How Virtual Leaders Can Help Others Thrive in a World of Complexity

Consider this: Today’s companies set themselves up to six times more performance metrics than they did 50 years ago. Top leaders committed to just four to seven performance imperatives; today, CEOs commit to somewhere between 25 and 40.

According to Yves Morieux of the Boston Consulting Group, author of a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You,” the number of procedures, layers, interface structures, and coordination bodies have ballooned to 50-350% over the past 15 years, in a recent study of 100 U.S. and European companies.

So with all of this analysis, tracking, reporting and coordinating, how do leaders ever focus on the “real work” that needs to get done, including the essential work of guiding their teams? One way is to find ways to enable their employees to become more self-sufficient and resilient. Virtual managers have a different set of challenges, given that they can’t be present (either in person or even virtually) every time a staff member has a question or problem.

In this Communiqué, I offer practical advice for virtual leaders who want to create more self-sufficient employees in a world of increasing complexity, building on some of Morieux’s ideas.

  • Diagnose the real problem and true need. When you suspect someone is struggling with issues or problems that they feel they can’t handle on their own, you need to first determine what the person needs, which is often hard to do without seeing expressions. Let them speak, ask a few open-ended questions if it helps to provide a more comprehensive picture of the situation, and then listen deeply. As you discuss a situation, whether it’s during a 1:1 phone check-in or on a team call, encourage the person to articulate what help you can give, if more than a sounding board. If the problem is especially complex and complicated, encourage your employee to break down the issue into a few manageable chunks.
  • Resist the temptation to have all the answers. Instead, ask questions to encourage critical thinking skills and self-reflection. So instead of: “Why don’t you try this?” ask: “What approach do you think might work best? What do you see as the biggest upsides and downsides to that approach?” Carefully ask probing questions for clarification when needed, such as: “Who else might be affected and how?” By giving people confidence that they can think through how best to solve a complex problem themselves, you’ll increase self-reliance and reduce dependency far more quickly.
  • Give everyone a chance to understand each other’s work. This goes beyond job titles, mission statements, or functional metrics. People need to understand each other’s responsibilities, challenges, constraints, resources, performance goals, and a host of other factors. Though this is hard to do when people are not in a position to observe their colleagues, there are ways you can help cultivate this shared understanding. Examples: Pair up people, starting with those who know each other the least, and ask them to interview each other and provide a brief report at the next team meeting. Give people a chance to “shadow” each other in their everyday work, whether on a call, during a web meeting, or by getting a glimpse of the organizational dynamics through emails or by participating in a web portal or chat forum of some kind. Also consider assigning people turns at upcoming meetings to relay a “day in the life” of their role or function, with opportunities for Q&A.
  • Leverage the boundary-spanners among your team. Some people are more adept at forging relationships across boundaries, either due to their positions, existing relationships, communications style, personality, the value they place on collaboration, or a host of other factors. Enlist these team members to act as integrators, either formally or informally, to foster cooperation and open communications across your team. Brainstorm ways they can play this role, and be prepared to give them more responsibilities, along with associated recognition and rewards. Ask these integrators for ideas about how processes and activities can be tweaked or relaxed to help make the team more efficient and effective.
  • Expand and shift power across your team.  Putting organizational structure aside, focus instead on what needs to get done, who’s in the best position to get it done, and who and what they need to succeed. Just because someone’s in a remote office or is new to the team doesn’t mean they should not be given the power to make a significant contribution. Agree on goals, set realistic expectations, provide support when needed, and then-get out of the way. Ultimately, your goal is to make all team members more self-sufficient. Toward that end, create operating principles as a team as to how, when and where decisions will be made, with an eye toward pushing decisions down to the lowest possible level. Be clear as to which decisions you need to make, versus those for which you will provide input or final approval.
  • Increase the need for reciprocity. Make it compelling for people from different groups to cooperate with each other. Sometimes this means removing resources rather than adding them, so people will find ways to work together, given the resources that remain. For example, rather than agreeing to hold several face-to-face meetings over the next six months, agree to sponsor one meeting that several team members help plan and run. Or: Ask team members to make a unified proposal as to how the organization’s available budget and resources may be spent in supporting shared goals, which calls for a great deal of learning, cajoling and cooperating among them.
  • Reward risk-taking.  Create an environment where people are encouraged to take chances and make bold decisions, within reason. Set parameters for your team as to what kind of risks they can take autonomously, and when they need to pass the idea by you first. For example, it might be fine for one of your team leaders to call together a group of worldwide stakeholders virtually to discuss an important issue, but they need your support if they want to call 25 people together in one location for three days.
  • Create a real virtual open-door policy.  Open a “virtual clinic” where anyone can call in to discuss issues, brainstorm solutions, seek guidance, ask questions, or otherwise get support. Set aside the same day/time every week, augmenting regular team calls. Encourage people to nominate topics in advance to stimulate participation and help people prepare to do their best thinking during your open clinic. Remind people of the open clinic during your team calls, and keep the time open even if participation wanes. (If no one joins, you can use the time to get work done.)

Successful virtual leaders need to find ways to enable team members to operate self-sufficiently in an increasingly complex environment. As today’s leaders are pressured to meet an overwhelming number of performance metrics, they have less time to devote to helping team members solve problems and overcome challenges. By helping their people collaborate more successfully with others, while developing the competence and confidence to operate autonomously, virtual leaders can free up themselves, and their team members, to focus on the work that matters most.


Related Communiques: Why Virtual Leaders Need to Hold Back, Cultivating Trust from Afar in Tough Times, Create and Address Early Signs of Virtual Teams Dysfunction

Harvard Business Review – online excerpt – Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You

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