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Healthy Conversations Can Bring Virtual Teams Back To Life

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“Look, we need to let people know ASAP when and how we can expect to return to the office. Your team is already 10 days late giving us your recommendations. You’d better figure out why you haven’t been able to move forward. Have your proposed options on my desk by Monday. Drop everything else until you can get this done.”

Within minutes of the CEO’s call, Jane, the project leader, calls for an emergency all-hands video meeting. To set the stage, she says: “We’re going to have a candid discussion about what’s preventing us from delivering our recommendations. I have some ideas, and sure hope you do, too.”

Collaborating with me for this edition of Communique is Katrina (Kate) Pugh, President of AlignConsulting, specializing in business planning and collaboration-based digital transformation. Join us to find out how healthier digital conversations can address the systemic, and largely unspoken, issues preventing virtual teams like this from making any real progress.

Diagnosing the real issues

Fast-forward a few hours. The video images express a range of emotions, including frustration, anger, confusion, defeat and utter fatigue. “I appreciate how hard everyone has been working,” Jane begins. “We’ve felt so pressured to move fast that we haven’t stopped to have an honest conversation about what’s going on. Now we have no choice. I’m asking each of you to share a situation that’s caused you to halt your work, so we can work together on some solutions. Who’d like to begin?”

Maria: “Just when we think we’re working toward the same goals, the goals change without warning. Sometimes the scope has been expanded without regard for how it will affect our deadlines, which also change constantly. Worse, some people seem to know about these changes, while the rest of us are in the dark. This means that we’re all going off in different directions, working along different timelines, without even realizing it.”

Jim: “I like to think I have some pretty good ideas. But every time I try to share my ideas, everyone’s talking over each other, whether it’s in meetings or in our team portal. I feel like no one’s listening, so I usually just give up.”

Hannah: “Senior leadership initially told us that our #1 consideration in recommending options is employee safety. We were vetting our recommendations with health experts, when they suddenly gave us new criteria to factor in: ‘People must start returning by December 1, no matter what.’ No one can possibly meet that goal!”

Liz: “It takes me hours to find project documentation. We had agreed we’d use SharePoint to store project documents. Yet some people insist on using email to send documents back and forth. (And I’m still finding stuff in Box, Teams, and Google folders!) I spend hours making revisions on what turns out to be an outdated version, which often means I have to start all over again.”

David: “I usually wait days for team members to get back to me after a request for help. I dread sending reminders, because I usually get snarky comments back. But if I don’t, I may never get a response, which means my work comes to a full stop. Sometimes I just have to wing it, working with incomplete or inaccurate information, which almost always means work has to be redone, sometimes by many of us.”

Julia: “We meet for just one hour a week. This is the place we have to resolve issues, brainstorm new ideas, share information, and just connect as humans, so every minute is precious. And yet, many people come unprepared, or they’re distracted and unfocused. Worse, some people are allowed to hijack the conversation, while others say nothing. Almost all of our meetings end with unresolved issues and an action list that no one really ever agrees to.”

Lee: “We lose a ton of time undoing or revisiting decisions, because we rush through them without discussing the implications, without input from those who will be most affected. We end up acting according to our own interpretations about what we decided, which can be very different. We seem to value making fast decisions over making well-informed decisions.”

Pete: “When someone posts a question, we might get a deluge of ideas from the ‘same suspects,’ which don’t build on each other in any meaningful way. Worse, the person asking the question doesn’t summarize responses to make it easy for us to build.This discourages others from entering the conversation and deprives everyone a chance to learn things that could prevent us from having to re-invent the wheel.” 

Four essential disciplines for healthy conversations

In an all-virtual world, especially across time zones, all of these behaviors can cause delays, misunderstandings, hasty decisions, or exclusions. They can stop a team in its tracks, engender distrust or cynicism, or create redundant work. Having few opportunities for real time conversation can be lethal. We often overlook the need to care for each other, to validate our understanding, or to surface and build on vital ideas.

In her work with virtual teams and remote graduate school students, Kate has identified four principles, or “disciplines,” that are at the heart of healthy conversations. These help maintain and strengthen relationships, and propel teams to action:

  1. Integrity: Asking true questions (not statements in disguise, or sarcasm). Integrity is also making deliberate statements where you explain your reasoning or data.
  2. Courtesy. Respecting each other, as well as the agreements the team has made, showing gratitude and appreciation. Sticking to agreements on communication platforms is one example.
  3. Inclusion. Intentionally bringing people into the conversation, particularly lesser-heard voices, and not excluding people through acronyms or oblique language.
  4. Translation. Making connections between ideas, summarizing thoughts and statements, and synthesizing disparate scattered ideas to propel teams into action.

