Leadership Development

Where is my Remote Control?

Right now you have the opportunity to lead your team through the challenges of remote work. But in order to do so, you need to release the grip on the desire for remote control and focus on remote optimization. 

An ultimate test of leadership vs. management

We have two or three, or maybe even four remote controls in the living room. There is the one that came with the TV, the one we got from the cable provider, the one that goes with the sound bar. Oh, and we can’t forget the remote for the device that helps us stream bingeworthy programming. And yes, we skillfully manage all three... four remote controls to make the TV do exactly what we want, when we want, and how we want.

Until one day, our puppy got a hold of a few of the remote controls. Like a dog with a bone—or four, he gave them a good chew and now we’ve lost control of the remote controls. We aren’t sure which buttons are working, when they work, and how effective they will be when they do work. So out of frustration, we often just go straight to the TV and control what we need from there. At least we know it will get done that way.




This whole remote control saga sounds “remotely” similar to what it is like working and leading during this sudden transition remote work and social distancing. Wouldn’t you agree?


Losing control of normal and seeking remote control

As leaders of teams, we have learned to divide work, communicate expectations, and ensure results. We walk around and check in on our team members. We develop team whiteboards in our work areas to visually track status and progress of team goals. Our daily team huddles in the conference room help us get clarity as to “who’s on first” for the projects of the week. Before mandatory remote working began, we had been working towards upcoming conferences, client meetings, training, and other value-add projects that were going to highlight the value of our team and positively impact our business.

But then, in early March, someone pushed that weird “input” button on our TV and the work environment that was so “normal” is not only on a new channel, but suddenly in a completely different mode. So here we are, at home, wearing our comfy clothes, sitting in our makeshift offices, sharing space with our remote working, homeschooling family members, and trying to make our remote meetings somewhat effective.

We are asking ourselves a lot of questions, and we are communicating with our teams. But do our team members hear our intended message?

  • Thought to self: I want to ensure my team looks good and adds value during this time.
  • Email to team: Please send me a list of everything you did today and what is on your plate for the week.
  • Message team hears: I don’t trust that you are working and am not sympathetic to the fact that you are cooking your children breakfast and lunch, monitoring snack time overload, helping children get logged on to Google classroom, moderating sibling conflict, and working in the dining room because your spouse is using the office for a conference call.

We are contemplating the rules in this “new normal” and trying to make sense of the situation and define what this means for ourselves and for our team. In an effort to be productive and do the right thing, our efforts may be perceived differently by those we care about the most.

We have collectively lost control of normal and seek to gain some sense of remote control.



In an effort to re-gain our perceived sense of control, we often make inaccurate assumptions:

1. What others need is the same as what I need.

Ex: Running helps me clear my head. I will encourage the team to use their lunch break to take a quick 2 mile run.

Some people may need to socialize or vent on their emotions in order to clear their head. Others may want to listen to music or step outside to watch the birds in their backyard. Emphasizing the “quick” 2- mile run may just incite stress in your team members who don’t share your high need for a physical expression of energy. To not make this inaccurate assumption, ask team members what they need to feel most comfortable and productive.

2. The best way is my way.

Ex: I am very detail-oriented and methodical, and everyone else should be too!

Some of your team members may share your approach to being very detailed and precise, other may be more big-picture oriented. It's important for leaders to remember that different approaches are needed to solve problems most effectively. Keep in mind that your way isn't always the best wayeven though you are wired to think so. The best way is the one that is the most fitting to the situation at hand

3. The way a person behaves is the way they want to be treated.

Ex: They are very candid and straightforward in meetings, so that's how I should talk back to them!

The final assumption that is very easy to make is assuming that how someone acts, behaves, or communicates is how they want to be treated or communicated with in return. However, people are much more complex than this, which is why instead of looking to see how to interact with someone, you should ask them what they prefer. Don't assume that the way someone acts is how they want to be treated!



We increase our chances of success by increasing our clarity of perspective.

