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Increasingly, organizations are making use of information technology to enable employees to work at a distance from their managers, their work groups, and/or their offices. Implementation comes in a variety of configurations—virtual teams, flextime, telecommuting, and other remote working arrangements—and, despite the great hopes for improved employee satisfaction and productivity, many of these arrangements are not considered to be successful by either the manager and/or the employee. One explanation for the mixed results may be the fact that little is known about how remote working relationships affect human dynamics. To date, there has been minimal investigation into the nature of working in an environment in which the leader and follower are separated by physical distance and the majority of one’s interaction with a manager and/or coworkers is conducted through technology. Much of the existing knowledge about remote leadership comes from anecdotal sources or from research done with virtual teams. Little is known about the effect of the remote context on the relationship between a leader and the individual follower. With the number of organizations using remote working arrangements estimated to be in the range of 50% and increasing every year, most individuals will eventually be required either to manage or to be managed in some variation of a remote environment. It is important that they understand the complexities that influence their effectiveness in this context. This research-paper explains the range of factors unique to the remote environment, discusses the challenges these factors present and notes the significant gaps in understanding this phenomenon. It discusses the importance of trust and of how behaviors inherent in transformational leadership style build trust, increasing the effectiveness of leadership, even at a distance. The research-paper concludes with some suggestions based on both scholarly and practitioner thought on how to effectively implement some of the transformational leadership behaviors in a remote relationship, as well as a list of suggestions for further reading.
Traditional working arrangements in which the leader and his or her direct reports are located physically in the same place are called “proximal.” Working arrangements in which the leader and his or her direct reports are separated by distance are referred to using several different labels; for example, remote leadership, virtual leadership, and e-leadership have all been used in practitioner and scholarly writing. While they all mean approximately the same thing, there are slight nuances and ambiguities that require clarification when conducting research in this area. For example, virtual leadership could include the concept of emergent leadership and/or leadership substitutes, as well as leadership via electronic means. E-leadership has been defined as referring to situations in which the leader-member relationship as well as the collection and dissemination of
information required to support organizational work takes place via information technology. In this research-paper, the term remote leadership is used to connote leader-member relationships in which members are at a physical distance from their leaders; specifically not collocated in the same building, causing face-to-face interaction to be reduced. In this definition, the form of interaction with the leader, generally dictated by the physical collocation arrangement, defines the condition. There are varying degrees of remote leadership, depending on the amount of face-to-face contact that occurs. Some workers have never met their leader face-to-face, while others may see their leader occasionally such as once per week or less. Despite this continuum, in this research-paper, remote leadership will be used to refer to all relationships in which the majority of interaction between the member and the leader is conducted by means of technology rather than face-to-face.
The theoretical development of a model of leadership in which the leader and the follower do not interact on a face-to-face basis is in its preliminary stages (Schiller & Mandviwalla, 2007). The existing research and theory in the field of organizational behavior is based on a proximal model in which individuals interact with their leaders and group members on a face-to-face basis and aspects of this traditional context have been researched extensively. Studies have consistently demonstrated the importance of leadership to group and individual outcomes in a proximal arrangement. However, there is little empirical data to suggest that the findings of research conducted in a proximal leadership situation are applicable to the remote model. To date, there is not even a consensus that the two environments are different enough to require differing models of leadership. By examining applicable pieces of disparate theories, this research-paper attempts to integrate what is known about the remote context with a theory of effective leadership based on a proximal model.
The Remote Context
It has been observed that it is impossible to understand behavior in organizations without an explicit consideration of the organizational context and this has been largely overlooked in organizational behavior research (Porter & McLaughlin, 2006). Indeed, three major models of leadership—path-goal theory, contingency theory of leadership, and the leadership substitutes model—give consideration to context, either as a moderating influence as in path goal or as a pivotal factor as in contingency theory. However, the effect of contextual factors specifically on the leader-member relationship has gone relatively unexplored in both the proximal and remote settings. Previous generations of experience in proximal settings contribute to the perception of this context as natural and familiar, and hence, it is generally unexamined. Remote work settings, however, are unfamiliar, unnatural environments in which to develop and conduct a relationship. The remote work environment has been characterized as one of isolation, exclusion, increased flexibility, and perceptions of autonomy. Despite the fact that, for the most part, differences between the remote and proximal contexts have been neither inventoried nor explored empirically, consideration of the remote environment suggests several factors that might define the context within which remote leader-member relationships are conducted and which may influence leader and member behaviors.
