Global crisis, the demand of flexibility, and advancing technology have made it more common for individuals to work together while being physically apart. This creates a problem: how do we remain connected to a team or our organization while simultaneously being physically separated from them? What is the best leadership style for remote work?
To answer this question, we need to first think about what connects people in the first place. According to research in psychology and anthropology, there are generally three factors that create group bonding or aid in group identification and success: ideological similarity, shared intentionality, and common experience.
We are going to talk about how you can adapt your leadership style to help lead teams that are physically distant. We’ll focus on how an authoritative leadership style–which values both strong top-down decision-making as well as input from all team members–can be adapted to distance leadership style with the GRIN method:
- Grit (which supports shared intent and keeps workers motivated)
- Resonance (which supports shared experience and improves employee output)
- Investment (which keeps employees feeling connected and valued)
- Notice (which supports morale and confidence)
Our researchers have searched through hundreds of peer-reviewed articles that are published in leading journals from psychology, neuroscience, management studies, leadership studies, cultural anthropology, and cognitive science to bring you our researched-backed results on leadership styles. While the GRIN method alone isn’t something you find in the literature, it is what our research has uncovered to be the best ways to help you lead remotely. We have packaged it here so you can remember and have a direct way to implement this research into your everyday life.
Connection with Disconnection
So what are these three factors that create group bonding or aid in group identification– ideological similarity, shared intentionality, and common experience–all about?
Ideological similarities occur when individuals share a similar view about life or about something specific. Think about your own friendships and who you tend to make friends with. Social psychology research has repeatedly demonstrated that we tend to like the things and people that share similar interests, beliefs, and perspectives about how the world works. Neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua Greene describe this in his book, Moral Tribes. He argues that we tend to form groups with people that have similar views about how the world should look and what the world should be like. We tend to find validation of our own beliefs when we find others that share them. It allows us to confirm and strengthen our beliefs, while minimizing conflicting worldviews and what we might consider to be mis-guided beliefs.
Shared intentionality is our ability to communicate and coordinate amongst individuals in pursuit of a common goal. Social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at the Stern School of Business at NYU Jonathan Haidt, discusses how this is a developed psychological trait in his book The Righteous Mind. Not only are we able to organize together to achieve a goal, but we are also able to quickly shift goals or strategies. Having a shared intentionality is critical to creating connection because it allows individuals to feel as though they are not alone. It reinforces us in the same way that ideological similarities do, but it also inspires us to work towards a goal when we know we don’t have to do it alone.
A shared intentionality also helps mute the free-loader problem. The free-loader problem is when members of a group begin to contribute less because they believe the group will cover or provide for them. Having a shared-goal and a communicated method to get there helps keep members of a group accountable, even if you are not physically together.
Individuals having similar or common experiences are one of the easiest ways to create a cohesive unit. When groups have similar histories or past experiences, members are better at taking the perspective of another member.
It allows them to think similarly to another person, or at least consider different perspectives about something. Once you have a group assembled, it is important to cultivate common experiences, or experiences where individual members share as a group. These should be more than group or team meetings. Struggles, criticisms, successes, progress etc. should all be shared as a group. For example, if a group member does something wrong, use it as an opportunity to provide a general call for improvement.
These three factors are key to helping you build the strength and bonds of any group, but it can be even more important when you are not physically together. The more you can find ways to build on these three factors, the better you will be able to guide and steer your group as a cohesive unit.
Adapting an authoritative leadership style using the GRIN method
An authoritarian leadership style balances being a commanding leader with gathering input from the team. This is not an easy balance to find and keep. The authoritative leader is someone who can lead with a top-down mentality where they are the only decision maker. But when appropriate they also can lead as a ‘benevolent boss’ who seeks input and constructive criticism from their subordinates.
When you are not physically present, it can be difficult to command authority and to solicit information. Often you are rendered to communicating electronically, so tone can be difficult to discern for your team, and this causes confusion and disenchants morale. So when you move to a remote strategy or if you are trying to be an authoritative leader with a remote working team, it is important to figure out a way to maintain authority and show that you are working to guide and help the team as a whole to succeed.
Our suggested conversion is to use the GRIN method.
Grit: perseverance and passion for long term goals
The psychological trait of grit can be thought of as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. When you are leading a team from a distance, it is imperative that you are able to keep your team focused on persevering through difficult tasks and obstacles and inspired by group goals. This helps you adapt your leadership style to recognize the difficulties in working remotely and use them to you and your team’s advantage.
One study on military academy students showed that grit increases cognitive and non-cognitive functions that are predictors of success in leadership positions. A second study on novice teachers in low-income schools showed that gritty teachers had higher performing classes and were half as likely to remain in their classrooms by the end of the year compared to their less gritty colleagues. So how do you do this? Here are two tips to help you keep your team gritty:
- Model grit.
