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Pandemics and Virtual Leadership

Have you recently found that your leadership style is causing your effectiveness to be diminished or that the performance of your team is falling off, as a result of the constraints brought on by this recent pandemic? For sure, this pandemic is creating a new “normal” for the way business is conducted and even daily life. But don’t think that if you just “hunker down” and wait this out, you’ll be able to get back to how things used to be, or that you’ll return to the leadership style that you’re comfortable with (never mind the rest of the organization). In fact, what this pandemic is showing is that many leaders (managers) had weak leadership styles to begin with, and these weak styles are being exposed by exacerbating the gap between perceived effectiveness and real effectiveness.

The human dynamics of this new operating environment are not new at all. In fact, many facets of this environment have been studied for several years by media psychologists. Media psychology is the study of how people think, behave, and relate to one another in a mediated environment. In face-to-face interactions, there are six main cognitive cues for transmitting any message from one person to another or from one person to many others. These six cognitive cues are: words, volume, tone, cadence, facial expressions, and body language. (This is why little kids, for instance get confused by sarcasm: they hear one message in the words and a different one in the tone.) Research shows that only 7-10% of each message is carried in the words, which means that 90% or more of a message is carried in the other five cognitive cues. Each mediated (non-face-to-face) message or communication is lacking one or more of these cognitive cues, and so, the receiving party often perceives something that wasn’t really intended. The way the human mind works, when any of the six cognitive cues are missing, these cues aren’t left blank in the mind of the receiver, but rather they are created. Message receivers make up the missing cues because messages are always received through the filters (psychologists call these “schema”) constructed of bias, perception, experience, and beliefs. These filters are always at work, whether in the face-to-face world or in the mediated world, helping to make sense of our reality and making up for cognitive cues we are lacking. For instance, if you have ever only spoken to someone over the phone for several months, you’ve developed a mental picture of what they look like and who they are. Then, you finally meet them face-to-face, and the very first thing that runs through your mind is “I had no idea you looked like that!” If you’re a fan of the TV show The Voice, you can see the very same thing happen in the blind auditions when one of the coaches turns their chair in response to what they’ve heard. They are often surprised by who they see standing on stage because they have already created a mental image of what that singer probably looks like.

Psychologist Elizabeth Newton highlighted this phenomenon in 1990 with the research for her doctoral dissertation. It has come to be known as the “Tapper-Listener” experiment. In it, a group of people had to transmit really well known songs to another group, using only one of the six cognitive cues – cadence: they could only tap out each song. The group tapping out the songs was sure that the folks listening to the tapping would guess at least half of the songs correctly. But in fact, only 2% of the songs were correctly guessed. The reason for this gap? The “Tappers” had the music running in their heads, while the “Listeners” had to make up five of the six cognitive cues. The intended musical message was missed and a different message was constructed in the minds of the Listeners.

So how does this apply to your new “virtual” operating environment? As leader in the face-to-face world, you’ve (perhaps unknowingly) created perceptions, beliefs, and experiences that cause your organization to expect certain behaviors, responses, and reactions from you. When lacking any of the cognitive cues, people will make them up and receive a message that you may not have intended. The time spent unwinding these unintended messages erodes group effectiveness, impedes productivity, and stunts group performance. This happens with teams, as well, especially where there are strong personalities involved.

If you suddenly find yourself at a loss for how to manage through this pandemic without losing productivity or traction on certain projects, there are several things you can do as a leader of a team or organization. First, just acknowledge that your current style of leadership (for some, management) may not be effective in this new operating environment. As a leader, change must begin with you - especially if you want others to change their own style in order to be effective. Second, make sure to have one-on-one conversations with each of your direct reports or team members to gain an understanding of how to communicate effectively (how they receive your messages), so that you don’t waste precious time sorting through misunderstood communications. As a leader, you must be humble enough to listen and adapt for the sake of your team. While you’re talking to each of your team members or direct reports, make sure that each feels heard and cared for, and that they’re not just feeling like a utility for getting a job done. Third, manage the stronger personalities in your group by having one-on-one conversations with each about the very things you’re learning in order to increase group effectiveness. Others’ perceptions of them may be unwittingly holding your group back. Fourth, check the group for understanding immediately after a virtual meeting or delivering a message to ensure that people heard what was intended and have enough information to act accordingly. Don’t assume that everyone heard the same thing in the same way. And if you sense that things may be headed in the wrong direction, be quick to step in and make corrections – without making any disparaging or sarcastic remarks about the situation or anyone on your team. That sort of behavior will only affirm and reinforce the “filters” they already have about you and your leadership. Lastly, be quick to acknowledge small wins and celebrate the traction with your team or direct reports; don’t just assume that everyone in the group perceives the same progress as you. When you’re humble enough, and have a willingness to learn, this time of adapting to a new normal can be a great time to learn about yourself and how your team perceives you. These lessons will only serve to increase your leadership capital and will make you a better leader no matter what the operating environment looks like – virtual or face-to-face.

For more information on how you can increase your leadership effectiveness in a virtual operating environment, contact Mike Felix, PhD at, or at 907-306-6355.

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