Remote working arrangements are generally characterized by physical distance between the individual and/or group members or leaders. Physical proximity is important to relationships; for example, it has been shown to enhance attraction through increased accessibility and familiarity (Moon, 1999). Also, proximity increases the likelihood of future interaction, which makes people more responsive to individuals who are nearer geographically (Latane, Liu, Nowak, Bonavento, & Zheng, 1995).
Most scholarly work involving distance has focused specifically on its impact on leadership effectiveness, although much of the writing is based on conjecture rather than research. Several authors have argued that physical distance between a leader and member has negative effects on both the relationship and the outcomes, in terms of member performance and satisfaction (Napier & Ferris, 1993). Other researchers have gone so far as to observe that distance renders leadership impossible (Howell & Hall-Merenda, 1999). In addition to these generalized opinions, some specific effects of remote working arrangements have been identified. For example, when members can interact with the leader in person, they can assess the leader’s actions and performance directly, rather than relying on potentially flawed attributions (Antonakis & Atwater, 2002). As well, members more strongly identify with a leader they can see (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002). Identification with a leader increases the degree of influence the leader can exert. Finally, physical distance may make it difficult for a leader to monitor and rate follower performance, forcing them to rely on single indicators (e.g., objective results) or erroneous cues, without the benefit of context.
Reduced Face-to-Face Interaction
Generally, reduced face-to-face interaction is the result when the leader and the member are physically distant. When face-to-face interaction is minimal, most communication is conducted using some form of media. Throughout human history, significant personal relationships have been based on some amount of face-to-face interaction. It is yet unknown whether relationships without this face-to-face component can be effective or how they can be developed and sustained. Findings on the effect of this substitution of technologically mediated communication for face-to-face communication have been mixed. Preliminary studies with groups suggest that some measure of face-to-face contact is associated with superior virtual team performance, but there is no consensus on when or for what duration that face-to-face contact is required. Is it better for groups to meet in person at their formation or later at critical points in their tasks? There is no conclusive evidence to answer this question. The leader-member relationship is different from relationships among group members in ways that affect the relationship itself. For example, in a leader-member relationship, power is usually unequal. This can add to inaccurate interpretations of communication on both parts; inaccurate interpretations, as explained later, are more apt to result in situations devoid of nonverbal cues. Therefore, it may be that face-to-face contact is even more important in a remote leader-member relationship than it is in virtual team relationships.
In technologically mediated communication, the quality of the communication is different than in face-to-face communication. Some studies suggest that the medium used to communicate does not impact communication quality. Specifically, according to Walther’s (1996) social information processing theory, computer-mediated communication transmits as much social information as face-to-face communication, the only difference being a slower rate of transfer. In fact, Walther found that social discussion, depth, and intimacy were greater in virtual groups than in face-to-face groups, even for groups with geographically dispersed and culturally diverse partners who had never met face-to-face. However, these results should be interpreted cautiously, since individuals have a tendency to resort to overattributions on minimal social cues in virtual groups, and as well, this research dealt with groups rather than the specific remote leadership relationship.
