The One Skill That Defines Remote Manager Effectiveness

October 23, 2020

“People leave managers, not companies.” We hear this saying a lot to describe the consequence of bad leadership. So what exactly separates good and bad managers?

Corine Tan
4 min

“People leave managers, not companies.” We hear this saying a lot during our interviews with remote managers to describe the consequence of bad leadership.

"Consequence" puts the problem lightly though. In a Udemy study, half of the employees interviewed said they quit because of poor management. This problem costs companies a fortune at scale. Gallup reported that a 100-person organization with an average salary of $50,000 could have turnover and replacement costs of approximately $660,000 to $2.6 million per year!

Poor management hurts more than the bottom line. Teammates who dislike their managers feel more disengaged, dissatisfied, and drained at work. They’re more likely to suffer from burnout and isolation in a remote setting. This lack of trust is infectious, spoiling the creativity and work ethic of the entire team. Unfortunately, by the time some managers notice this friction, it’s often too late.

Poor leadership has high costs, but what exactly separates good and bad managers?

The answer is emotional intelligence, and according to Harvard Business Review, it’s responsible for 90% of what sets high performers apart. Emotional intelligence (EQ) describes the capacity to understand and manage your own emotions and the emotions of those around you. Most importantly, high EQ allows a leader to handle relationships judiciously and empathetically.

An individual’s EQ determines their effectiveness while managing a remote team. To illustrate this, we looked at how good and bad managers handle four key remote tasks:

1. Communicating expectations

Buffer’s State of Remote Work Report 2020 puts communication as one of the top struggles for remote teams. A lot can get lost when translating between Zoom, Slack, Jira, and more. Misinterpreted messages spark conflict. Lack of focus bloats Zoom meetings. Vague task specs delay sprints. At its worst, poor communication stalls productivity instead of enabling it.

Ineffective remote managers try to directly translate office communication to a remote setting. These managers often:

  • Expect instant replies
  • Fill their team's schedule with unfocused meetings
  • Fail to document processes and/or create sparse documentation around tasks
  • Talk with one style and expect their reports to adapt to them


Meanwhile, effective remote communication creates freedom. Topic-specific channels and templates speed up everyday processes while taking the pressure off the sender. Concise meetings encourage alignment and team bonding. Detailed documentation crosses timezones and allows for asynchronous collaboration. The best managers turn team idea-sharing into worldwide telepathy.

Effective remote managers know that communication is a two-way channel. They use EQ to navigate this dynamic. These managers often:

  • Read virtual environments for context on their audience's mood, busyness, and situation
  • Understand that not every recipient communicates in the same way. For example, some may prefer Zoom while others need detailed write-ups.
  • Self-manage their own habits, remain aware of outside pressures, and acknowledge weaknesses in delivery
  • Exercise active listening and pay attention to what teammates really mean.

2. Building trust

In my last post, I touched on the importance of psychological safety for team culture. We can understand this concept by looking at a team with poor trust. These teammates are disengaged because they fear they’ll look stupid for messing up. They may put on a hyper-productive facade, but they are suffering from burnout and refuse to speak up about their issues. Managers may encourage an open dialogue, but the team leans towards blind agreement and hides their mistakes out of embarrassment.

Ineffective managers can hurt their teams psychological safety without realizing it. These managers often:

  • Prioritize results over relationship building and learning
  • Refuse to share their own weaknesses and mistakes
  • Fail to adapt to teammate workstyles, leading to over or under-management
  • Rarely ask for feedback on their meetings and processes


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In contrast, a safe team looks radically different. Their manager is vulnerable in conversations, and the team mimics this behavior by sharing concerns, bad days, and insecurities. Their manager encourages mistakes because they lead to learnings. As a result, teammates take risks in discussions and find creative solutions to blockers. The team trusts one another and they’re upfront about their needs.

