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Brain circuits

Do you know the three paradoxes of leading virtual change?

Published 4 November 2021 in Brain circuits • 4 min read

A great leader needs to be able to lead change, but it is one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish. Organizations often don’t succeed in most of their strategic change efforts for a wide variety of reasons. The pandemic has left companies across the globe trying to navigate the issues in an entirely new framework – the virtual world. Note that this requires you to make adjustments to your leadership approach. Leading change will continue to be hard, but in ways that are different from the challenges of change in the physical world.

There are three paradoxes in the virtual world to keep in mind. 

Do less to get more done

It is a classic change management mistake to implement too many and too large transformations simultaneously. An overly ambitious approach to change leads only to fatigue, cynicism, and discouragement across the organization. And with this approach, changes either slow down to a crawl or are implemented half-heartedly without any long-term impact.

In the virtual world, it is especially important that organizations structure transformations as short, “fat” changes rather than long, “thin” projects. New changes need to make sense and be manageable by the colleagues carrying them out; finish one transformation sprint before embarking on the next journey. Leaders need to be more cautious not to overload their colleagues.

Strengthen alignment to boost autonomy

Empowerment is a buzzword in modern organizations – both virtual and physical. It’s essentially the idea that leaders cascade their power to those lower down the hierarchy, while retaining their accountability for the outcome. Theoretically, this way of working is excellent for both the development of employees and for getting tasks off leaders’ desks. But, for this form of employee autonomy to lead to the desired outcome, a clear framework must be in place.

The need for a clear frame is the same in both the physical and the virtual world. However, frames need to be even “thicker” when working virtually. As it is much harder to follow up closely in the virtual world, clarity and alignment on mandate, boundaries, and desired outcomes at the start are more critical in virtual contexts. Otherwise, leaders run the risk of empowering employees only to discover that they have gone in a completely different direction than intended.

Build trust when you don’t think it’s needed
Remote work can be efficient in teams that engender mutual trust, but is much more difficult when trust has yet to be established. This makes cross-team collaboration and the implementation of new ways of working – key components to change initiatives – very difficult to accomplish successfully. Thus, in the virtual world, leaders must be even more conscious of the need to nurture trust before instances where it is crucially needed.

The need to build trust applies to the physical world, as well as the virtual. However, in the virtual world, building trust is more of a challenge and behaviors perceived to be originating from the desire to “get something from the other” are met with greater resistance and cynicism. Thus, to successfully lead change, leaders in the virtual world need to build up a bank of trust, which they can then draw from later. They need to “lead from trust” rather than “lead for trust”.

In sum, in the highly disruptive world in which leaders are working, change will be inevitable. And when leading change virtually, leaders must be mindful to do less to get more done, strengthen alignment to boost autonomy, and give trust when it feels least needed.



Further reading: 

When managing change in the virtual world, less is definitely more by Ask Agger and Jennifer Jordan


Jennifer Jordan

Social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Jennifer Jordan is a social psychologist and Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. Professor Jordan’s teaching, research, and consulting focus on the areas of digital leadership, ethics, influence, and power. Professor Jordan has received specialized training and certifications in lie and truthfulness detection, as well as in conflict resolution within organizations. She is Program Director of the Leadership Skills for the Digital Age program, the Leadership Essentials Course, and the Leading in the Digital Age program.

Ask Agger

Ask Agger

CEO at Workz

Ask Agger heads the Copenhagen-based change agency Workz, which specializes in change management and the design of game-based tools for training and involvement. With an academic background in political science and sociology, he has spent more than 20 years as a consultant and adviser to a wide range of industry-leading companies. A pioneer of game-based learning, he has written or contributed to several books and articles on gamification, storytelling, and behavioral design.


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