There is a consensus, despite Walther’s (1996) findings, that e-mail and computer conferencing are often perceived as less “warm” than face-to-face communication, and some research suggests that e-mail messages contain higher levels of negativity than other forms of communication do (Berry, 2006; Kurtzberg, Naquin, & Belkin, 2005). This is important because better communication correlates with higher levels of trust and increased team performance (Jarvenpaa, Knoll, & Leidner, 1998; Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998; Ross, 2006). One obvious drawback to technologically mediated communication is the loss of nonverbal cues that are available in face-to-face communication. It has been estimated that these cues convey as much as two thirds of the content of a message. For example, the telephone is capable of transmitting only about 37% of the sound frequency emitted by the human voice, making it difficult to detect nuances and differentiate among emotions (Workman, Kahnweiler, & Bommer, 2003). This loss of in-formation can impact both leader and member performance and satisfaction, through, for example, misinterpretation of facts, greater role ambiguity, lack of trust, cue substitution, inaccurate perceptions of self and others, lowered leader influence, and underdeveloped group cohesiveness. Studies suggest that this decrease in nonverbal cues may have various other negative effects: for example, teams in a remote environment may take longer to make decisions (Hollings-head, McGrath, & O’Connor, 1993) and there may be reduced levels of interpersonal relations between individuals (Weisband & Atwater, 1999). Furthermore, nonverbal cues act as devices to regulate interaction. Gestures such as head nods, quizzical looks, and eye contact provide direction to the course of the communication, as well as feedback as to whether the message was understood, or requires further explanation or repetition, reducing ambiguity and error (Straus & McGrath, 1994). In the absence of nonverbal cues, conversational flow may become difficult and communication clarity may be negatively affected. Finally, it is more difficult for leaders to be charismatic when there are no nonverbal cues on which to rely; charisma is not solely a function of textual content but rather is projected through voice, body language, and other nonverbal cues.
In remote communication, social context cues are also absent. Social context reflects how the people around someone relate to that person and how they interpret that person’s actions or words. Social context influences how a person is viewed. In face-to-face communication, social context cues provide information about leader legitimacy, expertise, and status. For example, if everyone grows silent immediately when a leader speaks, this conveys a very different message than if everyone keeps talking. An absence of social context has been found to lead to the use of more negative tone, more assertive and hostile language, and an increased sense of depersonalization, which hinders the development of relationships and, ultimately, trust (Kayworth & Leidner, 2002). As well, leader influence may be reduced because it is more difficult for a leader to convey expert or referent power in the absence of these social context cues.
In contrast, there is some preliminary evidence that loss of nonverbal and social context cues may be beneficial in certain ways. Virtual communication may eliminate bias toward others because individuals tend to be substantially influenced by source cues unrelated to content, such as physical attractiveness, age, ethnicity, or speaking style. In the remote environment, these elements are not accessible. Further, without nonverbal information to process, there is less chance of cognitive overload, and it is easier to evaluate others’ contributions accurately (Weisband & Atwater, 1999). Again, these findings refer to members of virtual groups rather than the participants in a specific leader-member relationship.
Another potential consequence of reduced face-to-face contact is the reduction in the amount of communication between a member and a leader and among group members (Straus, 1997). Communication frequency itself is important in a remote environment; merely communicating more improves working relationships and job satisfaction among team members (Hart & McLeod, 2002). It has been suggested that a higher frequency of communication by the leader in the remote environment may increase members’ perceptions of trust (Staples, 2001). The decrease in communication frequency that characterizes many remote relationships may be partially accounted for by the difficulty in engaging in serendipitous communication when face-to-face interaction is limited. Serendipitous communications refers to chance encounters that provide an opportunity for casual information sharing of both a task-related and a social nature. In a remote environment, chance encounters do not occur and many members would understandably be reluctant to e-mail or telephone their leaders for a lengthy “around the watercooler” chat. In the remote environment, most of the contact is task related, with little social content. This is unfortunate because social communication is important in all relationships and is particularly difficult to enact spontaneously in remote working arrangements. Previous research suggests that virtual teams in which members send more social communication achieve higher trust and better social and emotional relationships (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1998). Length of social interaction is also important and in the remote environment, length may be constrained by the technology itself. For example, there is evidence suggesting that when social interaction does occur using computer mediated technology, it is often limited in length due to the physical effort involved with typing what are perceived as nonessential words (Straus, 1997).