Effective managers create this culture of trust. These managers often:

  • Focus on and adapt to teammate priorities and needs
  • Express vulnerability and share their worries and mistakes
  • Encourage teammates to take risks in discussions and prioritize learning above all
  • Clearly express a safe place for concerns, bad days, and insecurities

Building trust, whether it’s on a new or existing team, takes a lot of emotional labor. Anna Barber, Managing Director of Techstars LA, breaks down trust into four pillars: sincerity, reliability, competence, and care. The first two require alignment with one’s intentions and team needs. The last two, a commitment to honoring commitments and putting others first. Managers with high EQ understand the value of team trust.


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3. Giving and receiving feedback

Feedback is always a hot topic for manager tips and training. That’s because human beings naturally hate feedback. Feedback, without proper framing or self-awareness, can come off as an attack. For some of the teammates we interviewed, they actively dreaded conversations with their manager because downward feedback came off as patronizing, sporadic, and unfocused. Others felt trapped because they didn’t feel safe to give their manager critical feedback without risking their employment.

Ineffective managers turn feedback into a source of anxiety and friction for their team. These managers often:

  • Fail to frame their feedback as appreciation, coaching, or evaluation
  • Mistake patronizing and condescending tones for directness
  • Omit individual preferences and offer sudden advice without warning
  • Never ask for upwards feedback


When done properly, feedback should have the opposite effect on a team. It should create an attitude of learning and accountability, helping teammates improve and celebrate each other’s wins. Structured feedback helps teammates reach the full potential of their role, one of the main reasons employees stay. Additionally, upwards feedback gives teammates a say in the team’s direction.

Great managers use feedback as an opportunity for growth. These managers often:

  • Structure and signpost feedback as praise, constructive, etc. before delivery
  • Intentionally ask for and adapt to preferred individual feedback styles
  • Create an attitude of learning and accountability with regular feedback cadences
  • Ask for feedback and create safe spaces for honest conversations

Like much of emotional intelligence, giving and receiving feedback is a skill. The first step is self-awareness, specifically of one’s delivery and what warrants feedback. Then comes self-management of triggering behaviors and deliberate use of framing devices to create constructive conversations. Social awareness helps managers identify when to give feedback and how in relation to the recipient's preferred style. Great managers go out of their way to make feedback conversations open, constructive, and safe.


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4. Defining Productivity

Many managers worked remotely for the first time when forced work-from-home came into effect in March 2020. They tried to adapt by translating in-office processes to virtual. Some things translated well, like meetings and conferences. Other concepts, such as measuring productivity as logged hours, put unnecessary pressure on teams. Companies went so far as to monitor webcams and track mouse activity. Done out of desperation, these tactics make for horrible remote management.

Ineffective managers struggle to balance control and trust in a remote environment. These managers will often:

  • Measure productivity in logged hours and monitor active time
  • Lack faith in the team's ability to perform out-of-office
  • Never take breaks and appear to work on weekends
  • Misunderstand external factors and extreme conditions leading to inactivity


Measuring productivity in hours overlooks remote work’s strengths. Without an office, individual contributors can work on their own schedules while still delivering results. This flexibility is especially important now, with a global pandemic, sudden home-schooling, and destructive natural disasters drawing everyone’s attention.  

Effective remote managers adapt to this changing world and help their teammates thrive. They often:

  • Measure productivity in outcomes and results rather than butts-in-seats
  • Encourage teammates to work on their own schedules
  • Lead by example and prioritize wellness. For example, they may take a week off or create a team-wide day off.
  • Actively check-in with teammates about stressors and find ways to unblock them

Great leaders are flexible, they empathize with teammates and understand they cannot expect pre-COVID hours of work. They exercise forgiveness and understand. High EQ leaders are stewards of their team’s well-being, exercising social awareness of a teammate’s situation and priorities. These managers find win-win solutions that prioritize wellness and redefine productivity in a COVID context.

The biggest factor defining a manager's ability to connect with their team is emotional intelligence. By building this soft skill, managers can retain their talent and build teams that everyone wants to work for.

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