It would appear that communication by digital platforms works quite well for remote management; for coordination of work, information exchange, instruction, monitoring and follow-up. What reportedly gets done less well is the sensemaking about the meaning of all that gets communicated. This would be needed to enable team-members to get inspired by connecting the activities of work to shared purpose and discover expectations of the future. The work of sensemaking is at the core of leadership. And it determines whether significant mutual trust will grow between the leader and the team-members and within the team.

It is both natural and understandable that the extraordinary circumstance of the pandemic crisis has commanded, and still is requiring a decisive and managerial response in organisations. Remote management has been necessary to maintain activities of service and production. For employees and managers alike, the crucial issue has been one of receiving and providing adequate information about the situation, about activities undertaken and about immediate and short-term plans affecting people’s work. It is not far fetched to suggest that most of the work-related use of digital platforms, e.g. Teams and Zoom, still, one year into the pandemic, relates to ’meetings of management’.

It is not far fetched to suggest that most of the work-related use of digital platforms, e.g. Teams and Zoom, still, one year into the pandemic, relates to ’meetings of management’.

But for months now, as everyone’s competence in mastering remote workdays has grown and these workdays have grown increasingly routinised, an additional call is growing in many remote teams. This is the growing call for meaning and sensemaking of work that is being done, and above all, about what the future of work an its purpose is to become. This is the call for leadership and at least for a moment it requires an active role of team-leaders and supervisors. Furthermore, for the foreseeable future, the call for activities of increased leadership naturally have to be done using the familiar ”windows” provided by the digital platforms at hand.

What is needed is not cascading or distributing a management-stamped message of ”shared purpose”, corporate values or mission statements. This would mean openly undervaluing the capacity and mindset of colleagues who, for almost a year now, have excelled at adapting themselves to changing and unclear conditions of work. People who have come this far, by increasingly thinking for themselves, do not now want to be told what to think. Instead, in their teams or communities they can and need to be invited to a dialogue of future-focused collaborative sensemaking, initiated and facilitated by their designated leaders.

People who have come this far, by increasingly thinking for themselves, do not now want to be told what to think.

A leader’s guide to triggering a sensemaking dialogue may be summarised in 4 elements;

  1. Formulating a ’leaders’ story’ connecting the present situation with purpose and possible futures
    • It is the privilege and expectation put on any leader to articulate a narrative of ’where the team is at’, the environment, the road ahead, and possible futures and purpose that appears inspiring to the leader. Inspiration is contagious.
  2. Identifying trigger questions, compelling questions about the future that will be used for triggering dialogue in the team
    • Real questions are the ’device’ for the leader to invite collaborative sensemaking and creative thinking within the team. Especially in times of high ambiguity, suggesting a view of the future to a professional team without recognising critical questions to be discussed is simply not trustworthy.
  3. Facilitating a question-driven, sensemaking dialogue with the team
    • By their nature, digital platforms do not activate but, in fact, silence their participant users. In a sensmaking-dialogue this may be by-passed by the leader using her story as a short starting point, followed by a set of compelling, inspiring questions to trigger in-group dialogue in pairs or in groups of 3 or 4 people.
  1. Collaborative capturing of take-aways & to-do’s
    • Depending on many factors, a sensemaking dialogue may lead to the formulation of shared focus-points for the future, an intensified search for customer insight, projects of innovative experimentation, or any combination of these. Regardless of the form of output, throughout the process it is the leaders’ role to facilitate and inspire the articulation of the growing wisdom of the team.

The leadership activities indicated above may naturally vary depending on the style and experiences of the leader and the situation experienced by the team. However, the activity of dialogue and thinking collaboratively and creatively about the future cannot be compensated by increasing management. The positive and engaging effects of a heightened sense of meaning on individuals and teams are overwhelmingly proven. Researchers also increasingly emphasise that the degree of mutual trust between leaders and co-workers will be what determines the scope, shape and adoption of sensible WFA arrangements in the future. But trust is a consequence of actions. While removing behaviours of micro-management is a precondition for it, trust will only start to become a powerful positive force in a team if it is connected to actions of real dialogue, for sharing mindsets and continuously tuning shared purpose.




For more on the subject of new leadership:
How to Increase the Capacity for Leaning in the Firm – a conversation with Dr Therese Grohnert, Maastricht University