Leadership today is about being authentic, caring, and inclusive. Right?
Not according to a new study that looked at job satisfaction and employee engagement among remote workers in the insurance industry.
In fact, the study found that among teleworkers having a directive, task-focused manager accounted for a whopping 48% of job satisfaction, while having a relationship-focused manager had no significant impact on job satisfaction. Similarly, the impact of task-oriented leadership on organizational commitment was more than twice as high as that of relationship-oriented leadership (r = .46, p < .01 versus r = .20, p < 01).
While almost all companies were forced to implement work-from-home practices in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, most insurance companies have embraced remote work for cost containment or customer service reasons for many years. Whether it’s distributed sales professionals working from agency offices and meeting with clients, or customer service professionals working from home, or rapid response automobile claims adjusters, the insurance industry has been at the forefront of remote work.
In the study called “The Influence of Leadership Style on Telecommuters in the Insurance Industry”, published in the Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 500 remote workers at two different insurance companies were given several surveys. The surveys measured organizational commitment, job satisfaction, communication satisfaction, communication competence, and finally their manager’s leadership style.
To obtain the measure of task and relational leadership styles, the researcher used the Northouse Leadership Style Questionnaire. To measure task-focused leadership items in the survey were similar to:
- My manager tells group members what they are supposed to do
- My manager provides a plan for how the work is to be done
- My manager makes suggestions for solving problems
To measure relationship-focused leadership the survey items were similar to:
- My manager shows concern for the well-being of others
- My manager discloses thoughts and feelings to group members
- My manager helps others in the group feel comfortable
Managers who have been trained to take a situational approach to leadership will recognize task-focused as the “S1: Directing” quadrant in the SLII® model from The Ken Blanchard Companies®, or the “S1: Telling” quadrant using the Situational Leadership® model from The Center for Leadership Studies.
This study echoes the real-world advice given to me recently by my podcast guest, Hassan Osman, who is a PMO Director at Cisco and the author of several books on leadership and remote teams. Osman shared that to lead remote teams effectively you need to over-communicate, write “assertive emails”, give deadlines that include the date and even specific time when something is due, and making sure only one person is accountable for each initiative. To those who normally practice a more relaxed democratic approach to leadership, Osman’s suggestions may sound like micro-managing. But this new study suggests this level of detail actually drives engagement.
The big takeaway from this research is that leaders need to remember that context counts. An effective leadership style in normal times might need to change in times of crisis. A leadership style that is appropriate for colocated teams might not be the best approach for distributed workers.
Additionally, a leadership approach should flex based on the type of work involved. With remote claims adjusters, one can imagine the data, processes and approvals that going in to quickly resolving a claim–many times a day. However with a remote team of senior software engineers, who might also work in the insurance industry, they probably don’t need tactical communication on a day to day basis, and perhaps their satisfaction would correlate higher to having a more relationship focus manager.
Hopefully, leaders everywhere realize it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Remote team members need effective, directive management in order to do their jobs effectively and to believe their manager is competent. Beyond that, who wouldn’t also want to work for a manager who cares about them and strives to include them in meetings and decision making?