Distance leadership sounds fancier than it is. It sounds like a leadership concept, and it is not! I fear that it may be used as an excuse to not fully take on the leadership task if we start to think of distance leadership as a special leadership discipline. The greatest challenge is not that we have to go without physical meetings with our employees but rather our lack of ability or will to meet as human beings in the relational space, meaning in the contact with each other where we listen, show interest, offer response and enter into developing and constructive dialogues.

As both a management consultant and a manager, I find that absence of the physical meeting between a manager and employee can be the least of their problems if there is also an absence of quality and contact in their relationship.

In 2020, many have realised that the contact with colleagues matters – as does the contact between manager and employee. Many of us have had to work remotely and felt the impact of the lack of contact.

We have also seen how managers have become uncertain about how to lead when their employees are not present at the office. Most of the questions I have come across related to tasks and resources. I haven’t heard that many talk about how to ensure personal development and learning, which is also a leadership task after all.

Seek involvement and relational contact

When I write “Leadership in contact from a distance” in the headline, it is because I want to emphasise that we should be focusing on creating contact with a sense of involvement, trust and development in the relationship. Without the kind of contact where I feel that we share something and where we respond to what is verbalised as well as what is not verbalised, we will not be able to solve the challenges at hand – both great and small. And we will not be able to develop our employees and ourselves, and we will be challenged in leading our business and ensuring that tasks are solved the right way. A current example of a lack of relational contact is the US presidential election where there was absolutely no contact even though Biden and Trump were in the same room!

The contact I am talking about is a connection where you have a mutual acknowledgement of each other as human beings. There may also be a respect for the professional skills, but this in itself will not provide contact. The contact is experienced as transmitting on the same frequency both ways. A deeper understanding and respect for the human being. And thus, a response on the same frequency. And a desire to listen, both to the words and in between the words. To continue the dialogue and creating a different understanding together. A place where you examine each other’s viewpoints together and build something new. Together.

The leadership job is to create a space for developing, involving relationships between individuals throughout the entire value chain and throughout the organisation to enable you to deliver the necessary results in both the short and long term. And it is with this perspective I recommend focusing on distance leadership. I can recommend using this simple model, which combines the extent of physical contact with the extent of relational contact. The various outcome spaces call for different leadership actions.

If we look at the top right-hand corner in which there is both relational contact and physical contact, we will find a reciprocity in which both the manager and the employee feel joy and meaningfulness. This developing space is not sugar-coated and conflict-free. It is a space of trust to exchange opinions and a space where the common goal is to learn and to solve problems and tasks in a constructive manner.

When there is relational contact, and a you face a long period of physical distance (lower right-hand corner), the lack of physical contact simply becomes a factor to consider and resolve. In this instance, you will look for alternative outlets to maintain contact and also be aware of the strengths and limitations of these media. My experience is that in situations such as these where you have strong connections and fundamental trust, a continuous discussion of the interaction will help ensure quality in your dialogue. As an example, response may be requested when it is missed, or feedback is given on the way you interact in the virtual space. Or it could be direct feedback on the quality of task solving. There will be an ongoing adjustment of who does what how in order for you to remain efficient.

At the other end of the scale (left-hand side of the model), you find the absence of relational contact. This can be a conflict-filled space in which focus is on creating winners and losers. Here, the lack of physical contact can even be a relief. And in any case, the challenge is not the physical distance but the lack of trust and relational contact. Luckily, this is not the case for most people.

What we do see rather often are passive, maintaining relationships in which we are friendly and accommodating but with a lack of relational contact. Dialogues without any consequence or significance. In these instances, we will be challenged by the lack of physical contact (bottom left-hand corner) because we are simply just not being honest and open with each other. The distance makes it difficult to read each other’s body language and other indirect signals.

What often happens in these cases is that leadership ends up being about controlling the employees in order to optimise resource utilisation and the behaviour among those employees that you, as the leader, do not feel in control of because they are working from home.

There are several excellent leadership theories on what we can do as leaders. However, I would argue that we first and foremost need to acknowledge that we need to change our own behaviour as leaders. I have spoken with quite a few people who feel that the need for control has changed at the workplace: leaders are loosening the reins and employees are experiencing more degrees of freedom and are demonstrating that they are capable of taking responsibility. In some cases, the necessary distance has forced a recognition that the old style of leadership is insufficient. In these cases, there is a tough challenge in the distance management and in the question: How can I create relational contact now there is no physical contact?

How do we create contact?

You can be who you are and mean what you mean and be able to do what you do from a professional point of view. But without quality in your relationships, you lose your influence and impact. Be curious about how you can mean something to others. What makes you want to listen to and to work with others? To follow them when they want to explore in one direction; to want to course correct when you think you should go in another direction?

The first thing to do is to pay attention to what is happening. The journey begins with you. You will have to choose to look inwards and examine your own mindset, take an outside-in view on your actions and understand the underlying forces that cause these reaction patterns in your interaction with your employees. What impact does your actions have on others? How is your contact affected?

Please note that the answer to what to do about distance leadership ends up having an inward focus. It becomes a question of whether you are attentive to yourself in order for you to be attentive to others.

Once we understand our own role in the relational space, there are plenty of opportunities to gain help from strong leadership tools such as e.g. situational leadership, effective leadership groups and other team approaches, which combine the human perspectives with leading the task execution. There are also individual development tools that can support us in our ability to look inwards, and these are also worth looking into.

Your ability to create relational contact with your employees is basically about the perspective you have as a leader. Do you view your employees as resources to be optimised or do you take an interest in the development of your employees? Are your employees your tool or are you a tool for your employees? That way, our perspective on the leadership task becomes crucial for whether we see the value in developing the relational contact, or whether we are stuck in trying to succeed without any real contact.

A key issue is really whether this is about distance leadership or distanced leadership!

My experience is that relational contact is best developed when there is physical contact. It can therefore be quite a struggle to develop the relational contact when you are physically distanced from your employees. I would therefore advise you to do what you can to strengthen the relational contact whenever possible. Prioritise your time – not least when it is possible to meet face to face – to establish contact. Real contact.


This article was originally published in Danish in Ledelse i Udvikling.