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The secret to leading a remote team effectively comes down to communication and cultivating caring relationships. Etan Smallman reports
While a prized window seat, flexible working hours and access to a fancy coffee machine may all make us feel more positive about work, they pale in comparison to the importance of having a good boss(1).
According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace(2), about half of US workers have left a job to get away from a terrible boss. And only 21% of workers think their performance “is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work”. In contrast, other studies(3) show that a boss who is able to engage his team can expect higher productivity levels and reduced costs from staff turnover.
If you manage a team, you may be asking yourself how you can be this second kind of leader – especially if you’re someone managing a team of remote workers. Luckily, best-selling author and self-styled ‘Doctor of Happiness’ Andy Cope(4) is on hand to help. He’s spent more than a decade studying the impact positivity has on inspiring others and argues that a leader’s job is not to inspire people, but to be inspired.
Following the release of his latest book, Leadership: the Multiplier Effect(5), he explores how this applies to the new flexible world of work.
What are the key ingredients of a great leader, and how much has thinking around this changed in recent years?
Andy Cope: We used to think a manager should constantly watch their staff, stand over them and boss them around – and that, as long as you’re there to command them, they’ll do what you say. Of course, that wasn’t necessarily the case. For many people, a controlling, micromanaging boss made them more likely to down tools when the boss wasn’t looking.
Thankfully, the working world has changed a lot recently. While there are still bad leaders wielding their power in the wrong way, modern leadership is about getting people to go beyond their job description, but willingly.
That’s very easy to say but less easy to do. It means you need to get your staff to buy into you. You have to get them to respect and trust you.
How does inspiration come into it?
AC: Some people think that, as a leader, you’ve got to inspire everybody – but that’s not the case. My research focuses on the idea that ‘inspiration’ starts with you.
In the 1980s, a British hot cereal brand launched an advert(6) with the strapline: ‘Central Heating for Kids’. In this advert, a little boy ate a bowl of porridge and developed an orangey glow on the outside. When he walked to school with all his friends, his energy lit them up, too. That’s what I think modern leadership is like. In order to inspire energy, passion and positivity in your colleagues, you have to begin by being an inspired leader first.
The modern world is relentless, with many of us working long hours, so the question is how to maintain your mojo and your effervescence. My PhD thesis focused on ‘happiness, positivity and flourishing in the British public sector’(7) – which examined people who create an emotional uplift in those around them. I call these people the ‘two per centers’ – the two per cent of the population who are the happiest, most upbeat, and most high-energy. That’s who good leaders should be trying to emulate.
Bosses should see this as really exciting opportunity. It’s a chance to create a positive ripple effect of happiness and positivity that flows through your team, through your clients and beyond.
Best-selling author and self-styled ‘Doctor of Happiness’ Andy Cope
Isn’t this difficult when you’re managing a remote team?
AC: I ask people, “Would you clean a rental car before you return it?” Most people say they wouldn’t because it’s not theirs and they don’t really care about it. However, when you ask people about their own car, the answer is different – when it belongs to you, you take the time to keep it clean and tidy. It’s the same with our jobs. As a leader, if you want people to care about their jobs, you need to get them to feel ownership.
When it comes to remote working, the emphasis needs to be on communication and trust. American psychotherapist Dr John Gottman has spent 40 years studying positive communication(8). He recommends that we all try to be three times more positive than we are negative in the workplace. This means that for every time you’re critical of a colleague, you need to be say three positive things to balance it out.
In fact, if you want to cultivate a really high performing team, Dr Gottman suggests a ratio of six positive comments to every critical one(9).
Which key traits should managers of remote workers look to develop?
The three ‘Rs’ of modern leadership are: relationships, relationships, relationships. If your staff are remote, there’s even more of a requirement for emotional intelligence from you as the leader. You need to be able to tune into that person and understand what you’ve got to do to get the best out of them.
One size doesn’t fit all. I manage a remote team and I know there are some people who I’ve got to phone every single day to boost them up and ask them what’s gone well today. And there are others who are quite happy to only hear from me via a Skype once a month. Getting the right level of communication with the right people is critical.
How can you get the best from your remote employees?
Do your employees see themselves as employed in a job, a career or a calling? It makes a big difference to how people approach their work. If they see it as just a ‘job’, then their investment in it is low. If they see it as a ‘career’ – hopefully with a longer-term view, they feel more invested. If they see what they do as a ‘calling’, that’s when they’re fully invested in doing it.
During my PhD research, I discovered that all two percenters consider themselves to work in a role that they describe as either a career or a calling. They can see a sense of purpose in what they do. While an outsider might look at someone working in a call centre and see it as ‘just’ a job, two percenters see the value in helping customers and derive a sense of meaning from the role that’s greater than just taking home their wage.
Remote workforces rely on self-motivated individuals – because you can’t physically watch them all the time. A Gallup survey(10) on motivation in the workplace asked respondents to agree or disagree with the statement: “Someone at work cares about me” and measured their satisfaction with their role.
Being able to answer “My manager cares about me as a person” was pretty much a silver bullet of motivation across the board.
This means you need to focus on the human connection you have with your remote employees. By all means have your weekly call to check on the sales figures, but you also have to show a genuine interest in your people. A good way to get people to buy into you and your business is to care about them first.
Etan Smallman is a British journalist, whose work has been published in newspapers including The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The South China Morning Post