TLDR; (I.e. Executive Summary)
Remote leadership in an environment of high uncertainty should emphasize the following four points.
· Cascade information and over-communicate!
· Connect people with each other!
· Take care of yourself to be able to take care of others!
Ok, but why read further?
People who work with me know I hate simple “best-practice”-lists that say “do this, do that”. The reason I hate such lists is that they never explain in a, to me, satisfactory way of why I should follow it. There is no room for reflection for me to bring into my own context where I can assess what I’m doing based on my own skills, strengths, personal development path nor the environment I’m operating in.
The rest of this text will explain why I believe the four bullets are important in environments of innate uncertainty, and the adaptions suitable when in a remote context, based on something called transformational leadership theory.
Worth noting here is that this article is written during the Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020, more specifically during the second week of mandated home quarantine in Munich, Germany. Thus, this text does not only apply to software development organizations, or knowledge work dealing with complex problems on a day to day basis, but all organizations during this period having to deal with high levels of uncertainty.
Yet Another Leadership Theory
In 1978 Burns introduced the concept of transformational and transactional leadership. In transformational leadership the leader offers a higher purpose that transcends short-term goals catering to an individual’s intrinsic needs. Transactional leadership, on the other hand, focuses on the exchange of resources, e.g. a “if you do something for me, this is what’s in it for you”-type of exchange.
Bass (1985) later based his theory of transformational leadership on Burns’ concept where he further elaborated and argued that a leader is both transformational and transactional at the same time, which makes sense if we take a quick look at the behaviours Bass claims manifest the two types of leadership. While exploring these we can also argue for the dynamics, and thus, necessity for leaders to have a balance between the two (A “fundamental” (Bass & Avolio, 1993, p. 69) proposition of transformational–transactional leadership theory that has been often discussed but little tested is the augmentation effect, which stipulates that transformational leadership adds to the effect of transactional leadership.).
Bass’ Transformational Leadership Theory
In Bass’ theory we have a few different categories of behaviour that are important to clarify before we attempt to model any from our observable environment.
As mentioned by Bass et al (2003) transactional leadership, historically, referred to leadership behaviours that result in followers agreeing, accepting, or complying with the leader in exchange for praise, rewards, and resources or to avoid disciplinary action. Also, based on this, rewards and recognition were based on the successful completion of tasks or followers successfully carrying out their roles. Three dimensions of transactional leadership has been identified within the research. Contingent reward leadership, building on the above, provides clarifications of desired goals and objectives and provide recognition once goals are met (Bass, 1985). Then we have management by exception where the leader defines compliance and may punish followers for low performance and/or not being compliant. Furthermore, there are two forms, an active form and a passive form, from here on denoted mbe-active and mbe-passive. The active style, mbe-active, implies close monitoring of deviances, mistakes and errors followed by taking corrective action as quick as possible. A leader practicing the passive form, mbe-passive, however, waits for problems to occur before acting.
If no action at all is taken, we enter the realm of non-leadership and this is referred to as a passive-avoidant form of leadership, or laissez-faire.
For transformational leadership, as mentioned above, the leader offers a higher purpose that transcends short-term goals catering to an individual’s intrinsic needs. For transformational leadership, four behavioural dimensions exist; idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration.
Idealized influence is when the leader exhibit behaviour that is admirable, making them become trusted and respected. This is very similar to that of modelling behaviour from social learning theory (Bandura, 1977), a long way to simply say that the leaders come across as role models that the followers aspire to be to some degree, emulating the leader’s behaviour. One thing the leader does that fall under this category is to consider follower needs over their own.
Inspirational motivation is when the leader provides and clarifies the purpose, instilling a sense of meaning into the followers’ work. This is partly achieved by displaying enthusiasm and optimism, encouraging the envisioning of attractive future states. This is about aligning the higher order purpose of the company, product and team visions in an inspirational way.
Intellectual stimulation means that the leader stimulates innovation and creativity in followers, challenging others to come up with new ideas. This is done through questioning assumptions and reframing problems, while including followers in the whole process to understand problems and define solutions.
Individualized consideration is very well phrased by Bass et al (2003), when leaders pay attention to each individual’s need for achievement and growth by acting as a coach and/or mentor. Which is all about personal and professional development, helping individuals become the best version of themselves. This is tightly coupled with Carl Rogers’ (1951) fully functioning person and Abraham Maslow’s (1943) Self-actualization and in general an important aspect of the whole field for positive psychology. Important to underline here is that individual differences are desired, i.e. diversity. Which also puts strain on the leader to truly tune in to follower individuality to help create a unique plan for growth. The necessity for a supportive environment is also crucial, and the leader’s responsibility.
What Does the Research Say?
To confuse the reader even more, the finding by Judge and Piccolo (2004), who conducted a meta-analysis of all relevant research at the time, was that all types of leadership are of importance when it comes to predicting the leadership criteria they chose, and ultimately follower performance. An interesting quote from their results below.
