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You are in your home office and your virtual meetings are ‘back-to-back’. Running late, you log onto the next meeting with your team. As you are connecting, you quickly think about your objectives for the meeting. The project seems to have lost focus and the client is voicing concern. As the leader and the most senior person in the team, you need to reframe the objectives and impose some direction. You arrive in the room to a screen of small faces. They ignore you and continue an animated conversation. You try to speak but you are on ‘mute’. You unmute and try again and someone talks over you.

You reflect that this never happens in the office. There, when you walk into the boardroom, late again, but in your immaculately tailored suit, the team all turn to greet you. You take your place at the head of the table as someone scurries up with your double shot espresso. There is silence and you begin the meeting.

Back in the virtual meeting, you assert yourself loudly. Everyone stops and listens. You quickly run through your concerns and your solution to the problem. As you are running out of time, you ask if anyone has any questions. Silence. The meeting ends but you have an uncomfortable feeling about it. There must be a better way.

The goal of leadership without authority is to get others to willingly cooperate and engage, rather than following directives because you’re the boss. This is a more difficult task online. Effective leadership relies on higher level interpersonal skills, increased awareness of others and verbal clarity. It also demands authenticity as you are stripped of the usual artefacts of authority that come with your position.

Empathy is critical. To lead requires that you understand those whom you lead and that you show awareness of how they are feeling. The aim is to understand things as the other person feels them to be and to provide support and assistance when needed and when it is appropriate. To do this virtually, you need to observe carefully and listen attentively. It is easier to do this when you are in a room as we pick up many cues from body language and tone. It is much harder online where all you have is sea of small faces and you are trying to decode micro expressions.

Our experience in exploring this topic virtually is that we all assume we are good at reading faces but in fact there is often no clear agreement on what a particular micro expression is communicating.

It is clear that some people are not particularly good at it. The only thing you can do is to ask if you are unsure. Of course, there is another side to this. As the leader, you are being closely observed and every expression which you adopt is visible. Greater authenticity is called for, which for some is very uncomfortable. However, admitting to some of your own worries, concerns and stresses increases team cohesiveness. It allows you to set a tone of psychological safety where it is acceptable and normal to have difficulties and ask for support. The nature of the ‘virtual’ environment is such that displaying some vulnerability can actually denote strength – it demonstrates that you are comfortable enough with yourself to not have to pretend to be superhuman.
Although we increasingly work from home, professionalism is still critical. Turn up on time – or even early. ‘Back-to-back’ scheduling is absurd – what are you trying to prove, and to whom? Allow time for preparation and reflection.

Whilst the virtual world is naturally more relaxed, you would never arrive for a physical meeting in a faded sweatshirt while chomping your breakfast cereal (would you?) and on-line is no different. Presentation still matters and it helps to look like a leader. While formal dress might look ridiculous, a balance is needed.

And yes, everyone is looking at your background. Your background only needs to be neat and it’s fine if everyone is looking at your living room. We have seen some amusing attempts to replicate the artifacts of authority with displays of certificates or sports trophies, equally the use of ‘power’ Zoom backgrounds – New York, Hong Kong – can undermine your credibility rather than enforce it – what are you trying to hide? In the virtual world, authenticity is both exposed and vital – on Zoom smirking is almost invisible, and on mute nobody can hear derision.

Remember that the virtual world needs more energy and enthusiasm. Online trainers are advised that they need a minimum of 15%-20% more energy than the average of their participants. I would suggest that it is the same for any leader of a group.

Finally, adopt a chairman-like role. Start the meeting and end it. Make sure everyone gets the chance to express their views. ‘Coaching’ type questioning skills are even more effective in the virtual world. Don’t assume that you must have all the answers and hold back on the ones you do have. Encourage discussion and let the team find solutions to problems. They may be better at it than you are and they are often closer to the ‘coalface’ giving them better ideas for effective solutions. It also allows them to learn and develop. Provide context and ensure that everyone understands their role. Summarise and clarify more often than you would if you were face to face as miscommunication is more likely in the absence of body language with only a limited number of gestures.

Leading online is more challenging and demands more refined skills. Without the artefacts of authority the virtual world exposes both our authenticity and our leadership flaws. To quote the senior Partner of a Global Firm “a weak Manager face-to-face is catastrophic on-line”. The upside is the opportunity to explore two essential elements of Emotional Intelligence – Self Awareness and Self Regulation – and to become more authentic and effective Leaders within our firms.

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First Published: February 2021