Rather than double down on our potentially inaccurate assumptions in a futile attempt to achieve “remote control,” let’s increase the clarity of our perspective. To do this, we don’t need new skills or a completely different outlook on leadership. We need to hone our perspective by communicating our intent and expectations clearly and asking for clarification on the intent and expectations of our team members. If we can focus on our strengths and interests, and the strengths and interests of our teams, we can move into a more comfortable work mode, operate using our effective behaviors, and help minimize stress behaviors.We often refer to a quote from our founder, Dr. Roger Birkman:

“The reality of life is that your perceptions – right or wrong – influence everything else you do. When you get a proper perspective of your perceptions, you may be surprised how many other things fall into place.”

The foundational principles of The Birkman Method come in handy during this time—or any time—we are feeling we have lost control.

Concepts from Birkman help us abandon inaccurate assumptions and focus on getting ourselves and others back into productive strengths behavior and away from less effective stress behaviors. What we know from almost 70 years of studying people in the workplace is that:

1. We feel equipped to perform at our best when our environment matches our expectations.

It’s reasonable to assume that this situation is unexpected and unfamiliar to most everyone. Many of us are operating in an unfamiliar environment—even if it is within our own home. This is all new. It is weird. It is okay that we don’t have a reliable homeschool, conference call, bandwidth pressure-tested, snack schedule down quite yet. Brené Brown, on her new podcast just said, “when we name and own hard things, it doesn’t give the hard things power, it gives us the power to effect change and achieve purpose.”

We need to recognize that this is new for everyone. We must recognize that our peers, bosses, clients, and service partners are navigating this for the first time, too. Acknowledge this with your team. Share the challenges you are facing with adjusting and give them permission to admit that this is hard. Then, drop some anchors on what is normal in this new work environment. Establish routine such as a daily morning check in call with the team and acknowledge your availability through various communication channels such as email, phone, and video chat. Revisit team goals and make revisions as need to adjust to the current situation.

2. There are certain activities that energize us and those that deplete us of energy and motivation.

Ask your team members one on one which tasks are energizing and which are draining. Find a way to incorporate a few more energizing tasks and offload or rethink the de-motivators. Do the same thing for yourself and for your family. Do you need some outdoor time after proofreading and formatting that email to your clients? Does your child need an extra energy boost after doing a reading assignment, yet is ready to work longer when doing the math assignments? These preferences tie back to our underlying interests and how we expend and recharge our energy.

We can inject energy to our team by using levity to break the ice and create emotional connection during our virtual calls. A team hello to the dog, an update on the spring blooms in the garden, or an update on how late the teenagers slept in are all gentle acknowledgements that we don’t have to pretend it is all business as usual. Poll the team on something fun to generate community and make a connection. This is a time to set aside our business game faces and celebrate our common humanity.

3. When we are in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation, we may respond with less effective stress behaviors.

This is something many of us learned being around babies. A fussy one year old isn’t crying because she dislikes Grandma or Uncle Ted, her fussiness is likely because she is hungry, or tired, or overstimulated. We often overlook that this same principle applies at work as well.

Unexpected environments can cause us to show less effective stress behaviors. Loading team members with a detailed to-do list may help some, but may generate stress in others. Each person has a unique set of expectations on our environment and what we need from others to be at our best. If we can increase our awareness of different kinds of expectations and understand where our team members can be at their best, we can help normalize the work environment and focus our teams on operating from their strengths, not from stress. When you aren’t sure what a team member prefers—frequent vs. infrequent communication, broad vs. specific guidance, time to vent vs. get to the point—just ask!

Use this time to lead your team through the challenges of remote work. Release the grip on the desire for remote control and focus on remote optimization. Operate from your strength behavior, do what you do best, and engage your team to do the same.

We at Birkman want to give special thanks and recognition to those who are not working remotely during this time. We salute our first responders, store workers, medical professionals, elected officials, and community volunteers who are showing up each day to work outside of the home during this time.

Need help developing your leaders?

When you develop your leaders using  Birkman, you provide them with the self and others awareness to better understand both their leadership strengths and liabilities. Our leadership insights are rooted in The Birkman Method assessment, which is based on almost 7 decades of social science data. Just reach out if you’d like to connect with us and speak about your goals for leadership development at your company. Let’s start the conversation to see how we can help.