Proximity matters. Particularly when it comes to communication and control within a corporation. A subordinate in the office next door is much easier to manage than one in an office on the other side of the world. Your distant subordinates – particularly those with a broad span of control – need plenty of additional contact.
Perspectives of a Subordinate
I’ve worked both near to and far from my bosses over the years, and I can say without qualification that I was much more diligent in carrying out their wishes when I was nearby. There are a couple of reasons for this:
- Close proximity allowed me to better understand my boss’s mind. I grasped the political implications of my decisions, what he was trying to accomplish, and generally had a tighter bond with him when his office was next to mine.
- Distance permitted me to rely more on my own decisions – a situation I preferred, even if it wasn’t always in my best interests. Like a race horse with the bit between his teeth, when left alone I quickly developed an aversion to relying on anything other than my own judgment.
One of my many bosses was, for a year, located in the office adjacent to mine. We had lunch together almost every day. I found myself frequently redirecting my efforts in support of whatever objective he was currently striving for. I became a valuable and useful subordinate under those conditions. My utility to the company at large was less clear and highly dependent on my boss’s ability to direct me productively.
Then I moved a thousand miles away, and took another position – although one still reporting to the same boss. The dynamic changed dramatically. Even though I liked and respected this particular boss, the distance meant I was suddenly “out of sight, out of mind.” I found myself making lots of my own decisions, most often without even discussing it with the boss.
Ultimately, when I decided to leave the company, I conducted my job search in secret. My boss, who would have undoubtedly helped me, was no longer close enough (physically and emotionally) for me to entrust with this most confidential and sensitive of tasks.
Other than the distance and frequency of interaction, little had changed yet the relationship was completely… different.
Video Conferencing isn’t Enough
Through trial and error, I’ve discovered there is no substitute for close, frequent, face-to-face contact when dealing with your bosses and subordinates. In general, I prefer my direct reports to be as physically close by as possible.
Of course, this isn’t always possible. When you have a subordinate responsible for a remote location or territory it is often impossible for them to co-located with you. In those cases, there is a “hierarchy of contact” that you should pay close attention to.
- Face-to-face contact is by far the most effective for managing your subordinates. I’ve found that casual time spent together (meals, trips, etc.) is at least as productive as hard-core meetings and discussions. Don’t skimp on this, even though it may be expensive and/or inconvenient.
- Videoconferences are a distant second. While you can “see” each other, the ability to read subtle cues such as body language and facial expressions simply isn’t there. The commitment to the communication simply isn’t the same – how many times have you seen someone in a videoconference working on something that isn’t a topic of discussion?
- Almost as good as videoconferences are phone calls. You can likely call much more frequently than you can videoconference. Frequent phone calls are the backbone of most distance relationships.
- Emails, texts, and other written electronic communications are almost worthless when it comes to managing your subordinates. These methods are usually completely impersonal, and are easily “misinterpreted,” delegated, or outright ignored.
When you have a remote subordinate, you should plan to have regular and frequent contact. The weaker your personal relationship, the newer the employee, or the more headstrong the subordinate, the more you should bump up the quantity of contact.
One of my remotely located subordinates was charged with transforming a foundering business. Unfortunately, I was spread too thin to maintain close contact with him, and his decisions became increasingly… unsound. His excuses for continuing performance problems multiplied. Eventually, it became clear that he business was getting worse, rather than better. I discovered the subordinate had his own agenda for the business’s rehabilitation, one that weren’t likely to lead anywhere I wanted things to go. I had to fire him despite the fact that he SHOULD have been the perfect guy to fix the thing.
The Burden is on Both of You
Is it the boss’s responsibility to make sure the challenges of distance are overcome? Or should it be the subordinate’s burden?
In my opinion, the challenge falls on the shoulders of both of you.
As a boss, you want your people to succeed, and you need them to support your efforts. It is in your best interest to devote considerable time to maintaining a tight relationship. Distant employees are one of your biggest points of vulnerability.
As a subordinate, you’re at risk of career derailment when you are out of sync with your boss. Even if you value your independence. Even if you don’t like him or her.
I once had a boss I loathed working for – his fake and insincere behavior, his interfering in the simplest of decisions, his armchair quarterbacking – these were only a few of his deplorable characteristics. That dislike, combines with my predilection to make my own decisions and live with the consequences, meant we rarely talked. And while I wasn’t a long way from his desk (20 miles or so) it was a challenge for me to communicate with him, to say the least.
Eventually, I found myself the subject of criticism for not doing so. (Note, he did little to nothing to facilitate communication – apparently, he didn’t think of it as his responsibility.) It became so bad that the lack of understanding became a serious threat to my career.
So I changed things. Physically. I took a second office in the same building where he worked and spent one day a week working from that location. It gave me enough opportunity for casual interaction that I was (temporarily) able to break my own bad habit.
Distance is a challenging factor in building and maintaining business relationships, and no place is it a bigger problem that between bosses and their subordinates. When faced with physical separation, take the lead to increase contact no matter which end of relationship you occupy. Only by intentionally offsetting the detrimental effects of distance can you insure your relationship stays on track. 30.4
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My novels are based on extensions of 27 years of personal experiences as a senior manager in public corporations.