This is the second in a two-part series about healthy virtual conversations, where we discuss the four discussion disciplines: Integrity, Courtesy, Inclusion and Translation.
By Nancy Settle-Murphy and Kate Pugh
Until several months ago, this global Sales and Marketing group was regarded as a model of a truly high-performing hybrid team, the kind others aspired to. Some worked in the company’s London HQ alongside the team’s senior leaders, some worked in regional offices, and a few worked remotely from home.
Then COVID-19 hit, and literally overnight, everyone was sent home to work. At first, the leaders imagined that running an all-virtual team would be much the same as running a partially-virtual team, so they saw little reason to make any big changes. But they soon found that the leadership skills that worked well before were no longer cutting it. Had they been more astute observers, they would have picked up clues that things weren’t right earlier than they did.
Conversations had become muted, truncated, and flat, with little exchange of divergent or diverse views. Some people had pretty much stopped talking, including those who used to pipe up. Some people seemed to be walking on eggshells, holding back their opinions in all forms of team communications – meetings, Slack and email. Meanwhile, team leaders found themselves overcompensating by contributing excessively, without making any real attempts to encourage the quiet voices. No one on the team seemed to be seeking out or offering up new ideas. No one seemed to have the energy it required.
Suddenly, this once high-performing hybrid team had become demoralized, unmotivated and uninspired. Once the leaders finally woke up, they wanted to understand what was going on. The team leader sent an anonymous survey, asking team members to be “really honest.” Here’s what they learned:
“When you imply that something should be easy for us to do, and then don’t tell us what we need to actually do it, I realize we’ll never get the answer from you.”
“Sometimes it seems as if you and the other old-timers really want to know what we think. Then as soon as we start to answer your question, especially if we’re speaking with earnest data and detail, you change the subject and move onto another topic, almost as though no one had said a word.”
“I used to think you skipped over me in meetings and posts because I’m one of the youngest here, or because I come from another country. Now I realize that you do the same thing to anyone who disagrees with your points, as though the only ideas you want to hear are the ones that echo yours.”
“I’m new here, and to be honest, I’m really struggling with all of this insider talk about things that happened years ago, or references to people I’ll never meet, or project acronyms I don’t get. I always feel like I’m one step behind. I never have the context or back-story.”
What’s going on here? It appears that conversation among team members has all but stopped. Ideas have become limited, and some group members feel like outsiders. As a result, creativity is stifled, productivity has plummeted, and people have become silently disengaged and de-motivated. Some have withdrawn altogether.
Please see our previous Communique where Kate identified four principles, or “disciplines,” that are at the heart of healthy conversations: Integrity, Courtesy, Inclusion and Translation. which help maintain and strengthen relationships and propel teams to action. Here, we are focusing on Integrity and Inclusion.
What does integrity look and sound like in the virtual world?
Considering that almost all communications across a virtual team are mediated through some kind of technology (whether a videoconference, email, group chat, social channel, or phone), clear, direct and unambiguous communications are essential for trust and collaboration to flourish. Demonstrating integrity means asking honest questions to seek knowledge or validation, rather than asking questions just to show how smart we are, or making a statement veiled as a question.
Integrity also means making statements that we back up with evidence and data, rather than making spurious claims that we hope people will go along with to advance our agendas. Integrity means admitting when we don’t know something or when we need help, rather than giving the impression that “everything’s fine.” It means assuming good intentions about others, rather than suggesting in a roundabout way that others are not pulling their weight. In a nutshell, integrity is about being willing to get into dialogue, even when one is uncertain or not comfortable hearing other peoples’ words. Notably, in thinking about the four discussion disciplines, we use the word “integrity” not purely as “honesty” (though we want that), but as “free from the intent to manipulate.”
What happens when integrity is absent?
Simply put, people can’t trust those whom they perceive as lacking integrity. When people become skeptical about whom or what they can believe (or they sense the absence of rightfully-dissenting voices), they start to question everything. Relationships become frayed and work can slow down to a standstill. Here are some examples: When team members protest a wildly unrealistic deadline, the team leader questions their “team spirit.” Colleagues who complain when a team member fails to meet commitments yet again are told they are “making a big deal out of nothing.” To motivate team members to keep putting in the long hours, the team leader assures people that this time, their “hard work will finally be rewarded,” without a shred of evidence. Given the choice, people won’t willingly work with or for those they see as lacking integrity. Or, they may just tune out, and in a virtual world, it can go undetected until it’s too late.
