Trust and Effective Empowerment in Virtual Leadership

By Giuseppe Cozzo

Can be this the end of the micromanagement?

When I wrote the article "Distant but United" we were in an absolute emergency phase and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. In that article, I emphasised the importance of an empathetic approach for leaders called on to manage teams whose members are physically distant from each other. Empathetic management of collaborators could facilitate the aggregation, cohesiveness and continuity of work among team members who, even if distant, could feel together. For some time now, however, the emergency phase seems to have (thankfully) ended, to make room for a new phase of consolidation where some behaviours seem to have settled down, becoming part of a new routine.

The remote work, and in general organisational models with "agile" and flat structures, where managers are called to remotely manage teams with different cultures and specifications, are very frequent in multinational and international companies. To exercise effective and yet remote leadership therefore becomes essential to ensure the survival and success of organisations. Here, the effective use of delegation is an increasingly important part of being a good manager.

The Ideal Virtual Leader

In a study from 2014, by Mercuri Urval and Ingolstadt Business Schools, 520 C-level respondents from 18 countries, described the ideal "Virtual Leader" as a proactive communicator who can establish contact easily, acts and independently decides, shows a high level of flexibility while s/he delegates and plans ahead effectively.

Problems to exercise an effective delegation

It is difficult, however, for a manager to be able to exercise delegation effectively if s/he has no self-confidence and doesn’t trust him/herself and others.

From this point of view, the data that emerges from a study carried out by Sharon K. Parker, Caroline Knight and Anita Keller started in 2020 and published by Harvard Business Review are not positive. The study involved more than 1200 people working remotely in 24 different countries in different sectors, from manufacturing and science to real estate, education and financial services. This analysis makes it clear the mistrust the respondents have on the practice of remote work, its effectiveness and productivity (38% of the managers agree that remote workers usually perform worse than those working in the office; 22% are unsure) and on the ability of their employees to work remotely.

Nearly a third (29%) of the respondents wondered whether their employees had the knowledge they needed to do their job, and more than a quarter (27%) agreed that employees lacked essential skills.

Here is the figure that, in my opinion, is the most relevant:

  • as many as 40% of the 215 supervisors and managers covered by the study expressed low confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely
  • and 23% of the managers said they could not agree with the statement "I’m confident that I can manage a team of remote workers", whereas another 16% said they were not sure they had this capacity.

A vicious circle and the “always-on” mode

In such a situation, a vicious circle is often created when such distrust of one's own and the others’ abilities generates in the manager's behaviours oriented to hyper-control and micromanagement. You can understand that these behaviours are exactly the opposite of effective leadership and delegation and that they often have negative effects on the motivation of the employees generating frustration and a widespread sense of inadequacy.

In addition to this, the same study has revealed the tendency of the managers interviewed to expect that their employees are always available, in a kind of perennial “always on” mode, ending to upset their work-life balance. This trend has also been enhanced by the often improvised and schizophrenic use of new technologies, through which we are all perpetually connected. It is often forgotten that being continuously connected does not mean performing more effectively one's work.

It is well understood that in a macroeconomic scenario, like the one we are experiencing, it seems that companies declare that they are sensitive to virtual leadership issues. Already in 2014, they considered virtual leadership as an asset capable of developing a competitive advantage. On the other hand, however, they do not seem to have had quite the strength and the ability in these years to fully invest in the diffusion of a corporate culture aimed at fostering different models of leadership and at training their own managers, for example, in the effective use of delegation.  

A new culture is required: the importance of the right example, of the trust and of the right tools

The first way to facilitate this fertilisation is as always to provide an example from above. If today's managers have grown and have been trained with a management model aimed at hyper-control or micromanagement and if they associate these behaviours with being managers, how can they be able to manage effectively by delegating tasks and responsibilities and encouraging the empowerment of their resources? How will these people be able to train tomorrow's managers?

Probably part of this paradigm inherent in the traditionally meant role of the manager has gone and will quickly change. Companies should reflect on these and other aspects by taking care to effectively promote the expansion of a leadership model based on merit, transparency, results, continuing training and tools.

In the case of remote delegation as a lever for effective leadership, it is not enough to tell your managers that they must trust their collaborators to make sure that they actually trust them. It may be more useful to provide them with tools and techniques to assess what can be delegated to whom and how long, who can be empowered and who cannot. And all this comes from knowing one's own people, from communicating with them and listening to them in a constant but not toxic way, from knowing how to evaluate them and from exercising control in a careful and scrupulous way but without this becoming the main part of a manager’s job.