Media Selection and Use
Media has been characterized as existing along a continuum of “richness” which refers to its capacity for rapid feedback, language variety, personalization, and multiple cues (Daft & Lengel, 1984). The continuum ranges from email to face-to-face meetings, with e-mail being the lowest in social presence and face-to-face meetings being the highest. In previous studies, social presence has been correlated with variation in task orientation, depersonalization, communicative tone, and participation of members of virtual groups (Daft & Lengel, 1984).
Effectiveness of electronic communication may depend on an appropriate match between media richness and message content. For example, when tasks are routine and content is straightforward, lean media that convey fewer nonverbal cues and more sparse feedback may be appropriate. Richer media are considered more appropriate for conveying complex or sensitive information. However, this is not as straightforward as it would seem. Perception of media richness is significantly influenced by contextual factors such as nature of the task or group and cultural norms as well as by individual characteristics such as expertise in the technology (Fulk, 1993). For example, job pressures may lead an individual to choose media with rapid communication capability such as telephone and e-mail. Although a lean medium is most efficient for a routine task, individuals may choose to use rich media for lean tasks, if that is a norm of communication within their work group. Clearly, attaining the appropriate match between technology and message does not entail the application of universal guidelines. Thus, not only do leaders in a remote relationship with their followers need a knowledge of communication technology; they require skill in determining the appropriate medium by which to send various types of information to different members, as well as in crafting the message appropriately.
A large body of research, dating from the mid-20th century examines various elements of the relationship between task and leadership. In traditional work situations, the degree of task complexity, routineness, and interdependence suggests various approaches to managing followers, depending on moderating factors such as member characteristics and organizational culture. In the remote environment, however, these variables have been only minimally considered, and largely within the context of choice of media.
Task type has been consistently found to moderate the effects of remoteness on team outcomes (Daly, 1993). Prior studies suggest that task type is critical to the success and speed with which virtual groups make decisions and the level of intragroup conflict (Kankanhalli, Tan, & Wei, 2007; Straus & McGrath, 1994). For instance, with an ambiguous task, the greater the degree of technologically mediated communication used by a group, the longer the group took to reach a shared goal. For negotiation and intellective tasks, initially face-to-face teams performed significantly better, but this difference decreased over time, suggesting the existence of a learning curve effect. For decision-making tasks, there were no differences found. Other studies suggest that idea generation tasks are performed by computer-mediated groups more effectively than by face-to-face groups (Martins, Gilson, & Maynard, 2004). Finally, evidence exists that computermediated communication is particularly inappropriate for groups facing highly interdependent tasks requiring significant levels of coordination and judgment (Hedlund, Ilgen, & Hollenbeck, 1998). Beyond these relationships between task type and choice of communication media, there is little known about the influence of task type in the remote environment.
A related contextual feature of the remote work arrangement is the extent to which individuals are collocated with other organizational members. It is increasingly common for organizational members to belong to more than one work group, only some of whom interact primarily through technologically mediated methods. By definition, if a leader-member relationship is remote, the leader and member are not collocated. However, a number of other combinations is possible. Members might work entirely alone; they might be collocated with other members of their own group; they might be physically situated with members of other groups, while interacting with their own group through technology; or finally, the leader might be collocated with some members of the group and not with others.
The influence of collocated group members on individual outcomes has been firmly established in previous research. To date, there has been little exploration of the effect on the leader-member relationship when only the leader is distant and the team members are all collocated. Preliminary research on mixed collocation models suggests that organizational members, who are not part of the member’s work group but are collocated with the member, have an impact on that member’s attitudes and behaviors (Fulk, 1993). Finally, the situation in which the member is distant while other members of his or her group are collocated with the leader has not specifically been explored in empirical studies. This frequently occurs with the majority of a group being located at “head office,” while one or more members are located at a distance. Some consequences of this type of mixed collocation arrangement can be inferred. In teams in which only some members are collocated, the distant member often assumes that collocated members are sharing something they have missed, and these private exchanges can be the cause of friction. Moreover, members may perceive a greater need to use upward influence tactics and engage in impression management when they are distant from their leaders, while at the same time experiencing reduced opportunities to do so. Some research suggests that these are valid concerns; for example, employees’ performance ratings tend to increase with the number of opportunities a supervisor had to observe them (Judge & Ferris, 1993). This type of effect may lead to increased political behavior in the work place with its attendant consequences, and a sense of being isolated and excluded among those who are distant, all of which has implications for leading in this environment.
