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Why remote work demands greater EQ in leaders

March 18, 2021
Linzi Nield
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Dubbed by Harvard Business Review as the hidden driver of great performance, strong leadership is one of the single most important ingredients for thriving 21st century organizations.  

While 2020’s workforce revolution pushed leaders to make an overnight shift to managing teams remotely, today nearly half of leaders anticipate increasing their number of employees working permanently remote over the next 2 years, with 81% reporting that the pandemic has boosted their confidence in going remote long-term.

These numbers speak to the powerful fact that remote work really does work, especially considering that 37% percent of leaders reported no previous experience leading remote teams prior to the pandemic.

But the differences between in-office and remote leadership can be vast. 

Even before today’s shift to remote, multiple research studies have proved that even the mood and behaviors of leaders directly impacts a company’s bottom line performance. 

Every leader needs to pay extra attention to their EQ competencies while managing remote teams. Here are three of the most critical emotional intelligence skills that remote leaders today must master.

1. Awareness: Social & Self

At its core, social awareness is the ability to “read the room,” and in the case of the remote leader, that means a virtual one. Remote leaders must pick up on even the most subtle social cues over Zoom as they guide their teams. 

Having the ability to “temperature check” your employees in remote meetings, both team and 1:1’s, is imperative. A poorly understood environment can cause awkward situations in virtual gatherings and touch points, and even lead to lack of leadership trust. 

Cultivating skills such as active listening and showing others that you hear what they are saying helps to build social awareness. In doing so, this also strengthens team camaraderie to ensure employees feel respected, safe, and included. As a remote leader, by developing social awareness and the ability to sense and respond to team member needs, you will also strengthen team trust and collaboration.  

But social awareness often begins with self awareness, which means the ability to be aware of and understanding your own emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. One study published by Korn Ferry even found that companies with strong financial performance tend to have employees with higher levels of self-awareness. Leading by example and admitting to your mistakes with confidence helps reinforce to your team that they can do the same. 

2. Authenticity

Authentic leaders are genuine and aren’t afraid to show vulnerability.

They are sensitive to the needs of others and take a human-centric approach when making important team and organizational decisions. This area of leadership is so important that universities like Naropa have even built entire programs dedicated to cultivating authentic leadership skills in professionals.  

One great demonstration of authentic leadership is an email from Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sent to employees last year. In the email, Chesky did a remarkable job being vulnerable and authentic about the experience of letting go 25% of his workforce due to the effects of Covid-19. 

He wrote from his heart while showing empathy for both the situation and the impacted team members. In his effort he showed a great deal of self-awareness by voicing the importance of always staying loyal to the company’s values. This is true authentic leadership.

Authentic leaders have what renowned psychologist Carol Dweck labels a “growth-oriented mindset.” They do not hold rigid viewpoints of their leadership style and instead are open, flexible, and adaptable to evolving their leadership skill set. In the age of remote work, this type of authentic, introspective, and adaptive leadership is arguably the most important quality a remote leader must wield. 

These are the types of leaders who know they aren’t perfect, are always learning from their experiences and mistakes, and aren’t afraid to ask for help when they know they need it.

3. Empathy

Empathic leadership has been proven to drive better team performance and boost workplace happiness–but why? 

Employees want to feel that leadership understands their role and the challenges that come with it. 

When leaders show empathy and build trust with their team, this is a clear sign to team members that even though as a leader you are not dealing with their day-to-day challenges, you are aware and empathetic of their situation. 

Today more than ever, employees want to feel seen and valued at work in an inclusive manner.

Demonstrating the ability to relate to an employees’ feelings and whole-self (not just work-self) is a crucial leadership characteristic for showing full recognition of their team members. 

In one study by the Australian School of Business, after collecting and analyzing data from more than 5,600 individuals across 77 organizations, researchers concluded that, “The ability of a leader to be empathetic and compassionate had the greatest impact on organizational profitability and productivity.” 

Your success as a leader depends on the outcome and performance of your team, so it makes sense that leaders who show true empathy have higher performing teams, and in turn, a larger impact on the company’s bottom line. 

Ultimately, one of the best ways to grow your own emotional intelligence as a remote leader is to start asking questions–and lots of them. Leaders with high levels of EQ know that asking questions is a great way to not only show employees that they care but it also helps to uncover leadership blindspots and know where to dedicate your personal growth.

Learn more about remote leadership skills in our 2020 remote leadership report.  

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