Leading from home: the art of letting go and why it’s critical to sanity and success

female leader working from home leading, entrepreneur, woman on her phone

Leading a team remotely has its challenges but it is also a major opportunity to break some unhelpful habits that have become a mainstay of our work culture.

One of these unhelpful habits is telling others how to make sense of things and what to do as a result.

Sometimes it is hard to spot. ‘Telling’ can easily masquerade at an all staff ‘Q&A session’, or a stakeholder listening forum. It doesn’t mean views are not being sought but it is how they are received and responded to that counts. One litmus test to try out is ‘do I already know the conclusion I need this conversation to come to?’ if the answer is yes, the chances are you will be in ‘tell’ mode.

In some research we conducted throughout 2018, 85 per cent of respondents (a total study group of 2000 people) from more than 100 organisations, cited decisions and communication as being dominated by directing and controlling behaviours. In summary, telling others what to do, still resides as the ‘go to’ approach for getting things done.

The impact?

We all feel insecure when we have not had a chance to make sense of things and do so in relation with others whom we trust. When we are effectively told someone else’s sense and not openly encouraged to make our own, we risk two big consequences:

  • Dependence – reluctance to make decisions and take initiative, looking to leadership to grant permission
  • Mistaken resistance – different interpretations and experiences perceived as the resistance to new ideas and approaches

A prescriptive approach impacts well-being and constrains contribution. People are less likely to speak up, share ideas or take risks. Innovation and creativity are stifled.

Why is telling so compelling?

When we know what to do and can easily see and measure our progress, we feel in control and this makes us feel good. Organisational processes (e.g. reporting performance) also tend to perpetuate this feeling. Equally, we have been schooled to believe that leadership qualities manifest in having the best answer or being able to convince others. Believing we are right and using reason to prove it is a little acknowledged relic of traditional leadership theory – it is in our history.

But telling fails because it contradicts all that it means to be human – an independent entity with unique experiences and individual interpretations. We do not experience the world in the same way – and thank goodness!

There are two faulty assumptions at play when we rely on telling others how to respond. The first is that if you simply tell people the sense you have made and what you think needs to happen, they will see the light and agree. The beauty of diversity is that we rarely, if ever see things the exact same way. The second, is that if people only saw things the same way – they would act. Anyone who has tried to give up or take up a habit knows only too well that this isn’t true.

Letting Go

Working remotely provides an opportunity to become more aware of where we might be relying on telling as a management tool. We have the opportunity to reframe how and on what basis we connect with others. For many, it might become harder to resist prescribing the course of action when we are physically distanced.

Letting go of the desire to determine how your team make sense of organisational realities doesn’t mean becoming an absent leader or losing control – it means focusing energy and attention on what is in our control.

If we turn to philosophy for guidance here, the stoics boil down the aspects of life that we can control as beginning and ending with our own thoughts, gestures and responses.

Even if they work for us, some things we cannot control include:

  • Oher people’s responses to what we say and do
  • The way people experience their context
  • Other people’s beliefs, experiences and biases
  • Other people’s actions

We can control:

  • Our intentions
  • The process we facilitate
  • Our behaviour and what we role model for others

As we lead remotely there are a number of things we can do to reframe the basis of our relationship from task delegation to enabling empowered people to contribute.

Facilitator leader: Becoming a facilitator leader means paying attention to content (task), process (how we are working) and relationships (how we are relating) in equal measure. Often content takes precedent and can impact the quality of relationships in a team. When working remotely it is critical to prioritise inclusion, which voices are more likely to be heard in this setting?

Timing of meetings – be aware of who’s schedule certain timings will suit. Take time to know individual’s constraints and pressures so you can balance across the team.

  • Actively facilitate meetings, including giving everyone time to contribute and time to reflect before providing a response.
  • Connect don’t just communicate. Take time to build or deepen relationships one to one, even if it is by phone or Zoom. Pre COVID, leaders had to look out for the bias in who they turned to as a sounding board etc. Often it was those they saw most frequently, or those who thought like them. In a more remote world, this inclusion bias still needs to be mitigated by using technology to build connections – not just communicate information.

Alison ReynoldsAbout the author

Alison Reynolds is Faculty researching organisational issues at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and co-author of What Philosophy Can Teach you about being a better leader (Kogan Page 2019)


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