Enhancing Excellent Followership as a Distance Leader: Part 3 (feedback)

In our previous two posts, we looked at trust and clarity as two essential aims that a distance leader can undertake in order to encourage excellent followership among remote followers. For our final exploration in this series, we consider feedback.

Valuable feedback comes in a variety of forms, and ranges across a spectrum of affirmation and criticism—both of which are hopefully constructive. In a face-to-face environment, opportunities are readily available for quick words of praise in a meeting, in a hallway, or stopping by someone’s desk. But a distance leadership-followership scenario doesn’t provide such ready access…and yet intentionally giving & receiving feedback are at least as important (if not more so) within a remote dynamic.

Not only are the casual connects harder to come by, but the witnesses to the affirmation are more limited as well. While praise and thanks are important for any individual to receive from time-to-time, they can also serve an important group function.

There can be a general morale boost related to the fact that apparently the leader does see the contributions of others and values them. There can be motivation that those that were not praised in this moment may work a bit more intentionally in order to hopefully receive future praise. In regards to group efforts, thanking and affirming each participant can help validate the productivity of the organization’s ethos of team, encouraging future collaboration and interdependence—rather than individual pursuits of acknowledgement.

Unfortunately, the flip side of positive feedback is that others may develop a sense of jealousy or injustice; in a future post, we’ll explore how to give feedback to prevent it from doing more harm than good.

Interestingly, a distance/remote/virtual scenario may provide some relief when it comes to having to deliver negative feedback, critique, and criticism. Not having to face someone that you need to correct, or not seeing someone that you’ve recently reproved, can feel like the whole task is easier for a leader to undertake. But this perspective is actually an abuse of the distance reality and brings a dangerous dehumanizing element into an area of communication that is both significant and sensitive.

On the plus side, a remote relationship may provide the time and space for careful consideration before the criticism is delivered. Whether it will be via email or video chat, there may be opportunity to craft what needs to be said and to deliver it at an intentionally chosen time, rather than having to respond in a face-to-face moment without preparation or contemplation.

On the other hand, being at a distance can also make it easier to let things slide, to permit an errant idea or inappropriate comment to get buried in the inbox, hopefully to fade away without truly being confronted. (This is a frequent temptation for my own personality type.)

So, what specifics might we can consider when it comes to delivering distance feedback:

  • Is your feedback going to be constructive? Whether affirmative or critical, is what you intend to communicate going to enhance followership? If not, take advantage of the distance dynamic to keep working on your comment before you deliver it.
  • Are you commenting on the person, an activity, or an idea? At times, criticism can be more valuable if directed somewhat impersonally at an idea or proposal, rather than at the one who proposed it. Affirmation given to a project—rather than the participants—rarely produces a boost in morale, instead potentially depersonalizing the achievement as only something that occurred broadly at the organizational level, or worse—something that leadership is taking sole credit for. Be specific in what you’re addressing: particular words, deeds, skills, abilities, expertise, experience, character traits, or interpersonal dynamics that made a contribution (or a kerfuffle); get beyond a casual statement of “good job” or “didn’t handle this well.”
  • Who needs to hear it? An individual or team/group? Are there others who are not the immediate recipients, but who might be encouraged (or warned or trained) by bearing witness to your comments? Ensure that, if you include a wider audience, you are certain to avoid slander or disempowerment, as well as portraying any sense of favoritism or stirring up jealousy.
  • Depending on who, consider how. An informal, individual text message? A personal or group video chat? A formal email, perhaps copied to the broader department, or to your own superiors, so that they too are aware of the excellent contributors (an important facet of a leader’s role of empowering & promoting) and/or the expected standards? Be certain that such communication isn’t merely self-serving, intended primarily to promote yourself, putting your leadership engagement on display, exhibiting your toughness or your magnanimity.
  • Don’t forget the when. In the case of either affirmation or criticism, too much of a delay will lessen its relevance. When will your words be impactful, when will they be heard as intended (consider our previous examination of communication clarity)? Ensure that important words won’t get lost amidst other business. And be disciplined not too give feedback too soon; I can readily recall a number of times when praise for a conference event was given on the final day of the meetings…which seemed to discount all of the follow-up work that still remained (finances, evaluations, etc.) for some of us to undertake. Sometimes criticism can be offered too soon as well, especially if there is some sensitivity involved or if there is necessary repair to an interpersonal dynamic that needs to be undertaken first.


For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing 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).

Links to other posts on this site: Blog Post Index


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