were assigned to work on projects together, either meeting primarily in person, primarily online, or in a mix of the two.
Importantly, the focus here was on “emergent leaders,” meaning people who didn’t have formal authority, but who become recognized by the group as leaders over the course of their work together.
The biggest takeaway: Online and digital communication replicates some, but not all, of the modes of real-life, in-person communication. For one thing, it’s literally two-dimensional, as opposed to three-dimensional.
As a result, people who take actionable forms of leadership — such as proactively helping other people — are more likely to be perceived as great leaders than those who rely on charisma or other less-concrete traits that might work better in other formats.
That means historically great leaders who don’t want to fall behind in the current, predominantly virtual environment will keep the following kinds of things in mind — and change how they act as needed.
1. More monitoring.
I know. This flies in the face of some of the other advice we’ve seen recently, so I suspect it’s a matter of tone. But study participants found they respected others as leaders more if they did things like monitor timelines, which helps ensure projects get done on time.
There’s a fine line here between monitoring and micromanaging or adding to employees’ anxiety. The core seems to be about fostering a sense of connection, and that you’re engaged as a leader, even if you’re physically distant from the people you’re leading.
2. More feedback.
This takeaway makes sense, simply because there are far fewer opportunities for interaction in a virtual world.
So, all other things being equal, a great leader now will carve out time to let employees know how they are doing, and what needs to be worked on. You don’t have the opportunity for casual check-ins as you once did, so structuring feedback seems more important.
3. Coordinating teamwork.
I think this one comes down simply to acting like a leader when you’re in a leadership position.
We’re imperfect communicators to begin with, and when we add the circumstances of purely virtual communication, the opportunities for messages to be mislaid or points to be missed only increases. That’s why being the kind of leader who ensures that “Jane is doing X while Peter is doing Y” is so important.
4. More altruism.
You can likely combine all three of these previous changes, and they’ll point to this one: Virtual leaders who are perceived as being altruistic and helpful by their peers will be also be perceived as better leaders.
“On a virtual team, it’s more important than in a face-to-face meeting to stand out as the one who helps others,” said study co-author Cody Reeves, an assistant professor at the Marriott School of Business at BYU. “Those who take the time to pause and assist others with tasks are more likely to be viewed as leaders.”
5. Recognition of the new paradigm.
This final point might be most controversial. It’s that companies might consider whether to refrain from promoting people who demonstrated that they were leaders under the traditional, in-person scenario, since they’ll now largely be asked to lead virtually.
“In virtual environments, our actions speak loudly,” said study co-author Steven Charlier, a professor of management at Georgia Southern University. “The ‘soft’ skills that traditional managers rely on might not translate easily to a virtual environment.”
Overall, I think there’s good news here for the best leaders. They’re also the ones who are most amenable to change. For everyone else, it’s time to learn — or else, get left behind.