The importance of fit between the person and the job in the proximal environment has been widely demonstrated in previous research (Hoffman & Woehr, 2006). It is only logical to conclude that there may be an issue of fit with the remote environment; some individuals may not be suited to work as either a member or a leader in this setting. As well, recent research suggests that different individuals respond to the same situation and leadership style in different ways (Hautala, 2006). Therefore, it may be that individual characteristics influence the remote leader-member relationship differently than they do in a proximal environment. Such self-management qualities as responsibility, dependability, independence, and self-sufficiency, while desirable in face-to-face settings, might reasonably be crucial to the viability of remote work. In order to effectively match the message with the medium, as discussed earlier, and craft the message appropriately, some measure of cultural sensitivity and awareness could be considered requisite qualities for both leaders and followers in a remote environment.
There have been some preliminary investigations into the effect of personality dimensions of both leaders and followers on effectiveness in a remote situation. Openness to experience and extroversion, in particular, may impact an individual’s suitability for work in a computer-mediated setting; for example, higher levels of extroversion have been positively related to higher levels of participation in computer-mediated groups in some studies, but not in others. A worker’s belief in his or her ability to be successful in remote work, a concept called “remote working self-efficacy” (Staples, Hulland, & Higgins, 1999) has been suggested as critical for both roles.
There are aspects of individual suitability that are more pragmatic for remote leader-member relationships as well. For example, a minimum level of technological competence is clearly vital for both leaders and followers in an environment in which technology forms the platform for communication; this implies that both a willingness and an ability to use existing and emerging communication technology is required. In summary, little is known about how individual characteristics influence effectiveness in a remote leadership situation, but self-management attributes and a perception of self-efficacy may be beneficial for followers in the remote environment, where there is reduced communication between a leader and follower.
There is a huge body of research into leader characteristics and competencies in the proximal environment, but specific leader characteristics that may be required in a remote environment have not been investigated. Since most of the communication in a remote relationship is conducted through text, it could be that leaders who are articulate in a text mode would be more successful than would those whose strength is oral presentation. Similarly, given the requirement to be sensitive to wording and media selection for various messages, it may be that different (or additional) aptitudes are required in an effective remote leader. In the absence of research into this question, it appears that the practice has been to assume that remote leadership does not require different characteristics or behaviors than proximal leadership.
There is no widely accepted prescription for how to lead effectively in a remote environment. Obviously, organizations ignore the findings that suggest remote leadership cannot be effective and continue to implement remote working arrangements, some of which are successful. At the time of writing, most of the explanations for these successes are purely anecdotal. Research has yet to conclusively demonstrate whether leading effectively in a remote environment requires different behaviors than leading proximally, let alone what those behaviors might be. It is possible that practitioners in this situation continue to manage as they always have, without specific consideration of the unique contextual elements that comprise the remote environment. Significant, however, is the finding that individuals do not need to be face-to-face with a leader to discern and to be influenced by leader behaviors. Followers can actually perceive differences in leadership styles in computer-mediated communication (Kelloway, Barling, Kelley, Comtois, & Gatien, 2003).
