Achieving Balance: Leadership in an “Always-On” World
With technology moving at a pace faster than what humans can keep up with, it is no surprise that leaders are inundated with emails, virtual meetings, and the need for speed. While technology makes us faster and more efficient, it also may be driving us apart. An article published in Deloitte Insights (April 2018) notes some of the perils of workplace digital technology. Of particular concern are the addictive aspects of digital technologies, which can sap our time and attention as well as blur the lines between work and life when employees are “always on.” The Deloitte research also suggests, “The value derived from the always-on employee can be undermined by such negative factors as increased cognitive load and diminished employee performance and well-being.”
What about when leaders are “always on?” From a leadership perspective, the challenge becomes balancing the pull of technology with the need to have face time and build relationships. For better or worse, this balancing act shapes a “leader’s presence” and trust quotient. For example, technology, with all of its benefits, can promote a pacesetting leadership style—get more done faster—often through remote teams and virtual communication, diminishing the human connection. It often comes down to a leader’s self-awareness and how he can adjust mindset and behaviors to be most effective in leading people and achieving results.
The 2014 i4cp/AMA study, Global Leadership Development: Preparing Leaders for a Globalized Market, concluded that “collaboration and influence define the new global leader.” The study revealed a number of top capabilities that high-performing organizations include in leadership development programs, such as: building trust, developing others, communicating clearly, exerting positive influence, facilitating collaboration, and positively affecting employee engagement. For today’s busy, overcommitted leaders, it is more than just putting your device down or turning away from your computer screen. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, these skills make up the emotional competence framework—the personal competence and social competence which make the crucial difference between run-of-the-mill and high-performing leaders.
Here are five ways a leader can aim to balance the compulsion for technology with the connection with people.
1. Be fully present. Avoid the habit of checking emails or texting while having a phone or virtual meeting. This may sound obvious, but how many practice it? Just think of a recent Ad Council’s campaign: “Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks.” We know texting and driving are dangerous but, still, we need a campaign to help us manage our technology impulses.
2. Learn how to facilitate effective collaboration within the virtual environment. Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., offers 5 Tips for Virtual Collaboration in her Forbes article (June 5, 2012), “Strategies that help remote teams bond include the use of virtual settings (room maps and seating charts), pictures of participants with short descriptions of their professional backgrounds and interesting aspects of their social lives, and artifacts that unite the team (team logo, slogan, etc. on mouse pads and coffee cups) including a few minutes at the beginning or end of a meeting for “small talk,” so that participants can build or deepen personal relationships.”
3. Make time for in-person meetings and one-on-one coaching sessions. Don’t just schedule these—make time for these. This requires a mindset shift toward viewing relationship building, coaching, and collaboration as vital drivers of engagement. This investment will often optimize the essential interdependencies and collaboration that fuel a team’s work and development, impacting everything from how a team solves problems to how they celebrate successes. As Priya Parker states in her book, The Art of Gathering, “Most of us remain on autopilot when we bring people together, following stale formulas, hoping that the chemistry of a good meeting or conference will somehow take care of itself.”
4. Create a safe space where people can talk and collaborate. Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, first identified the concept of psychological safety in work teams in 1999. In her January 2019 HBR Idea Cast with Harvard Business Review, she advises that “psychological safety isn’t about being nice. It’s about giving candid feedback, openly admitting mistakes, and learning from each other.” This includes creating ground rules that everyone can commit to, such as listening, asking questions, and suspending judgement. Whether face-to-face or virtual, the need to slow down and connect to genuinely solve problems, collaborate, leverage diversity, and innovate will continue to be a top priority for high-performing teams.
5. Convey warmth and professional intimacy. “Warmth is the differentiating factor,” says Loran Nordgren, an associate professor of management at the Kellogg School. “Those who demonstrate high levels of interpersonal warmth have a better chance at long-term success.” Trust is often a product of credibility and approachability. Both need to be high to create optimal conditions of trust. “A good leader will learn to convey high competence and high warmth,” Nordgren says.
6. Spend time reflecting. The more a leader is mired in technology and competing commitments, the more that leader needs to spend time reflecting. Self-reflection helps to turn down the noise, tune out distractions, create new learning, and focus on what is important. Some will use pen and paper—the old fashioned way—to journal their thoughts. For instance, through a daily reflection practice, a leader might recap highlights from the day: what worked, what didn’t work, what quality time was spent with team members, what were the outcomes, and what can be done better tomorrow. Self-reflection, however, requires a deliberate practice that may not come naturally. In addition to journaling, self-reflection can include unstructured thinking time, walking, running, forms of art, and meditation.
Leaders who can balance “always being on” with the “people side” of leading will reap tangible financial benefits—increased productivity—and intangible benefits—improved relationships, teamwork, and engagement. They will also be able to better manage distractions, reduce multitasking, improve self-care, and be more present for those pivotal moments that matter the most.