Remote Employees Benefit from Shared Responsibility, But Leaders Resist Empowering Virtual Teams

Light bulbs with the words: educate, train, empower, reward.

At the onset of the pandemic, switching to virtual work environments was challenging. The boundaries between work and life balance blurred, and employees struggled to adapt to social isolation. Well over a year later, many organizations have started bringing employees back to physical office spaces. But for most businesses, it seems that virtual environments, flexible work arrangements and virtual teams are here to stay.

For those leading virtual teams, remote work brought on a new challenge: how to effectively manage and empower teams while feeling constrained, drained and isolated. In an article published in MIT Sloan Management Review co-authored by Lauren D’Innocenzo, PhD, associate professor of management at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business, experts suggest that remote leaders adopt an empowering leadership style as a viable solution to some of the challenges they’re facing. However, they found that while empowering employees is linked to increased job satisfaction, commitment to self-efficacy, creativity and performance, leaders often resist this approach, especially when managing people remotely.

“Whether or not they thought they had a good handle on their team before shifting to virtual work, leaders tend to worry about ceding power and control to employees and taking risks in a virtual environment where they can’t observe people directly,” said D’Innocenzo.

The authors identify three primary reasons why leaders resist empowering remote team members. These are problems with motivation, perceived loss of control and concerns about risk.

When taking into account what motivates people to lead, previous research has suggested that some leaders are driven by affective motivation — they like doing it; some by social-normative motivation, or feeling a sense of duty to lead, and others are driven by noncalculative motivation where they see the benefits of leading others and pursue them. The authors found that when a leader lacks in any one of these three categories, they will resist empowering a team. This is made starker in virtual environments, where some leaders feel less visible and accountable to the organization.

Leaders who believe they have the ability to control their fate are more likely to empower employees, while those who don’t believe they have as much control over events in their lives will also delegate less. And in virtual environments, where a lot can go wrong with technology, the fear of losing control can be exacerbated, according to the authors.

Finally, concerns about risk play a vital role in leaders’ reluctancy to delegate work. Leaders who see their goals as steppingstones to advancement, and concentrate on rewards that will help them achieve these goals, are more likely to share responsibility. By contrast, individuals who are more prevention-focused, and see goals as responsibilities they need to fulfill, concentrate on minimizing losses and staying safe. This type of leader would be less likely to empower employees.

The authors recommend key strategies for organizations to reduce leaders’ resistance to empowering virtual teams. These involve addressing some of the motivation, control and risk-based issues and visual stressors that are getting in the way.

The authors recommend organizations help leaders regain their joy in leading and boost their motivation to lead by facilitating richer exchanges and stronger ties among team members. Even small adjustments, like having team members turn on their camera during virtual meetings or setting up short one-on-one meetings to talk about what is going on in people’s lives, can help with bonding that will energize leaders to invest in employees. If leaders can’t bring themselves to delegate before they believe their teams are ready, the authors recommend team members encourage employee volunteerism to develop skills.

When leaders aren’t overloaded and burned out by remote stressors they are better able to focus on themselves, which is why the authors recommend organizations have strong guidelines or formal policies to promote better work-life balance at all levels.

To encourage remote leaders to be more promotion-focused and less risk-averse so that they’ll support team members’ growth, the authors suggest organizations take a more holistic view of the time spent at work and consider mandating time off for leaders, such as a set number of days every few months.

 “Their periodic absence also forces leaders to allow employees to step up and take care of certain tasks so that they can become more competent and confident. The more this happens, the less risky and worthwhile it will feel for leaders to delegate,” said D’Innoncenzo.

The authors recognize that remote leaders have a lot to manage from a distance but claim leaders can make things more manageable by encouraging and enabling others to step up rather than clamping down and asserting control over their teams.

“By empowering others to grow, leaders can empower themselves to think bigger, achieve more and breathe easier,” the authors wrote.

The article, “Why Leaders Resist Empowering Virtual Teams,” was published in the MIT Sloan Management Review and is available at this link.

Media interested in speaking with D’Innoncenzo should contact Niki Gianakaris, executive director of Media Relations, at or 215-895-6741.

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