Influencing from afar: How to be an effective leader when working remotel

Influence – what does it mean to leaders?

Influence is, in the opinion of many commentators and researchers, the lifeblood of leadership. If you want to be a great leader, you need to be great at influencing. Influence is, after all, the ability to affect change in actions, behaviours and decisions. Another way of thinking about it is that influence is the ability to make a difference. This is why influence and leadership are often seen to go hand-in-hand.

There are many ways to increase your influence (see the diagram below) but at the root of many of them is the need for good interpersonal relationships. In the past, it may have been that managers enforced their position of authority by beating their chest and asserting a no-compromise culture of coercion. But that didn’t promote a positive workspace. Do this today and it’s likely to backfire, and cause resentment amongst your team.

So, good relationships are central, but harder to achieve online. Before we all went almost totally online, we may have been quite comfortably ticking along as leaders, using our good relationships to influence our teams, peers, clients and even our bosses without realising what we were even doing. But as it becomes harder to maintain current relationships and foster new ones online, have you noticed that your influence has become harder to channel? If so, you are not the only one.

How does this affect the way we currently work?

When we break down the different ways of influencing, we can see that each of these can still be achieved in a virtual environment. And that many of these tactics simply require us to consider the way in which we approach different members of our team when asking them to undertake requests. Here are some ideas:

  • Use an email to build an emotional appeal. In the past, you might have saved emails for practical information or requests. But emails provide the perfect platform to paint a beautiful picture of an aspirational future. What will the new project you want your team to get involved with do for them? How can you help them to feel really positive about it?

  • Find opportunities for public praise. Plenty of companies, when working face-to-face find time to draw the attention of everyone in the office to praise a member of staff. This is just as possible online. If someone has done something great, don’t just thank them personally. Is there a way you can thank them in the team meeting so that everyone knows what a great job they’ve done?

  • Consult colleagues rather than rushing to a decision. If your to-do list is groaning, it can be tempting to make a decision on something yourself. But are you more likely to get your colleagues’ buy-in if you consult them on what you are thinking? This isn’t always necessary – and can be time-consuming. But is there an area where their input won’t slow things down too much and may help the overall flow of the project?

Can we go further? How do we get better at influencing from afar?

The value of having influence in the workplace is highlighted by Doree Clark, author of Entrepreneurial You.

“You get more done and you advance the projects you care about and are responsible for, which means you’re more likely to be noticed, get promoted, and receive raises.”

But that’s not to say influence is easily achieved. Nick Morgan discusses the difficulties in Power Cues.

“It’s never been harder to influence others because they’ve never been more distracted. Information overload and the pace of our digital lives have led to short attention spans. It’s more important than ever to be able to command influence, because of the increased pressure on getting results.”

But what if we want to take things to the next level? What more can we do to exert a better positive influence in an increasingly virtual workspace? Here are 4 things you can try:

1. Actively listen, don’t just transmit

People love being listened to, but more than that, feeling heard. When working online, it can be very easy to focus on your to-do list to the detriment of talking to those around you. But it’s by talking, and most importantly, listening, you can understand how people are feeling, build your empathy, and build their sense that you care about them. The better your relationships with others are, the more likely you are to be able to influence them.

So, take advantage of the fact that, on Zoom or Teams, you can see how you look when you are listening. Do you look attentive? Do you look as though you care? It can be tiring work, but it’s important work: you are building your relationships, one small interaction, smile and nod of the head at a time.

Active listening has never been more important to the morale of a staff body. Matt Toledo, writing for Forbes urges us to: “make the most of every conversation. When we listen, we connect the dots between people.”

2. Foster a relationship even with the most difficult people

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Bruce Daisley, Vice President of Twitter explained that when he’s leading a team he’s explicitly direct in his approach to forging relationships.

“I don’t believe in sugarcoating my communication, artificially prefacing the message with positivity or taking the easy option of ‘leadership avoidance.’

The best influencers recognise that they need the support of everyone that they can muster, not just those who are easy to get along with. The best influencers will have a deep understanding of what motivates all those around them, will think about how that translates to a virtual environment, and then use this knowledge to their advantage. Not just focusing on those team members it’s easy to lead is critical here: use the online environment, and the discipline of your calendar to schedule in catch-ups with all stakeholders, even the tricky ones, and try to ask them questions which help you to understand what makes them tick.

3. Show passion and commitment

If you as a leader are not showing passion and commitment to your work, your targets and your organisation, then it’s going to be much harder to influence others to do so, too. You need to make sure that you are successfully demonstrating your own commitment wherever you can.

This can be very hard to do when you are feeling low, or struggling yourself, and I am not suggesting that you should be taking on all the emotional labour of pretending that everything is rosy when it is not. Authenticity remains important. However, when you are having a good day, when things are going well, or when a project is heading in the right direction, using the opportunity to share your passion and commitment will go a long way to helping to remind your team what is important, and what is at stake. Your enthusiasm coupled with your likeability will help to influence them to take positive action, just as it will help to drive you forward, too.

Your passion can be future-facing, too: find ways to share your vision for success, make team members aware of how their roles feed into this bigger vision. People will not hold themselves accountable if they are not surrounded by similar commitment and dedication. This can be done remotely by regularly drawing attention back to common goals, whether during virtual meetings or in electronic communication.

4. Set an example

If you are liked, or respected, or ideally both, then people will look to you for inspiration. You will not need to pull them towards your way of doing things – they will follow more naturally. And then this creates the opportunity to influence by setting an example for them to follow.

But this can be hard to convey online. How do you show people what you are doing when they only have a small, occasional window into your working world? Your intention should be to be very clear on what you are doing and how it would be desirable to copy this behaviour.

Michael Schrage explains the value of the ‘leading by example’ story, which works just fine in remote working as it does face to face:

In over 15 years of asking, no one has ever said they can’t, don’t, or won’t lead by example. To the contrary, executives always — always! — volunteer lead-by-example stories and vignettes they felt revealed something important about themselves. Their answers exposed their expectations (realistic and otherwise) about how their actions would be perceived by colleagues, clients, investors, etc. Charm and charisma are wonderful, but good examples can prove as persuasive as great presence.”

There are other ways to be obvious in terms of what you expect, too, through your own actions. Whether it’s setting a precedent when it comes to online punctuality, taking the lead in terms of expected work output, or leading the way in communication expectations, these are all great ways to be clear where you want your employees to draw their example from. Then you just need to work hard to shape that example.

Hopefully, as a result of the advice above, you feel clearer on how to develop your influence online in a way that works for you. As with most of what I’ve written during lockdown, be assured that everyone is finding their feet, practising, and making mistakes. But if you give these influence techniques a go, you are likely to find that they create good results that you can then make use of time and again.


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