It can be awkward to give someone tough feedback when they’re miles away. And that’s the least of it. Without visual cues, the delivery of even the most well-meaning and thoughtful performance feedback can have the opposite effect. It can damage relationships, erode trust, sap motivation, and in reality, it can actually weaken performance, instead of strengthening it.
In this edition of Communiqué, I embellish on a few tips from my 122 Tips for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams guide. Some tips may not apply in all situations. For example, when working as part of a global team, one must take the time to understand how different cultures send and receive feedback, rather than assuming “everyone is pretty much the same.” They aren’t. (See Erin Meyer’s Giving Negative Feedback Across Cultures for some excellent tips on giving feedback across cultures.)
- Ensure that team members feel accountable for their actions. Make sure that all team members understand their roles in achieving their performance potential, both short- and long-term. When managers work apart from those they lead, it’s especially important that team members take responsibility for their performance and progress, given that you can’t monitor their actions. Establish ways to check in periodically, if needed, between your 1:1 calls, so you can provide additional assistance or feedback.
- Reach out. Schedule time to speak, and give the other person a heads-up about the nature of the conversation, since both of you need time to prepare for the conversation. Before you pick up the phone, find a quiet place to speak, away from your computer (unless you are using video) or other distractions. Have your notes in writing in front of you with any details that may be important, as well as a calendar and a project plan, if appropriate.
- Use a video cam or some other way of giving and getting nonverbal cues. When having a tough conversation, it’s especially helpful for both of you to see each other’s facial expressions and body language. Tools like Skype or FaceTime can make it easy and fast to set up video conversations, and many times at no cost.
- Be prepared for each coaching session. Have a structure in mind for each call, where you might cover the same items each week, such as updates on a personal development plan, discussion of areas where the other may need help or support, information you need to share, your feedback on their performance, and (at least sometimes!) their feedback on yours.
- Listen deeply. Once you have stated your observations, without judgment, simply be quiet. Allow the other person time to gather thoughts and find the right words, even if it means a minute or two of silence. Take notes on a piece of paper and paraphrase every so often to ensure understanding. Ask probing questions for clarification, and only if needed. Refrain from giving advice or opinions during this time.
- Summarize what you’ve heard. Be objective, much as a journalist would report the facts. Pause and seek validation. Ask whether there’s anything else that’s important for you to discuss before moving on to the next part of the discussion. (Here’s where you can ask questions to give you a more complete picture of the other’s perspective.)
- Diagnose the real need. Perhaps the trickiest part of the conversation is figuring out what kind of support a person really needs from you. In some cases, you can come right out and ask. (Be cautious of wording and tone. Asking, “What do you want me to do?” is very different from asking: “What would be the most helpful actions I can take on your behalf?”). If the person is non-committal, try offering specific types of assistance, such as contacting an unresponsive decision-maker or pairing this person up with another team member.
- Circle back. Before you end this call, set a time/day with this person to check in to see whether the combination of support and guidance you have offered has made a difference. Also agree on how you will both be kept apprised of actions taken or progress made in the interim. If you must resort to email (or text or IM), take the time to ask specific questions, referring to notes you’ve made, versus a terse: “How’s it going?”
- Implement a peer feedback process. Since you can’t be with your employees most of the time, you need a way to periodically gather consistent feedback on the performance of your employees. Determine what method will work best, and be consistent about how you apply this process across your whole team. Let everyone know your intentions, the method you will be using, and how you and each team member will be using the feedback you collect.
- Avoid trying to add value at every turn. The best team leaders quietly create an environment where others can cultivate competence and confidence without the need for frequent management interventions. Avoid the temptation to make suggestions or provide “constructive feedback” as you listen to others. Instead, show appreciation and encouragement. The more ideas that are allowed to come from others, the less often team members will feel they must validate with you as they move ahead.
When team members and their leaders are not in each other’s line of sight on a routine basis, conversations about performance become more vital. And because there are far fewer opportunities for serendipitous meet-ups in the hallway or around the water cooler, these conversations need to be scheduled, structured and delivered thoughtfully and skillfully to achieve the intended impact.
122 Tips for Leading Amazingly Productive Virtual Teams – downloadable PDF tips guide for purchase
Giving Negative Feedback Across Cultures Blog by INSEAD’s Erin Meyer
Prevent Thoughtful Habits from Squandering Your Team’s Time
Holding Back: A Counterintuitive Approach for Virtual Leaders
Building Trust within Virtual Teams: Small Steps Add Up
Virtual Leadership training and coaching services from Guided Insights