Online Leadership

How do you lead people who are physically separated from you and with whom your interactions are basically reduced to written digital communications? This is a question that to date, has received minimal attention from OB researchers. Leadership research has been directed almost exclusively face-to-face and verbal situation. But we can’t ignore the reality that today’s managers and their employees are increasingly being linked by networks rather than geographical proximity. Obvious examples include managers who regularly use e-mail to communicate with their staff, managers overseeing virtual projects for teams, and managers whose telecommuting employees are linked to the office by a computer and modem.

If leadership is important for inspiring and motivating dispersed employees, some guidance is required as to how leadership might function in this context. However, that there is limited research on this topic. Leadership changes, when relationships are defined by network interactions.

In face-to-face communications, harsh words can be softened by nonverbal action. A smile and comforting gestures, for instances, can lessen the blow behind strong words like disappointed, unsatisfactory, inadequate, or below expectation. That nonverbal component doesn’t exist with online interactions. The structure of words in a digital communication also has the power to motivate or de-motivate the receiver. Is the message made up of full sentences or phrases? The latter is likely to be seen as curt and more threatening. Similarly, a message in all caps is the equivalent of shouting. The manager who inadvertently sends her message in short phrases, all in caps, may get a very different response than if she had sent that same message in full sentences, using upper and lower cases letters.

Leaders need to be sure about the tone of their message correctly reflects the emotions they want to send based on the fact the message is formal or informal. It must match the verbal style of the sender and convey the appropriate level of importance or urgency. The fact that many people’s style is very different from their interpersonal style is certainly a potential problem. Your author, for instance, has observed a number of very warm and charismatic leaders who aren’t comfortable with the written word and tend to make their written communications much more formal than their verbal style. This not only creates confusion for employees, it undoubtedly also hinders the leaders’ overall effectiveness.

Finally, online leaders must choose a style say of using emoticons, abbreviations, jargon, and the like and adapt their style to their audience. Observation suggests that some managers are having difficulty adjusting to computer related communications. For instance, they’re using the same style with their bosses that they’re using with their staff, with unfortunate consequences. Or they’re selectively using digital communication to “hide” when delivering bad news.

Concepts such as task structure, supportive behavior, and vision can be conveyed in written form as well as verbally. It may even be possible for leaders to convey charisma through the written word. But to effectively convey online leadership managers must recognize that they have choices in the words, structure, tone, and style of their digital communications. They also need to develop the skills of “reading between the lines” in the messages they receive. In the same way that EI taps an individual’s ability to monitor and assess others’ emotions; effective online leaders need to develop the skill of deciphering the emotional components of messages.

Any discussion of online leadership needs to also consider the possibility that the digital age can turn non-leaders into leaders. Some managers, whose face-to-face leadership skills are less than satisfactory, may shine online. Their talents may lie in their writing skills and ability to read the messages behind written communiqués. Nothing in the mainstream leadership literature addresses this unique situation.

In addition, online leaders confront unique challenges, the greatest of which appears to be developing and maintaining trust. Identification based trust, for instance is particularly difficult to achieve when there is a lack of intimacy and face-to-face interaction. And online negotiations have also been found to be hindered because parties express lower levels of trust. At this point in time, it’s not clear whether it’s even possible for employees to identify with or trust leaders with whom they communicate only electronically.
This discussion leads us to the tentative conclusion that, for an increasing number of managers, good interpersonal skills may include the abilities to communicate support ad leadership trough written words on a computer screen and to read emotions in other’s messages. In this new world of communications writing skills are likely to become an extension of interpersonal skills. >>