“Addition of transactional and laissez-faire leadership. The present study represents the first meta-analysis of all the dimensions of transactional leadership as articulated in the full leadership model. Moreover, this article presents the first meta-analysis of the validity of laissez-faire leadership. For each of these forms of leadership, the findings revealed noteworthy effects. First, two forms of transactional leadership behaviour, contingent reward and management by exception — active, were significant predictors of all of the leadership criteria. Second, the passive forms of leadership, management by exception — passive and laissez-faire, had some of the strongest effect sizes in the entire analysis. Specifically, the overall validity of laissez-faire leadership was moderately strong (^p = -.37) and was especially strong for two criteria, follower satisfaction with the leader (^p = -.58) and leader effectiveness (^p = -.54). For management by exception — passive, in general the effect sizes were smaller, but in several cases management by exception — passive significantly predicted the specific criteria in the multivariate analysis as well. Overall, the results revealed that the absence of leadership (laissez-faire leadership) is nearly as important as the presence of other forms of leadership.”
A very noteworthy and interesting finding here is that the research indicate that the absence of leadership is almost as important as the presence of leadership. However, this meta-analysis looks at all the research on transformational leadership up until 2004 and covers many different types of organizations in many different industries, all in unique contexts. Despite the statement being true in general, how does it fair under circumstances more like the ones most software development organizations find themselves in?
Transformational Leadership in Complex and Uncertain Environments
Bass et al (2004) conducted a study on military leadership during a military exercise meant to test unit performance under highly uncertain operating conditions. It might go without saying that under high uncertainty it takes both active transformational and transactional leadership to be successful. However, while the interpretation into the corporate environment might not be entirely accurate, it seems like transactional contingent reward leadership is best practiced by your immediate manager and transformational leadership is best practiced by your manager’s manager, as seen from any individual’s perspective. From your perspective as a leader you need to first and foremost make sure to exhibit transactional contingent leadership behaviour towards your direct reports, and expect this from your leader to whom you report, while putting the expectation on your leader to practice transformational leadership towards your own direct reports.
It seems like transformational leadership theory is echoing what is found within Self-Determination Theory regarding motivation for knowledge workers, that in a complex environment we need high alignment to allow for high autonomy to create the right circumstances for high performance and intrinsic motivation. Further emphasized by this point by Bass et al (2004): “Consequently, our findings may offer some initial insights regarding the type of leadership styles that positively contribute to enhancing a unit’s level of cohesion, potency, and performance when preparing to address uncertain challenges and well-trained competitors. It appears that transactional leadership is needed to establish clear standards and expectations of performance. Transactional leadership can build a base level of trust in the leader as he or she reliably executes what has been agreed to over time. When clarity exists around expectations and performance objectives, followers come to learn that their leaders and peers, when asked to execute a task, do so reliably.”
This is especially important to note for organizations with high turnover, or simply when onboarding new members, that transactional contingent reward leadership is of higher importance to help provide structure and clarity around responsibilities and expectations for performance. This is where the immediate manager comes in. Furthermore, in a study by Gilet et al (2016), which explored the connection of role ambiguity to motivation and anxiety found that a setting with high role ambiguity and controlled motivation predicts anxiety.
Also, any of the two forms of passive leadership, mbe-passive and laissez-faire, was counterproductive towards predicting unit performance — “Although it was not hypothesized, we were also able to show that sitting back and waiting for things to go wrong and then taking action was not a very effective leadership style in terms of either motivating units before going off to compete or predicting unit performance”. This is particularly noteworthy when a unit identifies a potential future problem and want to fix it but gets told by superiors that it is not important right now nor a priority. This is the epitome of passive-avoidant leadership as I’ve seen in software development organizations, which consequently is negatively correlated with unit commitment, satisfaction and performance effectiveness.
How Do You Assess Leadership Style?
Now that we have an understanding of the importance of the different types of leadership behaviours under transformational leadership, how do you know what you are practicing yourself? Looking at the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire (MLQ) that is normally used, and specifically the MLQ-6S, we can map 21 statements to the different dimensions of leadership discussed above.
· I make others feel good to be around me
· Others have complete faith in me
· Others are proud to be associated with me
· I express with a few simple words what we could and should do
· I provide appealing images about what we can do
· I help others find meaning in their work
· I enable others to think about old problems in new ways
· I provide others with new ways of looking at puzzling things
· I get others to rethink ideas that they had never questioned before
· I help others develop themselves
· I let others know how I think they are doing
· I give personal attention to others who seem rejected
· I tell others what to do if they wan t to be rewarded for their work
· I provide recognition/rewards when others reach their goals
· I call attention to what others can get for what they accomplish
· I am satisfied when others meet agreed‐upon standards
· As long as things are working, I do not try to change anything
· I tell others the standards they have to know to
carry out their work
· I am content to let others continue working in the same ways always
· Whatever others want to do is OK with me
· I ask no more of others than what is absolutely essential
These dimensions are then judged with a 5-level key from 0–4 where; 0 = Not at all, 1 = Once in a while, 2 = Sometimes, 3 = Fairly often, 4 = Frequently, if not always. After which a total score for each dimension is calculated by adding the scores for each statement, High = 9–12, Moderate = 5–8, Low = 0–4.