Transformational Leadership Style
A large body of research on leadership in the proximal environment suggests that one set of leadership behaviors may be more effective than others are. This style is called “transformational leadership.” Arguably the most researched style of leadership, transformational leadership, as conceptualized by Bass (1985), enables followers to transcend their own self-interests for a higher collective vision and, thereby, exceed performance expectations. It has repeatedly been found to have differential effects on followers’ performance, both directly and indirectly (Boerner, Eisenbeiss, & Griesser, 2007). Transformational leader behaviors cluster into four factors: (a) idealized influence, (b) inspirational motivation, (c) individualized consideration, and (d) intellectual stimulation. Idealized influence (sometimes called “charisma”) simply put is doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Idealized influence behaviors are those that build trust and respect from subordinates. A leader demonstrating these behaviors is a role model—subordinates want to be like the leader and desire to achieve high levels of performance in order to support the leader. Inspirational motivation is composed of leadership behaviors that motivate individuals to try harder and exert extra effort to achieve desired goals. A leader demonstrating inspirational motivation clarifies objectives and elevates expectations. Individualized consideration is comprised of leadership behaviors that show concern and caring for others. A leader demonstrating individualized consideration is alert to the needs of others, provides learning opportunities, and helps to develop individuals. It requires treating followers differently but equitably on a one-on-one basis. Intellectual stimulation requires followers to look at old problems in new ways. It consists of leadership behaviors that encourage individuals to imagine different ways of doing things and to question existing practices. A leader demonstrating intellectual stimulation questions the status quo, uses reason, and generates alternative solutions.
Despite the extensive body of research into this style of leadership, the question of how organizational context influences its effectiveness is still relatively unexplored. This is particularly true when the context in which the transformational leadership behaviors are enacted is primarily situated in technology. The setting may negate or enhance the impact of various transformational leader behaviors. Behaviors not traditionally part of the transformational leadership model may assume greater significance in the virtual environment. Other contextual factors, such as task interdependence, amount of face-to-face contact, and follower characteristics may moderate the impact of these leader behaviors.
The few existing studies on transformational leadership at a distance have yielded conflicting findings about its overall effectiveness in this environment. Some studies have found that transformational leadership behaviors are just as effective in managing individuals in the remote environment as in the proximal one, while others have not (Howell, Neufeld, & Avolio, 2005). The intellectual stimulation component of transformational leadership behaviors in particular has been found to translate easily into the remote environment. This component consists of behaviors that encourage questioning of assumptions and a reframing of traditional thinking. Remote leaders can easily utilize communication technology to provide intellectual stimulation by increasing the level and nature of information exchange (Kelloway et al., 2003).
However, the other components of transformational leadership behavior may not be so easy to enact in the remote environment. Distance between the leader and the member may reduce the effectiveness of some of the behaviors that comprise the inspirational motivation and individualized consideration components. When leaders are proximal, they may be more easily able to tailor communications to the individual in a way that increases that follower’s confidence in his or her ability to achieve higher levels of performance. The supportive behavior, defined as members feeling that their leader values their contribution and cares about their well-being (Lynch, Eisenberger, & Armeli, 1999), that characterizes individualized consideration may also be difficult to enact remotely. This form of support has long been recognized as an important predictor of individual job satisfaction, turnover intentions, and performance. In a proximal setting, leaders can engage in face-to-face interaction and social visiting to display social support, but this is unlikely to occur frequently in a remote environment and may negatively affect the enactment of individualized consideration.
Transformational leadership style is highly correlated with perceived trust in the leader (Dirks & Ferrin, 2002). Trust is built by transformational leadership behaviors, and it provides the necessary condition for this style of leadership to be effective. Researchers have recognized the significance of trust in leadership in face-to-face environments for at least 4 decades. Trust influences the impact that leadership style has on followers’ satisfaction, work attitudes, organizational citizenship behaviors, and job performance (Bartram & Casimir, 2007). Trust has been defined in various ways, but most definitions include the concept of vulnerability: Trust allows people to take part in risky activities that they cannot control or monitor and yet where they may be disappointed by the actions of others (Jarvenpaa et al., 1998). Specific attitudes involved in the formation of trust in leader are perceptions of leader’s ability (group of skills enabling individual to be trusted to be competent), benevolence (positive orientation of leader to follower—interpersonal care, support, and concern), and integrity (leader’s adherence to set of principles that follower finds acceptable). Almost all definitions of trust fall into one of two categories—trust as relationship based or trust as character based. Both conceptualizations are consistent with the processes inherent in transformational leadership style.
