Distance and proximity - a yin and yang of leadership.
Distance breaks chains of contagion, so that less is transmitted from one to the other. And at the same time, distance weakens social bonds and thus integration and identification. How can leaders shape this ambivalent situation? This is an important question - even beyond COVID-19.
Anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship knows the importance of personal, physical meetings. Because the less often partners see each other, the weaker their mutual (social, emotional) integration becomes. Or to put it another way: distance should be interrupted by closeness. Because in times of closeness, everything that maintains and strengthens the relationship is refreshed and nourished. What is to remain at a distance must be able to take root in the bed of shared experiences. And these need to be constantly renewed.
Distance needs closeness.
Many leaders are rightly enthusiastic about how quickly companies make the leap from proximity to distance (e.g., into the digital world), how reliably most processes run and how easily employees move in the new world. But such positive experiences are merely the fruits of earlier investments in trust, belonging and appreciation. They strengthen the social bond between employees and with the company. They make corporate culture, management understanding and values tangible. But how long does this effect last?
It is quite obvious that trust, affiliation and appreciation have to be renewed regularly. This is now being experienced by all those leaders to whom these three components mean nothing or who have so far refrained from consciously and consistently investing in them. They experience the distance as a loss of control, as an attack on their role and see their self-image or relevance wavering. And the employees? They don’t even want to come back to their original place of work. You can hardly blame them. It’s not just performance and commitment that suffer, but also integration and identification. And that’s dangerous: distance can be a boomerang and weaken relationships with and between employees - fundamentally calling into question the raison d’être (meaning).
At a distance, a relationship is reduced to its essence: the individual meaning. It is in this that the three components (trust, affiliation, appreciation) unfold. Meaning makes the difference, strengthens commitment - and allows distance.
Many leaders are currently experiencing that relationships with and among employees are thinning out and that they themselves are not (always) up to the active cultivation of relationships. Why is that? Often, corporate departments (such as internal corporate communications, human resources, or members of the executive team) have shaped these relationships. Consequently, they themselves have tended to focus on planning, coordinating, or managing work processes. While on the one hand the digitalization push is now automating, simplifying or even eliminating these tasks, on the other hand all employees are moving away from each other (i.e. also to corporate communications, HR, management), it becomes obvious that these relationships are losing importance. Employees take care of themselves, classic superior roles disappear. This is one more reason why some leaders fear that they will become superfluous.
Employees take care of themselves. Classic supervisor roles are disappearing.
This makes it all the more necessary for leaders to expand their role and reinforce the importance of relationships. This is not a laudable end in itself, but drives a development spiral that is important for companies: Once employees give positive meaning to the relationship with the company, the more openly they cooperate, integrate others and other. They get involved, combine strengths to get ahead. They seek and maintain a direct exchange, which enables them to learn from mistakes and also from each other. As a result, they are able to help each other and encourage each other to move forward despite setbacks, to dare to take further steps. With the following results:
- Employees understand their contribution, become more independent, more courageous.
- The organization learns to help itself, becomes more agile and resilient.
- The company can achieve more, becomes more significant and better known.
So the impact of significant relationships should not be underestimated. They help organizations proactively shape attractive opportunities, and they equip employees and themselves to work and lead at a distance.
Adapt your own leadership role.
Want to take on this task? Use these three tips:
- Enforce a physical meeting. Without an agenda, because the meeting is the goal. Unless you are allowed to occupy an office together, walk to a quiet place with your coffees-to-go. Stay deliberately informal, ask about states of mind, encourage sharing about them. You can also form tandems to share their experiences and draft suggestions, ideas.
- When you try hybrid models (i.e., when some employees work on-site and others work elsewhere), uneven social cohesion results (see, among others, McKinsey Quarterly, July 7, 2020. Therefore, intentionally plan informal (individual or joint) conversations.
- Use electronic collaboration tools. Use Padlets or Mentimeter to engage employees in digital meetings, launch co-creative processes, and share results.
Common mistakes in managing distance and closeness:
- Comfort - Leaders fall back on simple arguments: “They’re all grown up enough, they should take care of themselves, I’m not their entertainer, …”
- Restlessness - Leaders are constantly online. Despite the joy of the new efficiency, the joy of reducing workloads outweighs the joy of (creative) cooperation.
- A protective attitude - Leaders avoid direct questions. Online interactions demand more structure and clarity from all participants. Without direct questions, uncertainty arises about mutual understanding or responsibilities (see, among others, McKinsey Quarterly, July 2, 2020; article including videos and podcasts).