Leadership in lockdown is something I consider to be an under-examined issue over these past ten months, and one which will come back to hurt management and business severely in due course. Borrowing jargon from the world of dating, I am going to call it ‘managerial ghosting’. ‘Ghosting’, for the happily uninitiated, occurs when one party to a putative relationship suddenly cuts all communication. I argue that this has been the workplace experience for many, particularly junior, employees and I want to explore some of the implications for management and leadership.

We all know that the ‘chat by the water cooler’ has become something of a cliché. However, the critical importance of the sharing and transmission of intangible and informal knowledge is widely attested to (Orbach et al. 2015, Roethlisberger & Dickson, 1964). I suggest that in many businesses this has come to a shuddering halt. Who benefits? Well, no-one. But the detriment will be felt far harder by junior or new employees who had have had no opportunity to grow informal networks and are far more in need of the social encounters where minor (and major) pieces of worldly wisdom and little nuggets of coaching and mentoring are dispensed (Crampton et al. 1998). These are momentary, serendipitous, intuited and personalised. In other words, the very opposite of the remote world we have been obliged to retreat to.

So what? Well, here I make a link to the prominence and importance of transformational leadership to the practice and philosophy of many organisations, which should be a key feature in leadership in lockdown. The theory suggests that by offering or exercising individualised consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation and idealised influence, leaders can extract that extra 10% of performance from followers which is commensurate with the ‘Good Citizenship Behaviours’ now commonly expected of employees (Bass, 1985; Vigoda-Gadot, 2006). Charisma is, above all else, dependent on actual physical presence. My question for all remote managers is this: How much inspirational motivation and idealised influence do you think can be exerted via Zoom? Consequently, what is the likely impact on organisational Good Citizenship Behaviour and indeed the psychological contract between the leaders and the led? Furthermore, in the absence of informal knowledge exchange and in-person example, what habits and quotidian rhythms are your employees learning, what have they un-learned and what have they not learned? These are potentially uncomfortable questions, but as this crisis stretches towards a year and beyond, they should be asked nonetheless. The failure to transmit corporate knowledge to new or junior employees will have particularly serious consequences if unaddressed.

In response, I have one piece of counter-balancing good news and one piece of advice. The good news is while remote working negates the power of transformational leadership, the influence of its dark twin ‘Toxic Leadership’ has also been substantially retarded. Toxic leadership has been defined variously, but common characteristics include physical and vocal intimidation and pervasive verbal manipulation (Mehta & Maheshwari, 2014). Without actual presence, I argue that these strategies are at a discount. Looking forward, for as long we remain isolated behind our computers my advice is to revisit transactional leadership. With the more sophisticated levers of personal managerial power and influence badly dislocated and disrupted, it makes sense to go back to basics and built trust via simple, mutually beneficial bargains.

References

Bass, B. (1985) Leadership: Good, better, best. Organizational Dynamics, 13, 26-40.
Crampton, S., Hodge, J., & Mishra, J. (1998) The informal communication network: Factors influencing grapevine activity, Public Personnel Management, 27(4) 569-584.
Mehta, S. & Maheshwari, G. (2014) Toxic Leadership, Tracing the Destructive Trail; International Journal of Management, 5(10) 18-24.
Orbach, M., Demko, M., Doyle, J., Waber, B., Pentland, A. (2015) Sensing Informal Networks in Organizations, American Behavioral Scientist, 59(4) 508–524.
Reed, G. (2004) Toxic Leadership, Military Review, 67-71.
Roethlisberger, F., & Dickson, W. (1964). Management and the worker: An account of a research program conducted by the Western Electric Company, Hawthorne Works, Chicago. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vigoda-Gadot, E. (2006). Compulsory Citizenship Behavior: Theorizing Some Dark Sides of the Good Soldier Syndrome in Organizations, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 36(1), 77-93.

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