Specifically, transformational leaders enact various behaviors that build trust. For example, when engaging in intellectual stimulation, leaders encourage their followers to rethink problems and take risks to solve them. This permission for followers to take risks encourages the formation of trust by creating a condition of safety from the consequences of potential failure; the follower, in a vulnerable position, is not disappointed by the leader’s reaction to his or her risk taking. Transformational leader behaviors that enact individualized consideration develop and maintain a social bond. When the leader-follower relationship is characterized by a social bond, trust is more likely to result than when the relationship is purely transactional. A significant component of transformational leadership is “walking the talk” or modeling the vision. This alignment between espoused and enacted values builds leader credibility, also resulting in increased trust. Finally, by emphasizing the collective vision and encouraging identification with other group members, the transformational leader may increase the individual follower’s perception of procedural justice, leading to increased trust in the leader (Pillai, Schriesheim, & Williams, 1999).
However conceptualized, it appears that the dimensions of trust may not arise in the same manner in the case of a leader who does not frequently interact on a face-to-face basis with members; yet, in remote environments, trust may be even more critical to leadership effectiveness. Some preliminary research has demonstrated that trust in leader significantly impacts perceptions of performance, job satisfaction, and job stress for remote workers, just as it does for proximal workers (Staples, 2001).
Distance may create significant obstacles to the development of trust. For example, a leader’s competence and integrity are evident to followers who are physically close to the leader and can directly observe that leader’s performance and behavior. If followers do not have regular face-to-face contact with the leader, however, they do not have access to this information. Therefore, the ways in which a leader is legitimized and trusted are different in a remote relationship. As well, there is generally a reduced level and duration of communication in a remote leader-member relationship and this may impede the development of the social bond that is critical to the formation of relationship-based trust. The level of media richness associated with the communication platform used may both negatively and positively affect the development of trust in remote relationships. Specifically, how a leader delivers his or her vision may have a greater impact on follower perceptions than does the actual content of the message and other organizational performance cues. Thus, communicating at a distance, in the absence of these nonverbal cues, may make it especially difficult for leaders to be inspirational. Conversely, a weak delivery can act as “noise,” which undermines the impact of an inspirational message, so distance in some instances may be beneficial to the trust-building process.
Recipients’ perceptions of the sender’s ability, benevolence, and integrity contribute significantly to the development of trust in that sender. These perceptions are influenced by several factors specific to communication in the remote environment such as the capacity for immediate feedback, the number of cues and channels used for information, the level of personalization, and the language used. Whether these factors enhance or detract from perceptions of ability, benevolence, and integrity can depend on various conditions such as the communication platform used, which dictates the immediacy of feedback as well as the number of channels and cues available; the skill of the sender at wording messages appropriately, which determines the effectiveness of the language used; and preexisting relationships with the sender, which influence the recipient’s expectations about the level of personalization (Wilson, Straus, & McEvily, 2006). As well, personal, organizational, or cultural norms for electronic communication can create erroneous negative attributions, impeding the development of trust. For example, an e-mail message with no salutation may be perceived by the recipient to be rude or unfriendly, depending on his or her expectations, when this was not the sender’s intention (Black, 2006). In the presence of previously established trust, however, this type of communication may not be perceived negatively (Kelley, 2005). Each of these factors adds a layer of complication to the development of trust in the remote relationship.
In transformational leadership, building and employing trust is an iterative process. For example, trust is required if transformational leaders are to mobilize follower commitment toward their vision. Once that vision has been articulated and enacted, however, trust in leader increases, as followers perceive an alignment between words and deeds. Intellectual stimulation behaviors, in addition to building trust, employ it as well. In the absence of trust, followers will be unlikely to be willing to take risks to support transformational leaders’ attempts to change the status quo.
