Taking a mindful approach to leading remotely

Micro-managing is a persistent problem in the workplace. Recent research undertaken during the COVID-19 lockdown suggests the challenges of the pandemic have compounded the problem.

When many of our normal sources of feedback, including body language, appearance and ad hoc conversations, have been taken away, it’s natural to feel you need to do more as a manager to know how your staff are going.

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
Illustration: Kerrie LeishmanCredit:Kerrie Leishman

But this instinct may not serve us well. Recent research found that almost 50 per cent of employees with a manager who tightly monitors their work reported high levels of work-related anxiety. This figure plummets to 7 per cent for employees with a manager who does not micro-manage.

The research suggests that, as a manager, micro-managing your remote team is more likely when you experience lower job autonomy in your own work, and mistrust from your own boss. This is consistent with decades of research on work motivation, showing that when a manager’s autonomy is squeezed, they feel pressured and demotivated, and offload this stress to their staff.


A key challenge for leading remote teams is providing autonomy to those you lead, even if it feels counterintuitive. Providing autonomy doesn’t mean hands-off management; it means providing opportunities for people to “own” their work, and feel like they have a voice and control over how they do their work, wherever possible.

On the flip side, providing autonomy also means jointly setting work goals with staff, and focusing on results. Resisting the temptation to try to control how results are achieved is key.

A critical question, then, is what kind of leadership mindset is needed to consistently execute this approach to leading remote teams? Although many factors influence a leader’s mindset, recent research shows that skills in mindfulness have a big role to play.

A recent meta-analysis colleagues and I conducted found that leader mindfulness is an important precursor to leading in an autonomy-supportive way, across a whole range of workplaces and sectors.

Mindful leaders do two things that set them apart. First, they can notice and “unhook” themselves from the external pressures that are thrown at them and without reacting impulsively or offloading this stress onto others. Second, mindful leaders are better able to suspend their own grip on certainty, and provide an emotional environment that allows staff to take ownership of their work, try new things, and even fail, knowing they have the support they need to learn from it.

Although many of us feel fatigued and out of our depth leading remote teams in the current climate, the evidence suggests that providing autonomy to those we lead is an excellent investment in our teams’ performance.

It also supports our own mental health, as we sink less time and energy trying to micro-manage processes that don’t make strategic sense. Learning and using mindfulness skills is a valuable way of developing this approach to leadership.

Dr. James Donald is a lecturer at the University of Sydney Business School, and consults with organisations on well-being, mindfulness and leadership development.

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