- Be open about times you have faced struggles and obstacles and how you overcame them. Acknowledge that frustration, self-doubt, and anxiety are normal parts of tackling difficult challenges.
- Provide an opportunity for your group or team to ‘troubleshoot’ together. You may already have something like this in your regular work schedule, but it shouldn’t just be for ideas or deliverables. It should also be about setbacks and frustrations and how to deal with obstacles both in and around work.
- Keep the goal in mind by reminding your team how you are progressing together. You can take time as a leader to engage your group with updates on how everyone’s work fits together and keeps the team moving forward. A great way to do this in a remote setting is a weekly update system. Send an end of the week email around maybe with a graph or a chart that is simply about what is left to be done and has already been completed. Think of it like a ‘loading’ bar. Help your team literally visualize how their tasks advance the interest of the group. Remember that communication is key!
Resonance: production of the strongest response with regular speed
The resonance idea we are borrowing from physics. Basically, resonance is the condition in which a device produces the largest possible response to a signal that is moving back and forth at a regular speed, especially when it’s inductive and its capacitive reactances are balanced.
So to translate that into our terms: resonance is when a group produces the strongest response with a consistent workflow output. One way to help your team develop resonance is to work with them to develop effective schedules. In an in-person office setting, generally everyone works together during set hours. This helps ensure stable and accountable work hours. But it might mean that people aren’t necessarily working during their individually most productive times. On the other hand, when working from home, some people drop a regular schedule all-together, thinking that complete flexibility is best. But total flexibility can lead to long periods of stagnation or backwards drift.
Finding the balance between rigidity and full flexibility has been shown to increase work productivity; in one study it increased workplace productivity by 10% for a pharmaceutical company. It helps us keep our work and relaxation time separate so we don’t slack off too much when we work and so we don’t overwork ourselves!! So here are two ways to get your team to work on its most resonant schedule
- Let workers set their own hours. This allows them to create a schedule that matches their individual circumstances and preferences. (Hello night owls!) It also provides them a sense of ownership and may lead to increased commitment. Importantly, ensure employees share their “office hours,” so you and the team can know when they are at their computer or work area and when there is off time.
- Ensure employee hours are stable and accountable. There are a lot of different ways to do this. One is to borrow from academics that use “accountability groups.” These groups set individual work goals and report them in a central location. This helps people see the work others are putting in together. You can do this via a shared document or website. Alternatively, you may schedule regular working video calls, where employees can see each other and talk to each other on the spot.
- Establish work habits. One of the biggest problems with working at home is that people find it too easy to shift into “lounge mode”. Psychology research on state dependent learning says that we are able to best remember what we learned when we recreate the environment we learn in, and the same goes for work. Our brains are able to compartmentalize and use environmental clues to prepare our body for what to do next. Remind people to have stable ways to fix their environment so they can work well.For example, remind your team that putting on regular shoes (and not those fuzzy, bunny slippers) is an easy way to signal to your body that you should be active and aren’t in lounge mode; or that their workspace should be isolated from the living room and lounging area. Even something as small as having your desk face away from a TV or a couch can remind your brain that you’re not relaxing, you’re working!!
Investment: showing care and concern
Investments are often things we put into something in the hope of getting more returns. We often think about this in terms of money or jobs, but we can forget that this is how we work with people too.
When people work remotely, it is easy for them to feel isolated and alone. They feel disconnected from the people around them and see “Angie who used to have the desk next to me” only as “firstname.lastname@example.org” . This can result from what is called the construal level theory of psychological distance. We start to see people only as digital or constructed entities!
There are a lot of simple ways to help people remember that they’re not alone and that they are part of a team. Here are some simple ways to change that:
- Use Profile Pictures for group emails or communication. Most apps and email services allow you to add a profile picture so people can see who you are and what you look like. This is a really easy and simple way to remind people that you’re a person and not just an email address! This really helps build the common experience mentality we discussed above.
- Make time for personal communication during work hours or meetings. Think back to some of those college clubs or groups that you used to attend. At almost all of those meetings, there is a bit of time we talk about what has happened to you recently.
Activities like 2 highs and 2 lows (where you share 2 high points and 2 low points) about your life since you last met can be a great way to remain connected. You can even do something like this at the beginning of meetings. If you have a team of between 5 and 10, this should take no more than 10-12 minutes.
- Set up regular check-in meetings where you are able to chat with the people you are leading and can talk about their struggles and successes in life and in work. Making time to have bi-weekly or monthly meetings (depending on the size of your team) can remind people that are working together that they are part of a group. You can even set up time outside of work to chat and talk, like organizing online hangouts to play games, watch a movie, or do volunteer work “together.”