It’s no wonder that our team in this scenario has seen its progress blocked, as all four disciplines are lacking to some degree. In this article, we’ll focus on the disciplines of Courtesy and Translation, since they’re both frequently missing when virtual teams are feeling pressured to deliver results quickly. In the discussion above, some team members lament how a lack of respect, or courtesy, affects their work. Others point out that ambiguity is thwarting the team’s progress: Team members are not making the effort to ensure a shared understanding of goals, agreements, commitments, insights or decisions. Many promising ideas are wasted because they are not being synthesized in a way that’s useful to help the team move forward, together.

Courtesy and Translation: Creating and enforcing team norms

To help break the current logjam, team members must quickly agree on explicit norms or behaviors for which they commit to hold each other accountable. (Jane, the project leader, and her senior leadership team must also buy into some of these same agreements.) Here are a few team norms that may help address a few of the team’s most pressing problems today.

Courtesy

At a most fundamental level, Courtesy is about helping others to feel respected, conveying gratitude, and adding civility to the online interactions.

  1. We acknowledge each other, and consider how our comments impact others’ feelings of pride, accomplishment, uncertainty, isolation, or time-pressure. (Note: This is especially important during the time of Covid-19, where all of our interactions are mediated by technology of one kind or another.)
  2. We use our team portal (or Box, or Google Folders, etc.) as the place all team members upload, access, edit and share project-related documents. We use one channel (e.g., Slack, Microsoft Teams, email) to work out ideas between meetings.
  3. We synthesize relevant ideas posted in our team portal or channel with the appointment of a rotating moderator who synthesizes and presents ideas for discussion at team meetings.
  4. We initiate requests for information or assistance in the channel, using a clearly-worded subject line. We summarize responses so all can share the knowledge we’ve gained. As “helpers,” we use courtesy and inclusion with our comments. For example, we don’t just criticize ideas, but we assess the pluses, deltas, and examples. We appropriately bring in others, e.g., with “@” signs.
  5. We respond to requests no later than 24 (working) hours later. If necessary, we simply acknowledge receipt of the request, with an expected ETA of a full response.
  6. We take responsibility for being an active participant at every team meeting, which means arriving on time and coming prepared to make meaningful contributions.
  7. When we sense that some team members may be struggling or have an idea that needs more discussion, we make time for them in our meetings. We may also invite conversation, either 1:1 or as a (sub)team.

Translation

Translation is about summarizing, sense-making and standing back. It also can be about propelling the team into action. Translation is especially important when we are dealing with time pressures, different time zones, different native languages, and limited opportunity to re-calibrate in “hallway,” “water cooler” or “parking lot” conversations.

  1. The facilitator or scribe drafts decisions and actions in all team meetings. We post a meeting summary with actions in a shared space (see team portal above) that others can view, edit or comment.
  2. In online conversations, all team members are responsible for summarizing key points, whether in an email, via chat, or another communication channel. At a minimum, the discussion initiator does this.
  3. We paraphrase complex ideas during team meetings to ensure shared understanding by all. We don’t assume that a lack of questions implies understanding.
  4. We “work out loud,” with intention. This means that we share how we are deliberating about a problem, process or decision. Once we reach a decision, we explain it, and who is doing what, how they need help, and when. “Working out loud” is a team sport, and we are transparent and inquisitive, not unilaterally critical or “certain.”

Many roadblocks that can slow down a team’s performance can be minimized or removed altogether with the creation of a few well-chosen norms, or behaviors, that correlate to the four disciplines of Courtesy, Translation, Inclusion and Integrity. These norms apply to any kind of digital conversations, whether asynchronous or real-time. (Note: if you’re part of a global team, make sure to reflect how cultural differences are likely to influence those norms!) Now, more than ever, as teams learn to navigate new ways of working in an all-virtual world, they need to behave generously and intentionally with each other to achieve shared goals. Stay tuned for another post about the disciplines of Inclusion and Integrity.

Links

In the Digital Fray, Don’t Just Converse, Collaborate – Kate Pugh’s LinkedIn post

From Guided Insights:

For Insightful Conversations, Learn How to Ask Great Questions – past Communique

Jumpstart Virtual Team Operating Norms – template (downloadable PDF)

Team Charter Checklist for Your Virtual Team – downloadable PDF

Lessons Learned Reviews in a Virtual World – downloadable PDF checklist

Other articles from Harvard Business Review:

Let Your Team Have That Heated Conversation

How to Debate Ideas Productively at Work