Leading Amidst Distance

Wei Zheng

Filling the Roscitt Chair in Leadership, Wei Zheng is developing new insight on leadership during the era of social distancing.

When the pandemic hit, leaders everywhere faced a dilemma: how to manage and motivate colleagues who suddenly were working remotely, in a new situation with no end in sight. At Stevens, Professor Wei Zheng has been offering her expertise on how leaders and their teams can thrive during these difficult times of social distance.

Zheng arrived at Stevens in 2019 to fill the Richard R. Roscitt ’73 Chair in Leadership at the School of Business. Her research focuses on inclusive leadership, which involves helping all group members feel they are accepted, valued and contributing.

“Having a sense of inclusion in a larger collective is a fundamental human need,” Zheng said. “When we feel we’re included, we are more likely to experience wellbeing. When our sense of inclusion is deprived, we are likely to experience stress, anxiety and isolation.”

Zheng believes inclusive leadership is even more important during a crisis. “During a crisis, we can become a better version of ourselves. In this crisis, we have seen an outpouring of gratitude for health care workers. We have also seen the worst of us, with people hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizers. Exercising inclusive leadership can help us nurture those more positive tendencies.”

Inclusive leaders should also recognize how individuals have different experiences with social distancing. Some might have new stress from homeschooling, while others now have a surplus of time because they no longer commute.

During the first weeks of the pandemic, Zheng surveyed 212 Stevens alumni about their remote work experiences. Through their stories, she curated six principles of inclusive leadership during social distancing: affirmation, individualizing, bonding, informing, involving and entrusting.

Affirmation could involve a leader thanking a colleague in an email, or perhaps in the presence of others or even to upper management. According to Zheng, affirmation can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. “When we hold people in high regard, they tend to live up to it.”

Individualizing means checking in on colleagues and asking how they and their families are doing. During bonding, leaders might organize virtual coffee breaks or game nights. By informing, leaders make colleagues feel they are insiders.

When leaders involve, they go out of their way to ask for input on decisions they need to make. They ask people what concerns they may have and try to address them. “What’s critical is to let people know they are heard. Maybe you take actions based on their input. Maybe you don’t use their input, but you circle back to them and explain why.”

Lastly, entrusting creates opportunities for people to take on new responsibilities, such as managing projects or mentoring colleagues. “This is counterintuitive, because during a crisis our bandwidths are constrained. But a crisis can have differential impact. For those who have additional bandwidth, who have expertise or have been underutilized during normal times, it is time to allow them to go forward with new initiatives.”

Taken together, Zheng believes the six principles she highlights through her research form a map for managers to practice inclusive leadership, for the duration of social distancing and beyond. Even as workplaces return to normal, remote work might be a permanent change for many employees if companies find using software like Zoom and Microsoft Teams leads to savings. No matter where colleagues sit, leaders will still have to manage and motivate.

“One way for you to use the information here is to compare your behavior to these six dimensions and see how well you practice each,” Professor Zheng said. “You may identify some blind spots, and eventually enlarge your repertoire of leadership behaviors.”

In November 2020, the School of Business celebrated Professor Zheng with her investiture as the Roscitt Chair. Watch a recording of the ceremony and hear Professor Zheng discuss her exciting research, as well as remarks from Rick Roscitt, Dean Gregory Prastacos, Provost Christophe Pierre and President Nariman Farvardin about the impact this chair will have on Stevens.