We looked previously at how a distance leader can establish trust as a core aspect of encouraging excellent followership. We now turn to the importance of clarity.
Throughout Embracing Followership, the thread of communication is an essential component of the leader-follower dynamic. Certainly if that dynamic is to be maintained across a geographic distance, the investment in communication becomes all the more critical, and the leader must be intentional to address the particular challenges to be found within distance communication.
When two people aren’t face-to-face (and regularly so), there are critical aspects of communication that become lost. Body language doesn’t exist in email, texts, or voice calls. Digital emoticons or the variety of faces formed from punctuation marks and parentheses [ 🙂 😉 =< 🙂 ] don’t accurately convey feelings or tone; a smile can have an astonishing range of meaning. And even video chat doesn’t convey the same presence or engagement as a co-located colloquy.
It is hard work to ensure clarity across distance communication…but it must be done. A mutual commitment to checking for understanding, without being made to feel illiterate or unintuitive, must be a part of the dialogue dynamic. There is simply too much chance that something will be misread, some tone will be misapplied or imagined, some reading between the lines of our Calibri 11pt font will occur…and the desired message will be lost, distorted, or outright negated.
In my distance leadership, I make use of both email and messaging (e.g. WhatsApp, iMessage), in addition to Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime, Basecamp, and webinar platforms…and also the phone! Keeping up with which of my subordinates prefers which channel is itself an important leadership task in order to ensure that communication occurs, that messages are received and responded to; if it’s delivered in a manner that’s convenient and accessible to your hearer, you’re more likely to get engagement than if you mandate a universal system that solely suits your personal proclivities.
But consider the flow of conversation typical of email vs. messaging. In my experience, emails tend to be longer than text messages, and are often more likely to be studied, dissected, and archived (as future evidence). Responses will usually be sent when it’s convenient, perhaps with some extra thought being given and maybe even multiple drafts or revisions occurring before the reply is sent back.
Messaging tends to be much more rapid and dynamic, with responses coming whether or not the original message was received at a convenient moment to afford some consideration. Terse statements, slang, abbreviations, acknowledgements (isn’t it comforting to at least get a thumbs up or a Like when you put a thought out there?)…these all come into play in a much more common and significant way than with email communication.
Under these realities, being selective about what gets communicated and how is an essential task of leadership. Coupled with knowing your subordinates’ preferences for communication, and how they are likely to respond or interpret something, should lead to a careful selection of how and when to make contact.
How > Knowing that many people feel burdened by an overflowing email inbox, I will often elect to send a question that is quick or a comment that is simple via a messaging app. This action promotes clarity by ensuring that important emails don’t get lost amidst a pile of less-substantive communication; giving people time and space to focus on especially important matters by addressing less significant content via a brief messaging exchange may help you to get more immediate responses while also getting better quality replies to your other, more intricate, email messages because your respondents may feel less pressure to quickly address their inbox load and can instead slow themselves down and budget their correspondence time to enable them to read more thoroughly and to respond more intentionally.
When > I work for a global organization—which means that navigating vastly disparate time zones is a daily reality (Meeting Planner is a great tool!). While it may feel nice to get things off of our own plates as soon as possible, it is wise to consider when your communication might be received; this will help you to set your own expectations for receiving a response, as well as to be sensitive to your recipients’ context. Are you loading them up with inquiries after their work day is over or during their weekend? Are they just stepping back into the office on their Monday morning, already overloaded with the prospect of email triage, only to have a batch of additional correspondence arrive from you? Are they about to sign off for the day or week when your significant request comes in?
Beyond giving priority to communicating to my immediate subordinates, I attempt to prioritize communicating with those that live east of me in Asia at the start of my work day, so that they get my messages during their work day and not afterward. This serves them and helps me to often get same-day replies across the time zones. Similarly, I can reserve communication to the west for later in my day, knowing that if they aren’t yet in the office, then I can give attention to someone else first.
And as harmless as a quick SMS or WhatsApp message may seem—even if you comment that you don’t need an immediate reply—sending such a message and expecting an eventual response will almost certainly place an immediate burden upon your recipient; taking a moment to consider whether it would be a good time for them can be one way of serving them. Also, as a leader, you should create an environment of freedom that encourages discernment among your subordinates about when they can (excellently) and should (with regard to boundaries) respond to a message, rather than always expecting an immediate reply. Although it may feel good to get something “off your plate,” it’s essential that you consider what it will look like when you dump something onto someone else’s plate…especially when they’ve just sat down to dinner.
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017).
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