What does inclusion look and sound like in the virtual world?
Inclusion is intentionally drawing in other voices, rather than alienating them by bypassing their ideas or using “exclusive” language that they may not understand. A meeting leader can bring in other voices with something as simple as giving them the floor: “Hey, Amir, your perspectives are crucial, and we’ve been missing them there. Can you share a few that can help us get a broader view of the whole landscape?” This kind of drawing-out can also be done in a group email or on a social media platform or group chat: “Hey, @Amir, we need your perspectives here…”
It’s important to think about what types of inclusion could be in play, such as gender, race, country of origin, experience-level, academic background, proximity, and relationship history. Inclusion alone is not enough to create an environment that is psychologically safe. All four of the discussion disciplines are essential to creating an inclusive environment. Equally essential are organization-wide efforts to level the playing fields when it comes to hiring, promotion, assignment and representation. Conversation helps amplify these vital elements in many organizations’ Diversity and Inclusion programs.
What does it look like when inclusion is absent?
When we use tribal language, acronyms or “code,” we make it difficult for others to join in and feel part of the group. Inclusion is not just about turn-taking, though a sense of fairness is indeed central to inclusion. It is also about drawing out different perspectives and being willing to explore other paradigms, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. There is strong evidence that enabling cognitive diversity in groups correlates with expansion of ideas and accelerated problem-solving.
Another form of exclusion is carrying on without recognizing who’s contributing and who’s not, whether it’s in a meeting, an online conversation, or in reviewing assignments. When we settle for having conversations with just a subset of people on our team, we may never know what gems live in the minds and experiences of other colleagues. Those we don’t include may stop even trying, and we all miss out. In short, by not including others, we may be showing and reinforcing our biases, whether unconscious or not.
Sample norms to help teams adopt the principles of Integrity and Inclusion:
- We ask questions that are honest, clear and neutral and genuinely “curious.” We explain our intent that we need information. We summarize responses for the shared benefit of all.
- When we make statements, we cite evidence or sources, especially when topics are likely to be contentious. We separate facts from opinions when we make decisions, to ensure that everyone is operating from the same set of information.
- We model integrity and insist on it from others. We acknowledge when we’re feeling vulnerable or need help. We let team members know, rather than waiting for people to notice. We regard expressing concerns or asking for help as a strength.
- We look for group-think and work hard to detect biases. As meeting leaders, we balance participation and ensure that all people can safely make their voices heard, especially when perspectives are diverse and divergent.
- We draw people in by using “@“signs in emails or online or by asking a team member a question that seeks their particular knowledge and expertise. We let reticent people know in advance that we’ll be asking for their views on a certain topic. We do not humiliate people by catching them off-guard.
- We avoid using insider language, acronyms, colloquialisms or aphorisms that may inadvertently exclude any members of the group, and if and when it starts to creep in, we are quick to offer a translation.
- We provide relevant history and background that may be important to create a level playing field across all members of the team. We avoid unnecessarily dwelling on references or stories that may exclude any member of the team.
In a time of social distancing, virtual meetings and high anxiety, everyone wants to know that they matter and that their voices are being heard. More than ever, we need to pay attention to our biases and to the possibility that we may be excluding others, however unintentionally. But, this is also a time of great innovation: Because so many of us are working virtually, we can be in conversation with many more people across space and time, learning about developments across departments, organizations, cities and countries. Our collective challenge is to take intentional actions to make our conversations productive. By using all four discussion disciplines (Integrity, Courtesy, Inclusion and Translation), we’ll be making a great start.
Healthy Conversations Can Bring Virtual Teams Back to Life – Nancy and Kate’s previous article
Articles and books:
Power Dynamics and Inclusion in Virtual Meetings, a post by Aspiration, May 2020
12 Cognitive Biases, Minnesota State Department of Human Resources, 2018
The Difference, a book by Scott Page, first published in 2007 and revised
High Performing Teams Need Psychological Safety – Here’s how to create it. – Harvard Business Review, 2017
Other resources on the four discussion disciplines
“In the Digital Fray, don’t just converse. Collaborate!” – Kate Pugh’s LinkedIn post in the time of Coronavirus.
Access Kate’s free recorded webinar, with Chivonne Algeo, on the Four Disciplines’ impact on diversity and inclusion.
Four Discussion Disciplines Drive Effective Online Collaboration by Kate Pugh, 2016