Why Virtual Leaders Shouldn't Settle for "Okay"

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  • July 13, 2018

If you manage a remote team, you might spend a lot of time wondering how things are going.

In doing research for our book, The Long-Distance Leader, we were surprised to see how often leaders used the words, “okay” or “alright” in their written feedback about themselves and their team.These are people don’t take “good enough” for themselves. Yet they seemed to accept that when we work remotely, there are forces at play that make our work less than optimal.

Let’s be honest, sometimes “good enough” is exactly that. There are tasks that need to be done at some minimal quality and as long as they’re done on time and to standard, life is good. Nobody’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize for their monthly status update. But other times, “okay” is a warning of trouble ahead.

The bar for “okay” continues to get lower

When we agree to goals for ourselves and our team members, we start with good intentions. We have our bare minimum standards, and then we have our “stretch goals.” As the work piles up, and the real world interferes with our plans, those stretch goals become a distant memory. When we finally have our coaching conversations with remote team members, they are often rushed. As long as people are on track, we tend to keep the conversations short. We don’t want to interrupt their work. When someone tells us things are “fine,” we don’t probe deeper to see what that really means.

Are they enthusiastic about their work? Or are they hanging on by their fingernails?

When we work apart from each other we often don’t pick up the subtle verbal and non-verbal cues that help us get the big picture. With everything going on around us, we often settle for meeting our minimum standards because we (and they) have so much else to do.


It’s hard to be proactive when you’re putting out fires

Coaching your team for performance is a time-consuming activity. It takes forethought and planning. But as a remote leader, you are often dealing with a lot of challenges at the same time. Often those challenges are unexpected, which forces us to change our well-intentioned plans, postponing or even canceling less urgent things like one-on-one conversations with people who seem to be doing just fine.

We hear the phrase “fighting fires” from remote leaders a lot. But it's important to acknowledge that this style of work is unsustainable. From a neurological standpoint, we are less effective when under stress. We tend to sacrifice the “best” solution, or an answer that will help eliminate the problem in the long-term, for one that will make the problem go away right now. Often this means the problem will reappear later, and it feels like we’re playing whack-a-mole. We also focus on the challenge in front of us, which is good, but then don’t see the next problem coming. We don’t have time to relax between crises. Over the long haul, this can impact performance.


If things are “fine,” they aren’t getting better

One of the most frustrating things for good leaders is the feeling of having to choose between reflection and improvement, or just continuing to get things done. 

Growth requires time and energy. We need to assess how things are going at the moment, identify areas for improvement, brainstorm solutions, experiment, and implement change. All of these require time and focus away from the core tasks being done. If things are “fine,” the costs of lost productivity and the distractions away from revenue producing activities (the “real” work) often outweigh the perceived benefit the improvements would generate. Yes, upgrading our software would eliminate the work-arounds and grunt work we’ve been doing, but that would mean making time for training and a temporary disruption to the work flow. When we’re working as hard as we can, and can barely catch our breath, it seems like more work to address the problem than keep ploughing through.


Accepting the status quo can be a sign of exhaustion or burnout

One of the most interesting parts of our research was that, while leaders say they’re getting their work done and their remote teams are productive, they feel like they are personally working harder, putting in longer hours, and flailing a bit. Some of this is the nature of servant leadership, or a manager's willingness to take on additional stress to spare their teams. It is also, over time, unsustainable.

As our teams are scattered over more time zones and geography, many leaders make up for these changes by simply working longer hours. If someone has to be on a conference call with the team in Singapore, they’ll do it. That makes sense, except it’s not like their normal workday is getting shorter or less hectic. They’re simply putting in more time and sacrificing their own personal lives, physical well-being and priorities for the good of the team. To complain is to sound “whiny.” Leaders feel we must do our best to lead by example. We just keep plugging away as the frustration and exhaustion mount. Eventually the team performance suffers and small problems become major obstacles to success.

To an extent, that’s the price of leadership. It is also the path to exhaustion, burnout, and being less effective. In short, it’s unsustainable over the long haul. We can balance our priorities and activity, but it takes conscious effort.

Effective long-distance leaders need to build time into their work lives to assess how things are going. They need to make time to have the kind of rich, in-depth conversations within their teams that help them separate accepting the status quo from settling for minimums, and keeping things running by addressing long-term problems.

Take a moment and ask yourself: are things going well, or are they just “okay”? The difference matters.

Wayne Turmel is the cofounder of the Remote Leadership Institute and the author of many books, including the Association for Talent Development's 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations. Find out more about his latest book with Kevin Eikenberry The Long-Distance Leader here

Photo by garrett parker

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