The Foundations of Digital Leadership in Times of Change

The most needed type of leadership in today’s moment is supportive leadership, a type of leading that focuses on the physical, mental, and emotional needs of workers.

While it has become cliché at this point to say the business world is undergoing massive amounts of change, this doesn’t change the fact that real needs and demands have arisen, and are continually arising, as a result of that change. Among these is the need for business leaders to understand what the needs are for good digital leadership. This requires certain skills and principles that vary somewhat from leadership done in-person. With 54 percent of people expressing the desire to permanently work remotely even after COVID-19, leaders will need an evolved set of principles to ensure the productivity and well-being of their remote employees is high, both now and well into the future. While remote work certainly has its pros and cons, remembering and applying these principles will maximize those pros while minimizing the cons.

The Importance of Supportive Leadership

The starting foundation for good digital leadership in these times is having a leadership mindset, known in path-goal theory, as supportive leadership. Path-goal theory is a theoretical framework that requires leaders to to use different leadership approaches depending on the needs and demands of a given situation in order to keep employees motivated and performing optimally. Broadly speaking, there are four broad types of leadership behaviors, but the most needed in today’s moment is supportive leadership, a type of leading that focuses on the physical, mental, and emotional needs of workers. In general, employees who feel they are working for an organization that cares about their well-being perform better and have higher levels of job satisfaction than employees who don’t. This is even more important in the face of change, which is inherently stressful for workers, particularly when it occurs without enough communication and support.

The Hawthorne Studies were a famous series of experiments that originally sought to study the effects of different environmental changes on worker performance. What the researchers accidentally discovered was that the type of change did not matter so much as the social context in which they occurred. Even diametrically opposite changes (i.e., brightening the workplace lighting vs. dimming it) resulted in the same increases in productivity if, in the process, the workers were treated as if their thoughts, opinions, and well-being mattered. This is the power of supportive leadership in the face of change, instilling common values into the workforce.

Communication Is Key

The importance of communication is, of course, a timeless principle in business, but the COVID-19 era has brought with it a unique set of challenges that, unless purposefully accounted for, will make the other principles in this article difficult to apply. Supportive leadership, for instance, would not be possible. How can you make workers feel their well-being and needs are being prioritized unless you are communicating clearly?

Something else we need to remember is that in a remote working environment, leaders do not have body language, facial expression, and tone of voice at their disposal, and much of the subtleties and nuances of day-to-day communication rely on these factors. Leaders, therefore, need to communicate with their remote workers with greater volume and frequency than they may feel necessary during normal times. Using multiple channels to do so leaves those channels open for employees to reach them easily.

Digital Literacy Makes Digital Leadership Possible

Both supportive leadership and good communication necessitate digital literacy since digital tools and platforms for many is still, and likely will continue to be, the dominant mode of communication. Yet only 53 percent of business technology professionals believe their organization’s leadership is digitally literate.

It is widely agreed that digital leadership has never been more urgent than it is now. That means never has the need to be digitally literate been so urgent, since it is the foundational skill of digital leadership. Whether it is articulating a vision for the future or helping workers stay mindful of pertinent goals, without digital literacy these things cannot be accomplished. At a high level, being digitally literate also helps leaders make the best technology-related decisions in an era when so much of business is driven by technology.

Provide Stability Amid Change

New Gallup research shows that a sense of stability is one of the most important needs many workers seek right now. Given this social reality, if organizations and leaders overly focus on outward changes without attending to employees’ inner needs, there can be a psychological mismatch that results in undesired outcomes such as poor performance, burnout, and ineffective implementation of change. Successful change occurs when leaders can understand and accommodate for the desire for stability.

One type of stability employees need is ongoing access to the resources, equipment, and technology they use to do their jobs during the period of transition. Aside from the obvious benefits to productivity, this also provides another, deeper type of stability: psychological security.

Psychological security can take on several forms. Maintaining a sense of continuity of a company’s values, for instance, can be one of these. One recent study showed that continuity of a company’s guiding values helped provide the consistency and security workers needed to continue performing optimally, and this, in turn, helped make organizational change possible. Another way to provide a sense of psychological security is to continue workplace institutions that were a regular occurrence before the pandemic. An example of this is the virtual happy hour sessions many companies have been using to maintain a sense of normalcy during the pandemic.

This is far from a complete list of digital leadership principles, and there are many others that are also important in managing a remote workforce. However, these four pillars—a supportive leadership mindset, communication, digital literacy, and stability amid change—can serve as a strong foundation for anything else that could be added, be that the setting of clear expectations, the importance of planning and strategy, reskilling your workforce, or anything else for that matter.

Dr. Taylor-Bianco is an associate professor of Management in the Online Master of Science in Management program at Ohio University. Her research and teaching focus on strategic leadership and change, cross-cultural education, and executive development and self-regulation of leaders. Dr. Taylor-Bianco has experience as an international compensation consultant with Price Waterhouse Coopers, J.P. Morgan, and other for-profit companies. More recently, she has been consulting and studying organizational transformation and change management in public and not-for-profit organizations.

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