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DISTRIBUTED: Four Fatal Leadership Fails

American workers are quitting in droves and more frequently than ever. According to the Department of Labor, the average tenure of a U.S. employee is a meager 1.5 years. As the old saying goes, employees don’t quit jobs; they quit bosses, and the numbers continue to validate it. In fact, the number one reason U.S. employees quit is because of a bad boss or immediate supervisor, Gallup reports.

Despite the avalanche of advice online and stacks upon stacks of leadership books available to them, bosses in both traditional and distributed businesses continue to fall short. So what gives? What are all these bad bosses doing wrong? More than likely, they’re making these four leadership fails:

Fail #1: They Set Unclear Expectations Or None At All.

According to a Gallup survey, only half of employees know exactly what’s expected of them—and remote workers are significantly less likely to have clarity about work expectations than in-house employees.

“One of the biggest challenges managers of remote workers face is unclear expectations,” writes Jennifer Robinson, a Senior Editor of the Gallup Business Journal. “Managers often worry that an employee's work will suffer without their supervision or direction, while employees may feel uneasy with a lack of direction or communication, suspecting that they're missing out on valuable information or feedback. These feelings of unease can be prompted by unclear expectations, and it is a clear understanding of ‘what's expected’ that is at the core of any work relationship.”

Fail #2: They’re Poor Communicators.

When it comes to setting clear expectations for your employees, communication is key. Unfortunately, many leaders are communication challenged—and as a result, their employees often leave conversations feeling confused, ignored or flat-out offended.

There are two primary types of communication: written and verbal. The written word is not only more permanent, but we believe it’s often more impactful than verbal conversations. We’ve found that there is great power in writing something down and making it accessible to your company—especially when it comes to sharing your company vision, expectations and core values. When you provide written materials, your employees can refer back to it at as often as necessary. On the other hand, if you choose to communicate these messages verbally, the details can easily be misconstrued or forgotten.

Still, when you choose written communication—whether it’s an email or a training manual—it’s important to write succinct, easy-to-understand messages. Oftentimes, a remote manager’s first reflex is to send a long, drawn-out email in lieu of real-time conversations. If you find yourself typing up an email that could be mistaken for a Melville novel, a conference call might be in order.

Fail #3: Their Doors Are Closed.

Even virtual managers should have an “open door” policy and offer explicit office hours when any staff member can schedule a time to talk. Because distributed teams are not physically in the same space, it’s even more important for leaders to make themselves as accessible as possible.

At Intridea, all company leaders mark out several hours a week when anyone in the company can schedule a time to talk with them via phone, Skype or other methods. By the same token, we also let our team know when we’re not available. We’ve found it helpful to communicate through our calendars, letting everyone know when we’ll be in a meeting, at a doctor’s appointment, or intensely focused on a project so they know not to disrupt us.

Fail #4: They Don’t Bond with Employees.

When a boss takes time to develop relationships with her team, she becomes more approachable. Of course, bonding with distributed employees poses a unique challenge. In fact, nearly half of employees who work on virtual teams say they had never met their virtual team cohorts, according to a report by RW3 LLC. Entitled The Challenges of Working in Virtual Teams, the survey also found that nearly all virtual team members (90%) said they don’t have enough time during virtual meetings to build relationships.

This is why it’s important for distributed companies to set up some type of “virtual water cooler” for social conversations amongst employees—whether it’s Campfire, an IM chat room or a Microblogging group. Managers should make a point to regularly engage in these conversations. This is a huge part of our culture at Intridea. Our virtual water cooler gives us a chance to learn about each other as humans, not just worker bees.

How can distributed leaders avoid these four fails? Find out in our next blog! In the meantime, got any stories for leading distributed teams? Keep the conversation going! We'd love to hear from you.


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