We recognize these tips sound pretty basic and standard. Some people may have tried them in the office and seen them as overkill. But this shouldn’t stop you from trying them in a remote context! Remember that when you work remotely we are creating physical and psychological distance. You want to close those gaps as much as you can, and creating a sense of psychological closeness is a must!
Notice- dedicate time to observing and providing constructive feedback
When you are physically close together in an office space it is really easy to check in on someone as you walk from your office to the coffee machine, or tell someone you liked their proposal as they pass your office on the way to lunch.
When you’re not physically there, it makes it tougher to check in. Thus, make an intentional effort to notice and communicate things about your team supports feelings of ideological similarity, shared intentionality, and common experience.
Even short bits of communication can help. Here are a few ways you can take the time to notice and comment on what people are doing as they work towards group goals.
Create a culture that practices “mudita”– encourage employees to notice and enjoy each other’s success
Mudita is a Buddhist concept describing the feeling of enjoying another person’s success or happiness. It’s based on the idea that life is not a zero sum game; instead joy and success is limitless. So someone else’s good fortune is good for everyone, and there is no need to feel envious or competitive.
Of course, in practice, employees often fail to notice others’ successes. Or they feel envy when someone else succeeds at something personally important to them. So here are a few tips to up your team’s mudita.
- Highlight successes. If someone does something superb or you reach a group milestone, take some time to share that with the team. Send a commendation email or make an announcement at a meeting.
- Use “we” and “team” language. Acknowledge individual contributions, but use language that highlights how well “we” or “the team” is doing.
- Consider incentive structures that reward the team, not just individuals. This helps align employee incentives, so a success for one is a success for all.
- BONUS REASON: Another good thing about Mudita is that it can also help your team feel less stressed and have a higher sense of subjective power. One study showed that individuals who were able to celebrate others success and not use it to measure their own had higher self-esteem. Another study showed that individuals who are able to express joy or appreciation for others (like gratitude) also have higher levels of self-esteem and increase their sense of subjective power. This leads to increased cognitive task performance and increases the ‘grit’ mentality we talked about earlier.
Acknowledge everyday value
In addition to noticing large successes, take time to acknowledge people and their work on a more regular basis. Here are some suggestions for small things you can do to remind people that you notice their work, but more importantly that you notice they have value.
- Confirmation Receipts: If they email you a draft of something, try to immediately email back with something like “got it, thanks!” or “thanks, i’ll review this tomorrow”. It shows you got their work and are setting time aside to review it or think about it. It helps them see that their work isn’t being wasted and is appreciated.
- Follow-ups and “Just Noticed’ Comments. If you have group meetings or presentations, try to email the person who led it with constructive or insightful comments. These could be follow up questions such as: “hey in your presentation, you said X, what did you mean by that” or “hey, I like how you explained Z, it really made sense to me”, or even something like “thanks for giving the update today”.
If they are doing something for the group, like re-labeling the workspace or the files so that it is easily navigable something like “hey, thanks for organizing the drive, I can find things again!”
Adapting your leadership for remote work
When you and your team are not physically together, it can sometimes feel like you’re up away from the world and looking at how your team works far below. You can see how all the pieces fit, realize what is getting overlooked, see who is overworked, and notice what is being neglected as you and your team try to accomplish a task together. But from that distance, it’s not easy to shout down and let them all know what to do! The way you lead your team when you and they were all together isn’t going to work when you’re also distant.
We realize that the world is changing and that people working remotely or while physically distant from each other creates a new challenge for leadership. We’ve talked about a way in which you can adapt the ideal, authoritative leadership style into a ready-made distance leadership style for remote teams and projects. We are advocating what we call the GRIN method.
- Grit is your ability to embody and practice the psychological trait of grit. To do this you should focus on how to keep your team motivated and focused on your long term goals by conquering obstacles together and reminding the team what you group is working towards. This reminds your team members that you are all working together and are to help one another.
- Resonance is when you help your team focus on working consistently to reach your team goal. You want to prevent the free-loader problem by helping your team set up stable work schedules where they can be accountable to one another. This helps people stay on pace and create a balance between work and leisure.
- Investment is the way that you remind employees that you and the rest of the team are more than just a series of emails, and that you are real people. You take time to invest in the well-being and lives of your team both on a professional and personal level, so that no one feels as though they are being overlooked and isolated as a result of being physically separate from each other.
- Notice is the way you take time to communicate with your team about small things. You can do this via confirmation receipts on emails or updates, asking follow up questions, or even telling the team about how one individual did exemplary work. The goal is to remind the people that their working is noticed and appreciated.
The GRIN method is a great way to help your team transition into a remote work environment or for you when you start leading a new remote team. It’s important to remember that just because you are not physically there doesn’t mean that you aren’t seen as a leader.