It is very difficult for me to sit here and give generic examples of how YOU as a leader can potentially perform actions and exhibit behaviour that fall under each of these dimensions. It is much easier for me to perform observations and gather input from people that interact with you. It is also very difficult to be honest with yourself should you try to do a self-assessment, like any self-assessment. Though it will definitely be worth the time to do so to give yourself a shallow understanding of your usual leadership style and where your preferences and/or strengths lie.
How Does This Translate to a Remote Context?
As noted above, all forms of leadership are important, some more than others depending on the context. I have exclusively worked in organizations that engage in solving problems of a complex nature. However, this has been where most of the people are working in the same location making it possible to be in the same physical space at the same time. What changes when you are forced to operate exclusively on a remote basis adding another level of uncertainty to your normal life? One thing that becomes more difficult is the degradation of communication. That we are no longer able to read body language to the same degree. Pitch and tone are more difficult to pick up over voice communication channels. The fact that you simply can’t drop by someone’s desk to get a sense of what’s happening for the person.
What Should and Could You Do?
Cascade information and over-communicate! Alignment is more important that ever in a remote context. You can’t expect people to hear things in the kitchen or by the coffee machine. Though, be aware of your target audience. Are you communicating to your direct reports you should consider the aspects of transactional leadership (1 and 2 below) first, transformational leadership (A and B below) second.
Transactional leadership components:
1. Contingent reward leadership to make sure a basis for performance is present by clearly communicating goals and objectives as to not add to the uncertainty of the situation.
2. Management-by-exception active to help establish a baseline structure with working agreements and encourage collective accountability.
Transformational leadership components:
A. Idealized influence is achieved when followers trust you and have faith in you. This will be achieved if you regularly cascade the information you have in a clear way, showing that you are not keeping any information secret.
B. Inspirational motivation has to do with the way you communicate, which medium have you chosen and the choice of words. In order to inspire you are better off with as close to face-to-face communication as possible and a carefully choosing your words to connect the current objectives with a larger picture.
If, on the other hand, your communication is directed towards your second order followers, i.e. the direct-reports of your direct-reports, consider changing the order of focus to consider the transformational components (A, B) first and the transactional (1, 2) second, if at all.
Connect people with each other! Be the spider in the web, connect people who you believe will be able to help each other given the problems and challenges that arise, then remove yourself from the equation.
Transformational leadership components:
A. Idealize influence by being a role model and showing admitting that you don’t have all the answers. There is no prestige to be had, the outcomes are more important than you receiving credit as a leader for being able to provide all the answers.
B. Inspirational motivation through giving each request it’s fair consideration and taking time to help individuals solve the problems, making them feel their work is important.
C. Individualized consideration by tuning into their needs and providing a path forward for them to learn from others and grow with the task.
Take care of yourself to be able to take care of others! Don’t neglect your personal wellbeing in order to serve others. It is even more important for you to understand your own needs and put them first. Build up your resilience so you can be the buffer for others.
Transformational leadership components:
A. Idealize influence simply by being a role model and exhibit behaviour that you want others to emulate. If you encourage people to take good care of themselves, you open up for more meaningful collaboration on even tougher topics.
B. Individualized consideration by definition — showing interest in others’ wellbeing.
Transactional leadership component:
1. Management-by-exception active by helping people be proactive with their health and wellbeing.
Listen! In times like these you must be able to tune in and empathize with people. Understand what they are experiencing and do your best to provide perspective and help them cope.
Transformational leadership component:
A. Individualized consideration pay attention to individuals who are less engaged, reach out to understand what is going on for them.
Transactional leadership component:
1. Management-by-exception active in order to be proactive, you need to have an ear for what is going on and help identify potential problems before they arise.
It’s not just important to do the 4 things I listed in the beginning, nor the things on any list you might find. It is also of high importance HOW you do them. Remember that they are important for a reason, there is an effect, an outcome that you want to achieve. Here, I’ve tried to reason with the theory of transformational leadership as foundation and I hope it was of interest and that you were able to take something with you.
Burns, J.M. (1978) Leadership. New York. Harper & Row.
Bass, B. M. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.
Timothy A. Judge and Ronald F. Piccolo. (2004). Transformational and Transactional Leadership: A Meta-Analytic Test of Their Relative Validity. Journal of Applied Psychology 2004, Vol. 89, №5, 755–768
Bernard M. Bass, Bruce J. Avolio, Lincoln Dong I. Jung, Yair Berson. (2003). Predicting Unit Performance by Assessing Transformational and Transactional Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology 2003, Vol. 88, №2, 207–218
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.
Rogers, C. (1951). Client-Centered Therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory. London: Constable.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–96.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.
Nicolas Gillet, Evelyne Fouquereau, Marc-André K. Lafrenière & Tiphaine Huyghebaert (2016). Examining the Roles of Work Autonomous and Controlled Motivations on Satisfaction and Anxiety as a Function of Role Ambiguity, The Journal of Psychology, 150:5, 644–665, DOI: 10.1080/00223980.2016.1154811