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Leadership and Followership 5.0: The Next Chapter for Work and Collaboration in Firms
By Lea Strobel*, Kai Uhlemann*, Dr. Theresa Treffers, Prof. Dr. Isabell M. Welpe
The already ongoing digital transformation of firms is accelerated by the recent Corona crisis. These past few months, finding new ways to work and to collaborate has been at the forefront of most leaders’ minds. Organizational and psychological research shows that leadership in remote settings requires different skills and actions than leading in the office. At the same time, followership in remote settings requires different skills and behaviors and some are better remote followers than others. Hence, both leaders and followers must rethink and adapt work structures and processes for remote work. This article will outline how leadership and followership changed during the COVID-19 crisis and will provide some guidance on what works for remote work and what does not.
Leadership 5.0: How Does Leadership Change During the COVID-19 Crisis?
Leadership is about strengthening the relationship with your followers. But how do leaders do that in times of crisis? This “human skill” is equally important for all leaders, but how can leaders apply this skill when they need to lead virtual teams? Research has shown that leadership is more effective when there is trust between leaders and their teams. Trust is particularly important for virtual work settings during times of the current Corona crisis because interpersonal interaction is limited.
In general, people develop trust if they think the other cares for their welfare. John Gottman, a world-renowned marriage researcher with 40 years of groundbreaking research, has made important contributions to explaining how couples develop trust and keep negativity low. According to his research, at least five positive interactions are necessary to outweigh one negative interaction in order for a couple to have a successful relationship. Applying the findings of his research to the work context would suggest that the following aspects are especially important for trust in work-related relationships:
- Awareness of your team members’ emotions
- Paying attention to their emotions
- Tolerance of different viewpoints
- Trying to understand your team members’ positions
- Non-defensive responses to your team members
- Respond to interactions with empathy.
Hence, building trust with the suggested approach is essential for successful virtual leadership in times of crisis when interpersonal interaction is limited. Video chats and cues like emoticons can help, but they can also overwhelm. Therefore, leaders should focus on quality in virtual communication, not quantity, and make sure to involve the right amount of content and relationship related talk to build or keep up trust and to get the work done.
Furthermore, proactive decision-making and timely communication of these decisions are further key factors for successful leadership in crisis. In crisis leaders need to make important decisions. However, due to the complexity, uncertainty and emotionality of the situation, many leaders may be hesitant and make decisions in a reactive way. Instead, leaders should make decisions proactively. For example, Adam Silver, commissioner of NBA, suspended the professional basketball league for the whole season on March 11 due to COVID-19, which was one of the earliest high-profile responses to the virus (outside of China) at a time of great uncertainty. Another example for proactive decision-making and communication was completed by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She delivered a television statement to the nation in which she announced a four-level COVID-19 alert system and explained what would be asked of citizens as infection rates grew. Both decisions and their communication turned out to be quite successful in facing the situation. Hence, leaders in crisis should communicate appropriately, which involves:
- Transparency in updates
- Updating as soon as information is available
- Frequent updates summarizing available information
- Allowing for mistakes and admitting missteps
Followership 5.0: How Does Followership Change During Corona?
Having explained virtual leadership in crisis, it is hard to generalize across all situations because good leadership depends on followers. Leaders may build and keep trust differently during crisis depending on different followers and leaders. Nevertheless, research has defined essential personality traits, skills, and behaviors with which followers can leverage to better handle virtual work settings in crisis and team environments.
Essential Personality Traits of Followers in Crisis
Followers with certain personality traits are more likely to handle the virtual work situation in crisis well. For example:
- Emotional stability: Emotionally stable individuals are better at handling stressors, handling conflict, and at overcoming challenges and inducing a positive teamwork climate.
- Openness for experience: Openness for experience is associated with a higher adaptability and creativity and higher willingness to participate in virtual teamwork.
- Conscientiousness: Conscientious individuals show a higher workplace motivation and a higher willingness to perform well on given tasks.
- Agreeableness: Individuals with high levels of agreeableness show better performance, especially in tasks that involve teamwork.
- Extraversion: Extraversion is associated with smooth functioning of the social mechanisms within a team and higher levels of help seeking between team members.
Essential Follower Skills and Behaviors in Crisis
Good followership in the COVID-19 crisis also requires a set of skills and behaviors that can be encouraged and trained.
- Courageous followership: This implies the courage to take responsibility for oneself and the organization, the courage to serve a leader by unburdening him/her through volunteering for additional responsibilities and the courage to challenge a leader’s behaviors or policies, if necessary. Courageous followers help their leaders to master especially difficult situations like a crisis by supporting decision-making processes, transparent communication and identifying the leader’s blind spots. On the contrary, lack of courage from followers may allow for dysfunctional leadership.
- Self-leadership: Self-leadership skills and the ability to work independently are vital for working effectively in virtual settings. This leads to a higher level of productivity, creativity, and ultimately job satisfaction and to lower levels of stress and absenteeism.
- Communication skills: Good communication skills are essential for successful teamwork and a high level of stress resilience will empower followers to show organizational commitment and performance. With less face-to-face contacts and more virtual communication, such skills become even more important for effective remote work.
Essential Team Environment in a Crisis
To enable good followership in the COVID-19 crisis, teams need a psychologically safe environment. Team psychological safety is the shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. This means that the team members do not need to fear negative consequences when revealing themselves, but that they feel accepted and respected from other team members. Therefore, team psychological safety is associated with higher levels of knowledge sharing, learning behavior, team creativity and team performance. In crisis, psychological safety is especially important for three reasons:
- It helps teams to cope with uncertainty and negative emotions
- It ensures that team members exchange necessary information (especially leaders stay informed)
- It makes team members more open and creative to solve new problems that are created by the crisis.
Leaders can foster psychological safety by framing the tasks of the team as learning problems instead of execution problems (e.g., by normalizing uncertainty and challenge), acknowledging their own fallibility (e.g., “I might miss something that I need to hear from you“), and encouraging open communication, curiosity and engagement (e.g., by asking questions and introducing feedback rules).
Prof. Dr. Isabell M. Welpe holds the Chair for Strategy and Organization at TUM School of Management. Dr. Theresa Treffers is post-doc researcher at the chair and Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at Seeburg Castle University. Lea Strobel and Kai Uhlemann are PhD candidates at the Chair for Strategy and Organization.