Trust is pivotal in most human relationships; it has many times been called the “social glue” that makes relationships work. This is especially true between a leader and a follower, a relationship that is often perceived as adversarial.
The greater the uncertainty is in a situation, the greater the need is for trust (Dirks & Ferrin, 2002). In the remote environment, with the increased level of uncertainty caused by the very context of that environment (loss of nonverbal cues, reduced frequency of communication, etc.), trust is critical. Transformational leadership, a style that is rooted in building and employing trust, may thus be the most effective way to lead in the remote environment.
Suggestions For Effective Remote Leadership
Researchers have been investigating leadership for more than 80 years and there are still significant questions that have not been answered. Remote leadership is a relatively recent phenomenon and therefore there are few answers and many questions. What advice can be given to individuals tasked with leading remotely? Preliminary research, theoretically based arguments, and common sense can all be leveraged to provide direction in the absence of solid empirical findings. Leading is a sophisticated and sometimes difficult task; leading at a distance appears to be even more so because of the extra complexity introduced by the remote context. This is both a good news/bad news situation. The “good” news is that preliminary research has demonstrated that it is possible to establish perceptions of transformational leadership from a distance and that, once established, positive outcomes result. The “bad” news is that theory and common sense, as well as some research, suggest that establishing this perception takes significant effort. In remote leadership, the mantra should be “communicate, communicate, communicate.”
The goal of a remote leader’s communication efforts should be to replicate that serendipitous two-way contact that so easily occurs with collocated followers. To achieve the beneficial effects of transformational leadership style, it is necessary that leaders build rapport, trust, perceptions of support, and a social bond with their followers. To accomplish this in the remote environment, leaders must communicate with followers on a frequent basis (Powell, Galvin, & Piccoli, 2006). Leaders should avoid the pitfall of having more frequent communication only with those with whom it is easy to communicate—the proximal followers. Proximal followers naturally have more opportunities for interaction but managers must manufacture similar opportunities for remote followers. A regularly scheduled time for communication such as a given time slot every 2 weeks, for example, may facilitate achieving an optimal frequency of interaction. This has an added trust-building benefit—as managers adhere to the schedule, followers will perceive them to be reliable and consistent.
In addition to frequency of communication, remote leaders must consider the choice of media and content of messages. Organizational and national culture, group norms, individual characteristics and aptitudes, at a minimum, must be factored into this process. Communication with followers should not be solely focused on task. In order to enact both the individualized consideration and inspirational motivation components of transformational leadership, leaders must engage in social interaction with their followers. A leader cannot demonstrate customized care for the follower as an individual and his or her development if all of their interaction is work related. Similarly, in order to build the confidence of remote followers and assist them in achieving higher levels of performance, the leader must understand the individual follower’s unique characteristics, concerns, and abilities. To achieve this understanding requires communication of a social nature. The remote leader-follower relationship should be characterized by open, honest communication in which individuals feel free to initiate casual interaction through various media. If followers feel that they will be negatively viewed because they initiate contact in the absence of a serious problem, they will perceive a lack of control and trust in both directions; there will be motivational consequences. Creating a reciprocal perception of trust mitigates remote followers’ feelings of isolation and powerlessness.
To enact both intellectual stimulation and idealized influence, leaders must share information with their remote followers. Remote followers are often in danger of being left out of the information loop. This has several negative consequences: They are unable to contribute fully, they feel marginalized, and they perceive a lack of control. These outcomes can damage the trust relationship and render transformational leader behaviors ineffective. Explaining corporate drivers, the rationale behind decisions, and current organizational issues enables remote leaders to more convincingly present a vision of the future, role model ethical and transparent decision-making processes, and seek constructive input from the followers.
An important step in the establishment of trust is a face-to-face meeting occasionally, particularly at the beginning of a leader-follower relationship. In fact, in selection, a preexisting relationship might be one of the attributes that leaders factor into their favorable evaluation of a candidate.
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