Leadership / Teamwork / Communication

How Leaders Can Make Remote Teams Work

A tale of two headquarters

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I was talking to James, my teenage son last evening. I’d picked him up from weightlifting with the football team. He’s rising so he doesn’t know all the boys that well. One of the boys there made a derogatory comment about another player who wasn’t there. The other player is on the basketball team and doesn’t participate in the off-season workouts.

The boy present told my son the other player just gets by on his natural ability, he doesn’t have to work at it. The clear implication was if you weren’t there working out, you were out there slacking.

This is such a typical reaction and one I’ve seen countless times. In the Army, it was always the higher or lower headquarters who “didn’t have a clue” about which end was up.

“Ah, those jokers sit up there making rules and policies and have no idea what we do down here. We’re where the rubber meets the road! Why don’t they ask us instead of putting out stupid s&^$ like this?” That’s a typical comment you might hear.

Or this: “Those idiots down there have no idea about the big picture! They need to pull their head out of the fourth-point-of-contact*! If they did, they wouldn’t ask stupid questions like this.”

In the Army, it’s common to have your higher headquarters located some distance away. This was especially true in Germany back in the day and it often happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems like the default reaction is whoever isn’t present is goofing off, screwing up, or incompetent.

In my leadership work with companies, I hear the exact same comments and sentiments. I was working with a company which had two factories less than three miles apart. “Those guys over-the-hill, man, I don’t know what they’re thinking over there.” I couldn’t help but laugh. I quickly stifled it when I saw how earnest the speaker was.

We could write a dissertation about why this happens but I’m not going to. Here are a couple of ideas of what you can do to prevent it or stop it.

Open Mindset

There’s a concept called local rationality. It’s the idea that what we do makes sense based on what we know, our immediate situation. To an outside observer, it may not make sense or even seem stupid. Part of that is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

A thought experiment I often indulge in when I see a situation which doesn’t make sense is to try and make up a story as to why it would make sense. I find this a powerful way to develop my own understanding and flex my open mindset. Other times I just say, “that’s stupid” and keep moving. I’m not helping anything then.

Leaders Communicate

In the absence of trust, people will listen to anything. I learned that in Iraq as we desperately tried to win the information war with the enemy. We didn’t do very well.

Leaders at all locations need to share the good work going on at other locations. Of course, this is a best practice wherever you work but it’s considerably more important when geography divides people. Within the same facility, people will bump into one another and share things spontaneously and casually (this includes rumor and gossip unfortunately).

That’s lost when physically separated. While the overall leader may do it, the immediate leader needs to do it as well. When the Big Cheese says it, people may take it with a grain of salt (of course, she says that, she doesn’t want to embarrass those yahoos). When the person on-site does it, they tend to have a little more credibility.

Closely related, leaders should restrain themselves from speaking negatively of other sections. Although a natural inclination, there’s nothing to be gained. On the contrary, it encourages stove-piping and can discourage collaboration.

Employees Communicate

When one of those stupid policy letters come floating down to your desk or office, pick up the phone and ask for help in understanding it. Stephen Covey’s fifth habit was to seek first to understand, then to be understood. I cannot tell you how many times I got my nose out of joint until I learned the reasoning behind the issue. So many times, I sat back and thought, “oh, okay, I never thought of it that way” or “Ah, I didn’t know that.”

You don’t know what you don’t know. The rush to judgement is grounded in ego and perceived omniscience. This happens on both sides. Many times, I’d pick up that phone and ask the question. Then I’d explain the impact on my level and they would say, “Oh, I didn’t realize” and they’d fix it.

Share Drafts

Instead of sharing the final product, send out a draft and ask for feedback. Sometimes these requests will be ignored and then the audience will squawk when the final product comes out. Deal with that as it happens but head it off by explaining the why of your request. Highlight they’re going to have to live with what comes out; this is their opportunity to shape it in their favor.

Warning: you have to act on the feedback. You don’t have to incorporate it, but you have to address it. If you ask for it and ignore it, you’re setting up for ill will and maybe a rebellion. Sometimes you may not be able to enact the feedback. When that happens, send out a note acknowledging the objection and why it couldn’t be accommodated.

Being spread out makes the routine just a little bit harder. It’s harder to build trust, cohesion, and cooperation. But it can be done. Leaders show the way with their personal example, in words and deeds.

These ideas apply to teleworking and remote teams as well as businesses with multiple locations. In the pandemic environment of the past year, there have been great challenges for teams not physically co-located. When the team is virtual, there is another layer of complexity which requires additional actions.

James and I had a nice talk about the situation as I tried to share some wisdom. After all, that’s what dads do, right? I swear, I think he may have even been listening . . .

* fourth-point-of-contact — in Airborne school where the Army teaches you how to jump out of perfectly good airplanes, you’re taught the parachute landing fall (PLF). Feet, calf muscles, thighs, buttocks, and under your arms (because they’re extended overhead holding onto the chute).

Retired Army officer with two tours in Baghdad, taught at West Point, married with four kids. Proud West Virginian and West Point grad. Amazon pubs.

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