Whenever researchers put a bunch of study subjects in a room and ask them to choose a leader, the same thing happens. Whether the participants are HR experts evaluating potential executive hires, MBA students working on a group project, or primary voters discussing who they're supporting in the next election, people seem hard-wired to choose the most confident and charismatic contender as most suited for leadership.
But these days, thanks to the pandemic, most of us are spending very little time together in rooms with other people. Instead, we're interacting with each other from a distance. Does that change what qualities we value in our leaders?
A new study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology suggests the answer is yes. While soft skills like charisma and confidence help you rise in the office, when it comes to remote work, groups value helpfulness and reliability over bluster and charm, the researchers found.
Actions speak louder than words.
To figure what skills and qualities remote teams most desire in their leaders the researchers followed the work of 220 university students who were completing group projects remotely thanks to the pandemic. By combing through transcripts of the teams' interactions and surveying members about their peers' personalities and leadership ability, the researchers were able to figure out what type of behavior got students labeled as leaders.
It wasn't the traditional mix of soft skills and confidence that often gets people ahead in the business world. Instead, actions mattered more than words. Offering everyday assistance with things like monitoring timelines, providing feedback, and coordinating teamwork mattered more than eloquent speeches or effective schmoozing.
"On a virtual team, it's more important than in a face-to-face meeting to stand out as the one who helps others," commented study co-author Cody Reeves. "Those who take the time to pause and assist others with tasks are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Reeves characterizes the difference between remote and virtual leaders as "stark" and suggests the chasm between the two may be due to the social friction caused by remote set-ups. In short, it's hard to be charming over Zoom.
"In virtual environments, our actions speak loudly. The 'soft' skills that traditional managers rely on might not translate easily to a virtual environment," said another co-author Steven Charlier.
That's an important bit of intelligence for leaders who have switched to a remote set-up to know. Your personality and communication skills may have gotten you to the top back in the office. But while your people are at home, you may want to lean more heavily on making a greater and more visible contribution to the nuts and bolts management of your team's day-to-day work.
Reliability and helpfulness have always been great characteristics for leaders to have. In a remote work context they're even more essential.