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What goes around, comes back around? Virtual leadership and micromanaging

By Madison Hanscom, PhD

When it comes to leading a virtual or flex workforce, trust is everything. Managers are struggling with new ways of leading — including the delicate balance between giving enough direction without micromanaging. When leaders are accustomed to seeing employees in an office every day, it can be difficult adjusting to an arrangement that has less observational opportunities. In a flexible work model, it is not as easy to closely monitor due to physical proximity, but some leaders adjust well by embracing the opportunity to give people more autonomy. Other leaders do not adjust as well and try to closely monitor employees in ways that can quickly feel like an invasion of privacy (i.e., watching through webcams to ensure employees are working).

A team of researchers recruited 1135 participants to take place in a study that collected information on their work experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic over time. The data collection began in April of 2020 and will continue to run for 6 months. Initial findings were recently shared by the researchers (1). Among many results, the researchers uncovered that “managers who reported lower job autonomy in their own work, close monitoring from their own boss, and a high degree of mistrust from their own boss had more negative beliefs about remote working, and greater mistrust of their workers” (2). So, it is a vicious cycle! This makes sense, because a great deal of our attitudes and behaviors at work are dictated by social norms and observational learning. Thus, this type of management becomes institutionalized. Yet this begs the question — is it wise to build this climate of mistrust through heavy monitoring? Anyone in this situation can answer this question: no.

What can be done to break the cycle?

Instead of trying to manage employees by closely following how they are doing their jobs (i.e., process focus), leaders should focus on monitoring the results or outcomes employees are producing. This can include an emphasis on deliverables or accomplishments. The idea is that leaders do not need to see the process it takes a worker (after they are adequately trained) to produce the deliverable each time — all that matters is the deliverable. This way they do not have to micromanage along the way and trust the worker to get the job done well. This gives people more flexibility and control over how their work is done. As long as they are reaching their performance goals, does it really matter if they worked 38 vs. 40 hours?

This is not to say monitoring the workforce is not important. In fact, an approach that involves frequent interaction with employees builds trust and transparency, which are crucial for succeeding in a virtual environment (3). Providing autonomy is not the same thing as no contact or communication. Thus, it is beneficial to check in often, but be careful not to cross the line and micromanage. Instead, leaders should act as a resource and a support system.

Once employees are trained and understand the process, it will require trust that they will navigate the process accordingly. A good way to ensure quality will be great training, a psychologically safe space where employees can ask questions and get answers fast, and a fair system to review performance. Rely on objective, documented records of employee behavior as much as possible. These are substantial indicators of performance — like work completed, quality of deliverables, sales volume, orders taken, calls successfully completed, and so on. Another helpful tip is to avoid ever using subjective memory of an employee’s performance. Research shows this usually is not accurate (4). Instead use well-defined, objective performance goals that are mutually understood to measure progress and performance. Employees must clearly understand what is expected of them. They should have clear job descriptions and performance standards to guide their behavior.

At Propulo Consulting, we partner with you to improve the world of work. Our team has the expertise to help your business plan and implement a sensible Flex Work strategy without pain. We work with you to ensure your company culture and processes develop accordingly during or after a Flex Work transition so you can continue to deliver results for your organization and customers. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into flexible work.

Referenced articles:
(1) Centre for Transformative Work Design survey: https://360e1fd0-be66-41c9-867d
(3) Breuer, C., Hüffmeier, J., & Hertel, G. (2016). Does trust matter more in virtual teams? A meta-analysis of trust and team effectiveness considering virtuality and documentation as moderators. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(8), 1151.
(4) DeNisi, A. S., & Peters, L. H. (1996). Organization of information in memory and the performance appraisal process: Evidence from the field. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(6), 717–737.


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