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Holding Back: A Counter-Intuitive Approach for Virtual Leaders

When they first join a new team, members tend to be energized, motivated, and eager to learn the ropes. Many take pride in finding the information and resources they need to tackle their new assignments and may need just a bit of guidance to keep moving in the right direction. After all, absorbing and applying new information and taking on new skills can be a lot of fun for most people.

Eventually, the work tends to stop being quite so much fun as the reality of time pressures and looming commitments sinks in. Just as team members seem to be gaining their footing and appear to be on the road to self-reliance, you may notice a shift. They begin to ask more questions, seek direction more frequently, seem less confident, and make little progress. In some cases team members may be paralyzed and “go underground.”

You ask: Why? Is there a competence gap? Or is it a confidence crisis? As a leader you must diagnose the situation and provide the right amounts of direction or support to help people get back on track. As a leader of virtual teams, such diagnosis and remedy can be exceedingly challenging.

Joining me in co-authoring this edition of Communiqué is Jamie Grettum, Director of Learning Services for the Ken Blanchard Companies. Together we have created some practical guidelines for virtual team leaders to help discern when team members need direction, support, or a combination — and how best to provide what team members need. In the interests of writing without bias, we have alternated genders for different examples.

  • Reading the signs: Are certain people on your team cancelling status report meetings? Taking longer to reply to emails? Complaining about their work to other team members? Becoming noticeably withdrawn on con calls? All of these can be signs that people need a catalyst to get back on track. Your instincts are to offer help and advice. But tread lightly. If these people doubt their skills or suitability for the task, your offer of help could reinforce those fears. What could be needed is simply time with you acting as a vital sounding board, helping to motivate and focus.
  • Reaching out: If face-to-face is not possible, schedule time to speak. Both of you will need time to prepare for the conversation. Before you pick up the phone, find a quiet place to speak, away from your computer, cell phone, PDA or any other distractions. (Nothing can kill an earnest conversation faster than multitasking!) 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.
  • Listening deeply: Once you have stated your observations, without judgment, simply be quiet. Allow the other person time to gather her thoughts and find the right words, even if it means a minute or two of silence before she speaks. Be comfortable with that silence. Take notes on a piece of paper to make sure you’ve heard what she said. Paraphrasing every so often to ensure understanding is critical in the absence of visual cues. Carefully ask probing questions for clarification, and only if needed. Some people will reveal more thoughts and feelings with gentle prodding, others may clam up, while others may need no assistance. Allow others to hear their own voices talking. Refrain from giving advice or opinions during this time. (Make notes if you’re in danger of losing good ideas for discussion at another point.)
  • Summarizing what you’ve heard: Once you’re satisfied that you have a good understanding of what’s going on, summarize what you’ve heard as objectively as possible, 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 any additional questions you might have to give you a more complete picture of the other’s perspective.)
  • Diagnosing the real need: Perhaps the trickiest part of the whole conversation is knowing how to determine what kind of support a person really needs from you. In some cases, you can come right out and ask. (Be very cautious of your wording and tone here. Asking, “Just 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 at this point?”) In some cases, you may want to validate the kind of support you believe he is asking for. If you sense that he is confused about how you can help or is reticent to ask, you might try offering specific types of assistance, such as contacting an unresponsive decision-maker, delegating a few of his tasks for now, or pairing him with another team member.
  • Circling 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. (Once again, use the phone in a quiet, undistracted location for your follow-up meeting to demonstrate how seriously you are taking your commitments to provide her with the needed support. If you must resort to email, take the time to ask specific questions, referring to notes you’ve made, versus a terse: “How’s it going?”
  • Creating a real virtual open-door policy: Open up a “virtual clinic” for all team members where anyone can call in seek guidance, surface issues or otherwise get support from you. Set aside the same day/time every week for your virtual open-door office time. (If members span several time zones, you may need to set up two days/times per week.) Such a clinic would be in addition to regular team status calls, when many members may be reluctant to surface tough issues or ask for help. If no one joins, you can use the time to get work done. Refrain from canceling these calls. It may take awhile for people to trust this process.
  • Acknowledging that everyone will need help (even you!): Speak openly about the usual phases a project team inevitably goes through and how motivation ebbs and flows naturally for different people at different times. Admitting when you need help (from team members or elsewhere) will give others permission to acknowledge what they may need from you or others.
  • Avoid becoming addicted to adding value at every turn: Team leaders are genuinely enthusiastic about helping others benefit from their experience. 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.
  • Practicing the power of praise: Now that your team member is back on track, find opportunities to praise her work, whether it’s during a team call, via email, or a phone call. (Of course, you’ll want to praise achievements all of your team members have earned!) But it especially important to recognize the achievements of those who could use an extra boost to keep up them motivated during tough times.

If your ultimate goal is to develop confident, self-reliant team members, you can play a vital role in helping them get there. It’s counter-intuitive, but sometimes the fastest way to create self-reliance is to be a virtual leader who can provide the right combination of assistance and guidance, advice or sounding board, encouragement or direction, depending on the needs of the individual. The toughest part, of course, is discovering what they really need.

Links:

Need tips to craft questions that will help people open up when times are tough? This set of guidelines was created to help virtual team leaders ask questions that work in the absence of visual cues. For more information on leadership skills to discover and deliver what people need, visit The Ken Blanchard Companies web site.

Teamwork Puts a Troubled Team Back on Track, a white paper by Nancy Settle-Murphy, shows how facilitated conversations can help tackle tough issues.

Navigating Cultural Differences When Working Remotely, an article featuring tips from Nancy Settle-Murphy in Intercom Magazine.