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Greenville Business Magazine

Leading in a Virtual World: Inject a Human Element

Apr 01, 2020 09:00AM ● By David Dykes

By Craig Wallace

Over the years, I have been asked by hundreds of executives, students, and friends a rather benign question: how do I lead in a virtual setting? Not such a benign question anymore given the seismic shift to virtual work given the unfortunate realities of COVID-19.  

Short answer: increase your involvement in being human. 

This is something that the majority of the workforce has already been demanding. More than  40 percent of the workforce consists of millennials and they want leaders that are involved in empowering them. Other generations are taking note. This demand is trending as we confront this pandemic, but leaders are indirectly sweeping it under the rug as they feel pressure to deliver results.   

Involvement enhances intrinsic motivation thereby boosting positive emotions and performance and innovation. Positive emotions allow our brains to more effectively handle complex and/or novel tasks as we are more open to new ideas and tend to approach things with a growth mindset.  

This begins with a common thread – our humanity. 

Working in a virtual world often feels … well … distant. While technology allows for things previously thought impossible, being flung into a virtual work world has left us feeling disconnected, trying to deliver results over a vast digital chasm. 

Sorry, but I don’t have all the answers (if you do, please let me know). However, as an organizational psychologist, I do have a few tips that can help. 

Focus on, build, and strengthen relationships. 

When COVID-19 forced me to work from home, I made it a point that the office staff connected every morning via video call – we started with seemingly water-cooler talk: how’s everyone doing, what’s on your mind, anybody try a new restaurant with take-out service? Then, we turned to work tasks. We ended the day with a similar check-in, but reverse ordered the topics: starting with tasks and ending with evening plans - Netflix shows (have you seen the Tiger King?), and good family ‘quarantine stories.’ Plus, if you are on video with bedhead or your kids pummeling each other in the background, it makes you more relatable, which enhances relationships further. 

I miss my colleagues, but we are connecting in a way we previously took for granted, and we are rising to the challenge. 

While virtual team meetings can be quite fruitful, sometimes individual team members need one-on-one time. Gift them your time – be available at the drop of a hat if someone on your team needs you. Not only will this help you further build and reinforce relationships, it allows you to build psychological capital and that has far reaching benefits.  

What if you have a resistor or two? 

Be the model. Model the behaviors you want to see in your team – excessive modeling is needed if the virtual mode is new. Through this social learning process your team will come around and start engaging at a deeper level as you virtually walk-your-talk. Plus, since you are focusing on relationships, your team will see you as trustworthy and be much more inclined to follow your virtual lead. 

Let’s keep going.   

You next need to learn to ‘eat some crow topped with humble pie’. At the beginning and end of the day, you are just another person putting in a good day’s work. If you are concerned with your ego, you are going to fail. And when you screw up, and you will screw up, ‘eat some crow’ - admit your mistake, apologize, ask for clarification and move forward.    


Look, you know your team best, so you need to tailor these guidelines. There are going to be some bumps; be open, over communicate, and don’t delay – the virtual world is upon us and your team is still looking at you for leadership (even through a webcam). 

Don’t ever forget that which gives our teams and organizations strength and resilience is our profound humanity. Without it, we fail.  

Be well, stay safe, and get involved in being a human in a virtual world. 

Craig Wallace is Department of Management chair in the College of Business at Clemson University. An organizational psychologist, Wallace routinely conducts leadership boot camps and speaks to dozens of organizations annually on various leadership topics, including organizational effectiveness and employee well-being.