We are not biologically programmed to communicate online

Digital leadership can lack empathy, understanding or consideration of the employee, because it is highly based on digital communication. Ph.D. Fellow and member of the I4L (Innovation for leaders) project Raluca Stana advises leaders to enhance and support a healthy and productive work environment by exercising socially and emotionally intelligent behavior online.

Business IT Departmentmanagement

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- If leaders want to enable employees to their full creative capacity and efficiency, they have to consider their leadership practices, and how, for example, to have a social and emotionally intelligent behavior in a digital world.

Raluca Stana, Ph.D. Fellow at the IT University
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- Almost all the theory we have on management, change and work is based on face-to-face interactions. Online the situation is different. We are not biologically programmed to interact online. When we cannot see the receiver, we lack the information from small subconscious cues that help us read the person at the other end. Instead, we tend to compensate for this lacking information by adding stereotypical information, says Raluca Stana, Ph.D. Fellow at the IT University.

As an example, teleworkers are often labeled as not working as hard as those physically present in the office - just because we cannot see them looking busy with our own eyes. But stereotypes is just one of many challenges when leading digitally. Another is non-verbal communication cues that enable face-to-face interactions, as they are not directly translatable to digital communication. Our brains are not programmed to interpret digital communication.

- For example, we are adept at interpreting the pause between the sentences of our interlocutor, but our brains cannot interpret the silence after we have sent an email: “Has the person received it? Has the person read it?” This leads to unnecessary time spent on cognitive processes, which we would not otherwise spend our time on, or even anxiety or stress if we wrote something that was highly important to us, but which might not be as important to the receiver, says Raluca Stana.

To meet these challenges of digital communication, leaders could look towards top-performing leaders, as research shows these to be good at enhancing individual motivation, creating healthy and creative environments, enabling employees to work at their full capacity, and directly affecting the work place as a whole. One specific characteristic behavior with top performing leaders is high levels of emotional and social intelligence.

- If leaders want to enable employees to work at their full creative capacity and efficiency, they have to consider their leadership practices, and how, for example, to have a socially and emotionally intelligent behavior in a digital world, says Raluca Stana.

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- Another ability to train is the “digital body language”. By knowing the individual employees’ way of writing as the frequency and use and language. Getting to know the digital body language you will be able to tell, if there are deviations from the usual way of writing and respond to it.

Raluca Stana, Ph.D. Fellow at the IT University
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The first step is to be aware
To change communication from being devoid of emotional and social awareness, to being socially and emotionally intelligent, the very first step is to be aware of the kind of communication you practice. If you are not used to this kind of behavior, it takes some practice and exercise for you to first become aware of, and then to practice it.

- If we brush our teeth everyday this activity becomes automated. If we exercise a certain behavior, it can become part of us, but it takes time. This is referred to as neuroplasticity. In the beginning, new behaviors require much more energy. You have to be aware of, and willing to actually exercise them, and it is not comfortable, as you will meet reactions and feedback on the way, says Raluca Stana.

In September 2017, a workshop held by I4L handpicked 12 leaders to make them aware of the opportunities and challenges in digital leadership and communication. The workshop made the participants aware of their behavior to trigger the change, but it also gave the participants tools to get started on their social and emotional intelligence and exercise empathy as a leader in the digital layer of communication.

- One participant tried to move away from a deep technical interaction to a strategic one. He now practices having less of a say in what his employees do, and tries to focus more on the issues they are solving instead of how they are solving them. This gives the employees more space to do their work, says Raluca Stana and continues:

- The same person also focuses on how he is writing to people and he calls this the “kindness factor”, but wants to be sincere not just following a code of conduct. To change behavior and find your own way of communicating can be difficult and can take time, as both your brain and your environment has to adapt to the change.

The next step is to exercise and actually change the behavior. You have to show the receiver that you know that there is a nice person at the other end. A very simple thing could be asking “how are you” or writing “have a nice day” at the end of an email. But you also have to listen to what the employee is saying in the email, not just scan it for relevant information.

- Another ability to train is the “digital body language”, by knowing the individual employee’s way of writing, such as the frequency and use of language. Getting to know the digital body language you will be able to tell if there are deviations from the usual way of writing and react on it. This will make the employee feel heard and more motivated, says Raluca Stana.

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- These different types of leaders require different behavioral style, and that demands behavioral and cognitive flexibility of the leader. Being aware of your skills as a digital leader and your ways of communicating is an essential starting point for fulfilling your leadership.

Raluca Stana, Ph.D. Fellow at the IT University
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Different tasks, different leaders, and diverted communication
As we live in times with continuous implementation of new technology, often followed by organizational changes, we are constantly moving in and out of work environments full of uncertainties and even fear, making employees less motivated and less effective at work. On top of that, work environments are changing to become creative, innovative and project based, which also puts pressure on the leader’s ability to communicate digitally.

- When a company introduces new technology, such as a new enterprise system, this has a big impact on the employees. Maybe their jobs have changed, maybe they feel stupid at their new tasks, or they are not certain what is expected of them. Addressing these emotional and social perspectives is very important to the individual motivation and productivity as fear is a primary emotion in the reptilian brain. If you fear, you cannot be creative, and being creative through times of change is very important. As employees need to find new ways to perform their previous tasks, performance falls down. By being aware of this and addressing it by, for example, stating that “it is ok, that you take your time to learn your new tasks”, and by asking “meanwhile, are you comfortable?”, you can meet these obstacles and enhance the work environment considerably, making it a much nicer place to work, says Raluca Stana.

But different situations and different needs for motivation and communication demand different types of leadership. If you are a transformational leader, you focus on enabling and inspiring. If you are a transactional leader, you focus on the tasks and milestones. Or maybe you are a combination of both.

- These different types of leaders require different behavioral styles, and that demands behavioral and cognitive flexibility of the leader. Being aware of your skills as a digital leader and your ways of communicating is a very essential starting point of fulfilling your leadership role. Engaging in social and emotional intelligence will focus more on the leader as a person instead of the role and practices of the leader. Again, on top of this you would have the digital layer complicating the task, says Raluca Stana.