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Are you leading effectively in a virtual world?

About four years I jumped on a call with a colleague who was new to our company. He was based in Europe.

We were having our first discussion about a proposal we were going to start working on. That call led to several others. More and more people joined this team. The opportunity was global, so our team represented many internal functions and geographies.

It was fascinating to see him in action. Moving the agenda forward, pushing people when required, trying to get this work done, with a group of people who didn’t know one another, and most of whom had never met face to face.

Does this sound familiar to your own experience?

Well it should, Studies show that about 85% of employees today are part of virtual global teams. We are expected to work together across geographies and time zones.  They clearly need to leverage technology to help them be productive. However, as routine as global virtual teams have become, there is also a sense that leaders and their teams aren’t effectively prepared to work in this virtual world. Everything is harder. How we communicate, how we make decisions, how we get work done, how we hold each other accountable and so on.

This has been a hot topic that’s been coming up a lot in my conversations with leaders. They say they need help. What they also say is they don’t need another technology solution like Slack or Basecamp, or MS Teams. These are great technologies, but there’s something more fundamental that we need to understand.

So, whenever I need insight and advice about communications in the workplace, I always turn to Dr. Nick Morgan.

Over the years, Nick has been a trusted advisor to me and my company. He’s a top consultant for leaders and a go to expert for media outlets like CNN on communications and body language.

Nick has also just released a new book called, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World?published by Harvard Business Review Press.

The book could not be more timely. I interviewed Nick about his book and his proven ideas to help leaders lead in a virtual world. 

VM: As a foremost authority in communications, I’m curious as to what motivated you to write this book?

NM: I travel around the world talking about body language, my favorite subject.  In the last five years or so, every time I got in front of business audiences, I was asked:  “Ok, Dr. Morgan, if this body language is so important for communication, how do we communicate virtually?” My team is spread out around the world, and we never see each other face-to-face. How do we communicate without much body language?”  As I kept getting asked the question, I thought it was time to do the research and write the book. 

VM: You describe five big problems that we face with virtual communication – what are they?

NM: The first big problem with virtual communication is the lack of feedback, the kind we get instantly face to face. The virtual world deprives us of all that sensory information.  Our brains respond by filling the void with memories, made-up stuff, and anxiety.

The second problem is the lack of empathy. Lacking sensory feedback, we misunderstand how other people are feeling, and thus lack empathy. Because our brains are biased toward detecting danger, we imagine hostility. Hence trolling and all the negativity we experience daily around us online. It’s just our brains trying to keep us alive in a vacuum by assuming awfulness.

The third big problem is the lack of control over your own persona – how others see you. It’s as if every step you ever took were memorialized in wet (digital) cement as you ventured forth. Those embarrassing pictures from the Christmas party? Online forever. Those intemperate comments you made on someone’s blog? Online forever.  The bad press you and your company got a few years back?  Online forever.

The fourth big problem is bad decision-making. Using a Star Trek context, we all think we make decisions logically, like Mr. Spock.  But all the neuroscience tells us we actually make decisions emotionally, based on our unconscious minds, like Captain Kirk.  In the digital world, a good deal of the emotion is removed, because of the lack of feedback and empathy. This lack of emotional subtext often leads to a rush to judgment and bad decisions online and in virtual settings. In essence, our EQ is diminished, and so our decision-making is compromised. 

Finally, with compromised decision-making and EQ, we get the fifth big problem:  the lack of connection—and commitment. We can’t make the same kind of durable human bonds that we do in the real world.  Because we don’t get a sense of emotional depth, we create fragile bonds rather than strong ones. We’re more connected than ever, and more alone. 

VM: More leaders are working in a virtual world – teams are virtual, communication is virtual. Are there specific things that leaders must do to succeed in this context?

NM: Leaders need to deliberately restore the missing emotion into their digital communication. 

First, they need to use very explicit language to account for the fact that people cannot see them and their body language.  If a leader isn’t specific about his or her enthusiasm for an employee’s work, and just says something like “nice job” in an email, the employee (60 % of the time) will assume that the leader was being sarcastic. 

Second, leaders must ask their employees how they feel about something just said.

Third, they must take it upon themselves to create non-task related opportunities to connect with their employees.  They need to create the virtual equivalent of water cooler conversations. 

VM: Many leaders spend so much of their time on conference calls.  What are the top three things that leaders do to undermine their effectiveness during these calls?

NM: Conference calls begin badly, become dull in the middle, and end inconclusively.  Leaders need to take responsibility and fix all three problems.  Conference calls begin with 5 minutes of beeping and fractured conversations as people come on line.  It’s up to leaders to enforce a specific starting time to make this problem better. 

Second, as soon as we get past the 20-minute mark, even dedicated employees put their mute buttons on and start doing other work.  Leaders have to limit call length, ideally wrapping up all conference calls within 20 minutes.  If you must go longer, take breaks, go around the virtual room and get everyone to say what they had for dinner, or some such distraction.  Third, end conference calls with clear action assignments.  Otherwise, they’re a waste of time.  

VM: Given that digital won’t go away, what can leaders do to make sure they keep personal connections strong in our virtual world? 

NM: In the book I describe many simple, easy ways to keep personal connections strong.  First, create 30-second videos about something personal and circulate those to your team. Get everyone on the team to do the same.  Second, appoint an MC to any ongoing virtual team to keep track of participation, mood changes, and personal issues.  The MC should not be you, the leader, because you won’t hear the truth and you’ve got other responsibilities during the meeting.  Third, create a virtual safe place, even if just at the end of your weekly conference call, to allow people to ask questions, share fears and deal with emotional issues. 

If you are struggling meeting the challenges of our virtual world, I’d encourage you to check out Nick Morgan’s new book.

Are you leading effectively in a virtual world?

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