Focus on relationship-building for distant leaders and followers
The present study contributes to distance leadership practice in several ways. The outcomes suggest that an efficient work-relationship entails more than just the exertion of goal-oriented influence of one individual over another. Human relationships are characterized by numerous dimensions, yet distance is a critical context incorporating various forms of interaction (Lewandowski & Lisk, 2013). Although probably most large international organizations already practice distance leadership to some extent, relatively little research has yet been undertaken, and even less action has been taken in organizations concerning this matter.
Perhaps, the most significant practical implication of this work concerns the finding that physical distance ultimately impacts the leader-follower relationship less than primarily assumed. Instead, the quality of relationship proved much more vital to this relationship. With the detection of mediation, relationship quality represents the tie that binds leaders and followers in organizations (Eichenberg, 2007). Without an established relationship, the positive influence of leadership diminishes and, with it, the performance of subordinates loses its direction. Fostering high quality relationships with followers thus enables leaders to rely on followers and, for the followers themselves, promotes a sense of caring which can lead to more trusting interaction.
The focus on distance leadership trainings should thus be placed on relationshipbuilding initiatives by stimulating an “optimistic, hopeful, growth oriented motivational state” (Sue-Chan et al., 2012, p. 465). Priority should be given to activities demonstrating how to establish trust, and equally important, how to maintain it (Eichenberg, 2007, pp. 198ff). As part of leadership development programs, transformational leadership strategies enhancing the quality of relationship with followers should be added. Insensitivity or failure to respond to followers’ expectations of reciprocity and the requirements of a high-quality relationship may otherwise result in a decrease in effectivity (Wang et al., 2005). Recognizing the finding that a high- quality relationship is ideally accomplished through face-to-face interaction, it is of utmost importance that personal meetings are conducted early when working at a distance. Individuals in trusting relationships with others readily reveal their personal background at the beginning of a collaboration. They set clear roles and have an optimistic perspective about their work (Cascio, 2000). Social communication is expected to facilitate trusting relationships in an early stage as team members might exchange private information, talking about hobbies and weekend activities. Whereas fostering trust works potentially well at the beginning of a collaboration, maintaining trust is difficult. Members working in a physically distributed setting should therefore be encouraged to develop cognition-based trust at an early point (Kanawattanachai & Yoo, 2002). In that sense, early interdisciplinary work can be an effective way of encouraging the development of high-quality relationships even before the actual distance team work begins. Additionally, the first impression is anticipated to be significant and might be the critical factor in a distant context. Enthusiastic individuals and those who take initiative are projected to maintain high levels of trust (Jarvenpaa & Leidner, 1999).