Do the people on your remote team do pretty much everything you ask, without asking questions? Do you get very little push back when you assign them tasks? That might sound like manager’s dream, but it can be a sign of a problem lurking under the surface.
How can people doing what they’re told be a bad thing?
Very often our requests have unintended consequences. If we aren’t careful to check our assumptions, we may not know everything that’s going on. If people feel uncomfortable asking clarifying questions, we may set them up for failure and frustration.
While you might be crystal clear, and have a team motivated to jump to your every command, these are only a couple of things that might really be going on:
You’ve forgotten the inherent power imbalance at work.
No matter how honest you are or egalitarian in your outlook, you are the boss. As long as you can impact someone’s paycheck (positively or negatively) your team will feel at a disadvantage. They may not feel comfortable asking clarifying questions, lest they look incompetent or unprepared. Of course, NOT asking those questions can have disastrous results, but many people err on the side of maintaining their egos. Always check for understanding. Rather than ask, any questions? try, what haven’t I told you that you need to know? or is there anything I’ve left out that you need to get the job done? The onus is on you to provide them the information they need.
A simple request carries unexpected weight.
What is a simple request from your standpoint carries the weight of royal decree to some of your people. Anything you ask them to do will be much higher on their to-do lists than some other, perhaps more important, tasks. Help them out by making sure you always provide timelines for tasks (so they’re not dropping what they should be working on to do something you won’t need til next week) and check in with them about what they are working on so you’re not unintentionally throwing their priorities out of whack.
You have a bunch of people to think about—they basically have you.
You have to keep track of your own work, as well as what your team members are up to. When you have a request for information, or need to delegate some work, it’s not possible for you to know exactly what everyone is working on at any given time. Any of those tasks will add to what they’re working on. Especially on remote teams, people don’t always know what their colleagues are working on. New assignments might seem to be unfairly distributed, or the reasons for them unknown. You have visibility to the larger picture. Sharing it will help people prioritize their actions and temper their emotional responses.
Empowerment must be taught and encouraged.
You probably don’t want to stress people out or make them miserable. One way to help your team (and yourself) is to empower them to ask questions and push back (properly) if you are asking the impossible. Not everyone has the confidence to do so, though. Your team needs to know that it’s okay to ask questions and to question the priority of assigned work. Encourage them to ask.Ask direct questions about their workflow, priorities and calendars. When you are asked a question, don’t treat it as a threat to your authority, but rather as a legitimate request for information. This can be hard when stress makes their tone less than pleasing to the ear, but they probably aren’t trying to challenge you so much as get their arms around the work. Don’t take it personally.
A team that asks questions, is empowered to call “nonsense” when something doesn’t make sense, and checks their priorities against the work of the team and your expectations will work better and be more productive.
If you aren’t getting pushback or questions, don’t assume you are such a great communicator that they understand and are okay with everything. Probe to make sure you’re understood, more than just obeyed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.